HOURGLASS By Danilo Kis Translated from the Serbo-Croatian By Ralph Manheim Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 274 pp. $22.95

ABOUT E.S., the hero of Danilo Kis's Hourglass, we read from E.S.'s own pen that "his war with the world is in reality a war with death," and that, in his view, "so-called plot is not the soul and essence of a true literary work." That is equally applicable to Kis himself and to this, probably his best, work of fiction. Kis, who died last year in Paris of cancer at age 54, was a man obsessed with the fear of death, and consequently enamored of, inebriated with, life. He also set relatively little stock by a novel's plot, thus making the reviewer's job hell.

Hourglass appeared in Serbo-Croatian in 1972, when Kis was 37. In 1965, he had published the middle part of the autobiographical trilogy that ends with the present novel; this was a more conventional narrative, Garden, Ashes, which told the story of the Scham family -- father Eduard, his wife, daughter, and son, Andi -- from Andi's, the younger child's, point of view. Eduard Scham is a railway official who keeps working on an ever more fantasticated international travel guide, and, during World War II, drags his family down the economic ladder while he pursues his particularly wayward star. Scham, philosopher and drunkard, lives somewhere on the Danubian plain, that palimpsest of Hungarian and Yugoslav cultures; though he disappears into the Holocaust, he resurfaces after the war in various guises, but always denying his former identity.

The book, although largely his story, is also that of his plucky and resourceful wife, his no-nonsense daughter and poetic, romantic Andi, whose chief characteristics are fear of death and love of little girls -- a self-portrait of the author as a very young dog. In Hourglass, much of that territory is covered again, including many of the same characters and incidents. But the perspective is reversed: wife and children are peripheral wraiths; alone, in full central focus, is E.S. -- actually the same Eduard Scham -- Scham which in German means both shame and the female pudenda.

The name is appropriate. E.S. is a Jew (in Garden, Ashes religion was fudged), who lives in the Pannonian plain (the Danube Valley), which was Hungary's till 1918, then became Yugoslavia's, reverted to Hungary under the Nazis, and was to become, three years after the novel ends in 1942, Yugoslavian again. But whoever was on top, Jews had cause for unease, even if they weren't, as under the wartime Nazis, lethally persecuted. Hence E.S. has every right to feel a sense of shame, maltreated as he is even by some of his sisters and his sleazy nephew, George, not to mention the government, which reduces his railroad inspector's pension and even suspects him of spying for the Allies.

But it's not enough that he and his family are driven from pillar to post; there is also his shameful hankering for women such as Madam Clara, the inn-keeper, and the "widow of the white thighs" (an untranslatable Serbian pun, udova belih udova), up whose skirt he enjoys a guilty glimpse in a first-class train compartment before being humiliatingly evicted into second class. So, drawn by the eternal feminine Scham, he keeps landing in the eternally Jewish shame.

Danilo Kis loved writing, drinking, womanizing and feared death. In Hourglass, he has injected these characteristics into E.S., a fictionalized version of his father, so that progenitor and progeny become amalgamated into a rich, crotchety, philosophically pugnacious, ardently articulate identity. The story is told in brief chapters that fall under four headings: "Travel Scenes," which tell in direct narrative events from E.S.'s life, notably time spent moving bricks in a labor camp; "Notes of a Madman," which comprises journal entries, many from an insane asylum to which E.S. was for a time confined; "Criminal Investigation," in which the voice of the author (but is it really the author?) raises questions about E.S. that are answered by the same, rather impersonal, voice; and "A Witness Interrogated," in which some totalitarian authority figure questions E.S. pointedly, ludicrously and scarily, eliciting minute, often pathetic or funny answers.

These four modes of furthering the minimal plot cast oblique but significant light on one another, permitting us to participate in the deviousness, precariousness, absurdity of E.S.'s life under the Nazis -- or, by extention, Kis's under the hard-nosed Communists. It is told with a marvelous balance of humor and horror in the writing, and with an admirable power of observation and vaulting imagination in the protagonist, enabling him to endure.

But what most characterizes Hourglass is the variety of its obsessiveness. Because E.S. has been, may still be, slightly demented, we cannot be sure what in the notes of a madman is true. Yet the world itself is mad, too, a world in which a Dr. Freud, who is not the Dr. Freud but a gynecologist and chief physician at a Novi Sad hospital (for some reason, the translator renders this as "surgeon"), is executed by a firing squad on a street corner, and his brain is shot out of his head. Lying there, preserved in the snow "as in a refrigerator . . . it was nothing like the brain of an idiot in a glass container; it was the brain of a genius, preserved . . . in nature's incubator, so that . . . freed from its corporeal shackles, a dark pearl might develop, the pearl of thought at last materialized, crystallized."

Such images (usually based on truth) run through the novel, acquiring more and more symbolic weight with each reappearance. There is thus a monument in a public square from which a figure's finger points dramatically "at the church steeple or the sky." As that accusatory finger keeps recurring, we wonder whether it is the church (religion and the discrimination it breeds) or God himself (the sky) that is the object of denunciation. And what about those shoes and that shaving brush of her dead husband that a sister promises to pass on to her brother, E.S.? The investigator who questions him about his notebooks thinks that the brush and the shoes are political code words. They are not, but they are existential symbols, those shoes E.S. rejected "because he hoped for better days {optimism}; because he had no desire to wear a dead man's shoes {superstition}; because he disliked them {aestheticism}; because they were one size too small {realism}." How large small things loom in this idiosyncratic novel! BUT WHAT is Hourglass really about? Its meaning is suggested by the very title, as Kis explains in an as yet untranslated book-length essay, Po-etika (Po-ethics), for the word Pescanik, in Serbian, has several meanings. It is "the sandy Pannonian terrain, sand dunes that hourly change the aspect of the Pannonian landscape, archaeological digs, and the soft flow of sand in an hourglass, the attrition of a world and of an era." And the plot is recapped in an epilogue, an actual letter from Kis senior, dated April 5, 1942, in the possession of his son: Hourglass is a lyrical-satirical-novelistic expansion of, meditation on, that text.

Indirectly, the book is chockful of events. As Kis himself has said, there are enough "stories {topics} for a whole cycle of novels." Thus E.S. evokes concisely the fates of people he has known, allusions to whom crop up over and over. So, in the course of one of those Homeric catalogues beloved by Kis, we read about people like

"Mr. Bulat, engineer and prestidigitator {Ralph Manheim's, the translator's, word; Kis says "illusionist"}, who instead of showing a pass at the entrance to the station had produced his third-grade report card, the only document he was able to find after his home was ransacked, and who, thanks to his psychological acumen, had managed on the strength of this third-grade report to reach America . . . Mr. Fulop Uhlmann, optician, who, supposing himself to be a mad dog, had recently left his family and gone to live in an abandoned kennel . . . Mr. Ivan Popov, cafe owner, whose wife in a fit of madness had served him an unplucked chicken, from which she had removed only the eyes with a knitting needle, and who had been so terrified that he had tried to eat the chicken feathers and all, and choked to death . . ."

This is what the terrible times wreak on people: madness and death. But they also bring out in the clever ones a resourcefulness that allows them to survive against the most outrageous odds.

Yet not all fates are spectacular. There are also puny ones, such as that of George, E.S.'s cowardly nephew, whose "logic is simple and terrifying in its simplicity: politics is incomprehensible and intrinsically dangerous, infectious, like cholera. If you keep away from it, it will keep away from you. That will reduce the danger of infection to a minimum. Then you just have to wash your hands as often as possible, as hypochondriacs and gynecologists do, and you will be able to sip your raspberry juice in peace." Note Kis s sardonic wit in evoking something surpassingly loathsome; this wit can be hoisted to the heights of gallows humor, as when E.S. answers an innocent inquiry from a fellow train passenger with "The most effective remedy for hangover . . . is suicide."

It is not easy to translate Kis's raucous, punning, freewheeling, topical-reference-laden prose, but, on the whole, Ralph Manheim, with the assistance of Jane Bobko, has done a creditable job. Yet there are quirks, lapses, clumsinesses. Thus three liters of wine are not "drunk at one swallow" but chugalugged, a train's footboard is not "decrepit" but latticed; tossed-about "feather-beds" are only down comforters, the "ocean" mentioned by E.S. is merely the sea, traminac is not some mysterious Yugoslav wine but simply the local version of Alsacian traminer; an authorial footnote, according to which a whole sheet of E.S.'s notebook is missing, is, in Manheim's rendering, short only a "line." There is not a little poor English and a tendency to disregard Kis's style. Thus Manheim waters down a "thesis about the God-killers" into "belief that the Jews had murdered the Saviour" or, conversely, shortchanges Kis's "frantic entrails {womb} of woman . . . ready to embrace the seed of death, to nourish it under its heart, to rock it in its lap" into a "hyperactive uterus . . . ready month after month to embrace the seed of death, to nurture and cradle it."

Hourglass is not, like Kis's later A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, intensely political and polemical, or, like The Encyclopedia of the Dead, magic realism a` la Borges; but it is a finely sustained, complex fictional performance. It is full of pain and rage and gusto and joy of living, at once side-splitting and a heartbreaker. Can you ask for more?

John Simon's most recent book is "The Sheep from the Goats," a collection of his literary essays and reviews.