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The suspense of descent

The Color of Blood, by Brian Moore. New York: E.P. Dutton. 182 pp. $16.95. Those big fat macho novels about espionage and arms-dealing that men read on buses and trains - corporate romance novels: I like to think of Brian Moore's ``The Color of Blood'' as an answer to that kind of romance.

First, it's short. Second, the hero is cardinal primate of an unnamed Soviet-bloc country. Third, there's very little violence, except at the beginning and at the end. Fourth, though it takes place in Soviet-bloc Europe, it does not reinforce the stereotypes of our time, but rather explores the ambiguities of life lived between the superpowers.

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Ever since ``The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,'' his first novel (1955), Brian Moore has been known for his heroines. His capacity to create and sustain a female voice was proved for all time in ``I am Mary Dunne'' (1968). Now, with Stephen Cardinal Bem, Moore gives us the essence of homo viator, man the wanderer. If the formal perfection makes one think of Jane Austen, the psychological landscape is Dante's.

The jewel-work of the novel reduces to this: For Cardinal Bem, the tension is between solving the inner problem of worthiness, of bearing witness, and solving the outer problem, who is trying to kill me?

Solving these problems takes Bem on a descent from high social standing - in the triangle of power between the Soviets, the state, and the church Cardinal Bem has known power and prestige - to the lowest dregs of society, the outcasts and gypsies who sleep under bridges. Having thrown his clerical garb into a canyon of garbage, Bem sees the world from a new perspective.

Bem is being chased. He's not sure why, or by whom. It could be the communists who run the state, for as the leading figure in the church he has refused to join a faction of pro-communist Roman Catholics. On the other hand, it slowly and painfully dawns on him it could be some of his own. To the radical Catholics, Bem is a collaborator, a friend of the atheists and the powers of this world.

Bem is no mystic. He does not solve his problem through gnostic illumination. But he does pray, and the sustained downward spiraling tension of the novel is punctuated not by violence so much as by moments of self-confrontation at the garbage pit, at the mirror where he looks like a tramp and later redons his clerical garb, and in prayer.

As a character, Bem is balanced by Urban, the prime minister, an old school chum - they went to Jesuit school together. During the war, Urban ended up in prison in the Soviet Union; Bem was in Rome. Urban gradually learned to fuse - or confuse - his patriotism and the new nationalism of the socialist state. Bem became cardinal primate. In a nice touch (for so severe a novel, ``The Color of Blood'' is full of these, as it is of a certain dark humor) both Urban and Bem have big dogs on whom they lavish a rough manly affection.

As Bem reaches the lowest planes of his descent, it appears that Urban is, in a way, on his side, that it could be the radical Catholics who want to kill him. The matter becomes pressing as the novel spirals toward a certain place and date. At Rywald there will be a national celebration in memory of national martyrs. And if certain bishops have their way, three days later there will be a general strike. Bem wants to reach Rywald and call off the strike. He fears it would occasion not further freedoms for the people but a crackdown by the state or worse - Soviet intervention. He warns of ``national suicide.''

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Bem's enemies try to keep him from fulfilling his role as head of the church on the national holiday. After a near fatal collision, he is kidnapped - he assumes by the same group that arranged the accident. He escapes his kidnappers and goes incognito, beginning a spiritual descent that gives great inner meaning to the narrative.

In his descent, Bem faces something like the three temptations of Jesus. Moore signals one of these - the food temptation - by a small, cunning detail. Whenever Bem is captured or recaptured by the state police, who say they are protecting him, he's always offered food. (Thus the socialist state cares for the ``soul.'') The second temptation - that of power - suggests itself in Bem's closeness to his old friend the prime minister. The third temptation, that of miracles, is suggested whenever the West comes into his thought as a solution to the national problem.

It's only prayer that gets Bem through the experience of descent. Prayer allows him to stay alert, to foresee unforeseeable consequences, to see things in the round. His short prayers are recognitions of both his unworthiness to be a national leader and his inner strength.

When, at the gripping climax, Bem confronts the radical bishops, he does so in these terms: Do they love God or do they love power? Considered an enemy of the state, Bem represents a middle way that has no attraction for those hypnotized by romantic notions of patriotism. Caught in the middle, he is doomed.

The final pages of ``The Color of Blood'' have extraordinary impact. The rich traditions of the national church - and the presence of state TV - offer ambiguous relief from the stark imagery of Bem's descent. The irony of the final, shattering violence is a satisfying conclusion to this elegant, powerful, and very wise suspense novel.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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