cover image The Viper Tree

The Viper Tree

Joseph Monninger. Simon & Schuster, $19.45 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-671-70085-0

Nothing in Monniger's previous work ( The Second Season ) prepares one for this extraordinary novel, an intriguing psychological puzzle that explores the nature of belief in religion and in superstitious magic as well as the thin line between the two. AWOL Nazi soldier Fredereich Loebus flees Europe, unwittingly ending up in West Africa, where he is captured and treated viciously by a primitive tribe. Escaping into the desert, he is saved from death by a mission of French nuns, one of whom, Sister Marie, succors him with her body. Under threat of prison by the French authorities, Loebus escapes again, hiding in the bush, where he becomes ``purely African,'' acquiring a reputation as a healer with miraculous powers. Years later, Loebus, now known as Father Faujas, has become a nyanga , or witch man, with the ability to inflict deadly curses; even after his death, his reputation lives on in a macabre fashion. Monniger renders a stunning picture of West Africa, describing the terrain, the weather, and the customs and rituals of native tribes in a measured prose that also chillingly sets off the brutal events of the narrative. As Monniger asks searching questions about good and evil, the suspense steadily rises, but he makes a crucial error in failing to dramatize Loebus's transformation from a candidate for sainthood (nominated by Sister Marie) to sinister bush doctor. (Feb.)