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Setting Free the Bears (in Three Complete Novels), John Irving, Wings Books, ISBN 0-517-14654-1, 284pp.

The bears of the title are in the Heitzinger Zoo in Vienna, which is why I read this first novel of John Irving’s. Giving a choice of his novels to begin with, I probably would have selected The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany. But in preparation for our trip to Austria, this novel popped up as having a tenuous tie, and due to the fact that we were not finding much to go on, tenuous was better than nothing.

If you take the middle section, called ”The Notebook,” and remove the bits about the zoo, what you are left with is the prehistory of the Siggy character, a biographical compilation of one family from right before World War II up to the time that the Soviets withdrew from Austria. In this section you get a highly detailed and personal account of what was taking place from the point-of-view of the street. I found it strangely similar to Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendour–a feeling of history contained in a microcosm. While fictionalized, Irving gives a clue as to his research on page 222 where in the fictional diarist lists some books of “influence.”

The other parts of the story were less successful, at least for me. This could have been because I was looking to learn about Austria and Vienna, and took less enjoyment from the crazed antics of Siggy and Graff. Although many scenes were vivid–the climactic meeting of motorcycle and beehives, the brutality of the milkman to his horse–the overall plot was extremely disjointed. While I am likely to read another Irving novel, due to his reputation, this novel has soured me on the idea for the moment.

[Finished 12 April 1998]


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