DANILOV THE VIOLIST By Vladimir Orlov Translated from the Russian By Antonina W. Bouis Morrow. 307 pp. $18.95

WHEN Danilov the Violist was published in the Soviet Union in 1980, it sparked a lively debate. Readers by and large liked it; critics were more divided. Now that a somewhat abridged form of Vladimir Orlov's novel is available in Antonina W. Bouis' translation, Western readers can enter the fray. If comparisons with Bulgakov's classic of 20th-century devilry, The Master and Margarita, are inevitable, they're also wide of the mark: Danilov the Violist is fun to read, but it is not a book to take too seriously, because compromise lies at its center -- the hero's, and the author's.

It is surely no wonder Soviet readers enjoyed it: Danilov, the protagonist, has the perfect way to beat the system. On his mother's side he is human -- but on his father's he is a demon, and has abilities a Muscovite might happily sign on with the devil for. Should unexpected guests turn up for dinner, Danilov can conjure up a four-course meal from the best restaurant. If he gets bored, he can fly up into the sky to frolic in a thunderstorm, or take off for Peru and Madrid. Wearing a bracelet whose links read "S" (for sky) and "E" (for Earth), Danilov can, by shifting a link, manipulate his reality, eliminating frustrations with an ease most of us can only envy.

The real system Danilov has to beat is not the materially difficult life of a resident in the Soviet Union, but what is expected of him as a "demon on contract." His job is to make trouble on earth. Instead he's in trouble: he's kind, not mischievous, helping little old ladies across the street and swooping down from the sky to pour vodka for a worried -- and thirsty -- individual. He eschews most of the tricks available to him, except in emergencies. His strategy is to "remain yourself in the important matters while compromising in trifles." It sounds good. But who defines the trifles, and how do you continue to remain yourself while continually compromising?

Because of Danilov's failure to fulfill his obligations, his demon-masters put him on trial, and condemn him for having become more human than demon. Orlov paints himself into a box with that trial, unfortunately: the demons really should destroy Danilov for his transgression. Yet that would deprive Orlov of a hero, and mar the comic tenor of the book. His gimcrack solution -- the court of demons sends Danilov back to Earth because "he could be of use" -- is another compomise, and anticlimactic.

Orlov creates a clever demonic university, Nine Layers, out of elements drawn from science fiction, slapstick comedy and Russian folklore; he also relies on his readers' attention to a densely woven mat of allusions to dozens of literary other-worlds, from Dante to Gogol, from Dostoevski to Bulgakov and Thomas Mann. Within the universe of the Nine Layers, Orlov is able freely to satirize bureaucrats and apparatchiki, as well as to comment on how the Soviet system works. Danilov's old demon-school chum, New Margarit, for instance, is a liberal -- and very successful: "He had succeeded so in his scientific career because many serious and self-disciplined personages who controlled his upward mobility secretly considered themselves liberals but could not allow themselves the latitude New Margarit did. So they expressed their own feelings by supporting him." Orlov may have someone particular in mind, but the identity doesn't matter: he is describing -- quite accurately -- how a great many liberals survived in uncongenial times. Similarly, the character of New Margarit's brother, Karmadon, resembles top-level ideologues everywhere: whatever is required of him Karmadon manages to deliver, though at a cost of profound exhaustion, and his lack of moral values bothers him only in an uncharacteristic moment of depression.

AMID the humor (and there is quite a lot, much of it very engaging) Orlov has a serious fish to fry. By way of the choices Danilov makes, Orlov is defining the moral imperatives of a man's life, saying that risks must be taken and fear put aside if one wishes to be fully human. (The phrases, "love destroys fear" and "he who is afraid is imperfect in love," recur several times in this book.) Danilov's preference for the human over the demonic is part of what makes him so attractive a hero. Given the ability to see into the future, either by means of his demonic powers or by joining a future-predicting group located by his ex-wife, Klavdia (she shares a name with Hans Castorp's temptress in The Magic Mountain), Danilov wants none of it: he is content with the human limits of past and present, content too with his seamstress girlfriend Natasha and his cheap 300-ruble viola, with which he creates beautiful music.

For Orlov music becomes a symbol of the highest embodiment of the rewards and risks of being human. He elaborates the former in Danilov's performing and the latter in the deadening musical theory of "silencism," which destroys music as a mode of communication. Danilov turns his back on "silencism," as he turns his back on demonism, and tries to make the most of being a man. It's a brave choice, and makes Danilov the Violist an appealing book.

Josephine Woll is associate professor of Russian at Howard University.