A Novel With an Ovidian Repertory

By Christoph Ransmayr

Translated from the German by John E. Woods

Grove Weidenfeld. 246 pp. $18.95

READING Christoph Ransmayr's The Last World is roughly equivalent to attending a multi-media production of "Troilus and Cressida." The point being made with a wily insouciance is that a decomposing world -- where everything is rust and mildew, where the elements are continually in revolt -- is a timeless world and that there is really nothing out of sync should a small town of circa 40 A.D. seek relaxation by watching movie adaptations of old Greek myths projected on a local slaughterhouse wall.

The ramifications of the past presaging the present and future are tidily suggested right at the get-go in Ransmayr's title, which John E. Wood, translating from the German (Ransmayr is Austrian), wisely sees fit not to fool around with. The ambiguity of the word "last" ("letzte") -- meant to connote both "previous" and "ultimate" -- drives home Ransmayr's disturbing, heartening and hard-to-dispute notion that things change for both the better and worse in any era and that includes one giving rise to, say, Salman Rushdie, Jesse Helms and Vaclav Havel.

What happens in The Last World is that Cotta, a 1st-century Roman literature lover, hears rumors that Ovid, exiled by Augustus Caesar to a sea-swept corner of the Empire, may have died. Hopeful that this isn't so, Cotta goes to still-primitive Tomi to look for Publius Ovidius Naso -- the "Naso" being a sobriquet hung on Ovid because he evidently had the Roman nose to end all Roman noses.

Cotta finds a village of inhabitants who carry the same names as the dramatis personae of Ovid's Metamorphoses -- Arachne, Echo, Philomela and so on -- and by no coincidence are cursed with existences closely paralleling their namesakes'. Sent by the Tomi natives to not-so-nearby Trachila, where Naso has supposedly set up a home, Cotta doesn't immediately locate his idol but does encounter Naso's man Pythagoras. Cotta spends the remainder of the book searching back and forth between Tomi and Trachila; keeping the faith that behind the next Trachila rock he might find Naso orating and poetizing; reminiscing about the uncivility of Rome; and observing the denizens as they fulfill their wretched destinies.

Ransmayr has Cotta undergo his tribulations in muscular, deliquescent prose. Turn to any page; turn to the first page and find this: "A hurricane -- a swarm of birds high in the night, a white swarm rushing ever closer, cresting suddenly into a monstrous wave that lunged for the ship. A hurricane -- screaming and weeping in the dark below deck and the sour stench of vomit, a dog gone mad in the pitching seas and ripping at a sailor's tendons, spume closing over the torn flesh. A hurricane -- the journey to Tomi."

Ransmayr is, of course, using his storyline to play a couple of angry and amusing literary games. Obviously he is composing a campus pundit's gloss on Ovid's classic work, and he fits it out smartly with eye-popping details. Cotta, for example, finds engraved stones near Ovid's Trachila house that feature a version of the final lines of Metamorphoses. (There is nothing slack either in the use of Pythagoras -- whose counterpart in Greek history proclaimed the sovereignty of change -- as servant to the poet of transformation.)

Even more trenchantly Ransmayr is concocting an allegory of the effects of a repressive state on the survival of artistic thought. Ransmayr writes, "And so information concerning the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, verified now in files, gradually began to flow, sweeping patience and sympathy from the channels of bureaucracy, rising like floodwaters to the top of the dike, to the threshold of the emperor's audience chambers . . . Read? Had the emperor ever once read an elegy by this Naso? . . . No, in the heart of the palace, no one had read elegies. Books were as far from the heart as the world itself."

Notwithstanding whether Cotta finally snares Ovid, Ransmayr is saying that no matter how frequently thinkers may be hounded and banished across the centuries, their ideas will endure and triumph; readers will respond to this never-tired message, despite what their short-term feelings might be about Ransmayr's occasional repetitions and sometime committing of the not-uncommon sin of the intellectual -- showing-off.

(A word of advice to the perspective purchaser: To get the fun of The Last World's 15 chapters, it helps to have a working knowledge of the 15 books of Metamorphoses.)

The Last World arrives in America flying the banners of European acclaim; now that it's here, run another couple of flags up poles.

David Finkle is a literary critic in New York.