BOOK REVIEW / Blues on the Danube: 'The Glance of Countess Hahn- Hahn (Down the Danube)' - Peter Esterhazy, Tr. Richard Aczel: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 14.99

THE NOVELS of Ida, Countess Hahn-Hahn, are not well-known in this country. A 19th-century native of Mecklenburg, she abandoned her husband, travelled down the Danube to the Near East, and wrote a series of aristocratic bodice-rippers, before converting to Roman Catholicism and founding a convent. She is the kind of arcane detail that Peter Esterhazy delights in placing before his readers. It is characteristic of this novel that its title should come from someone who is only mentioned fleetingly in the postscript of a quoted letter, in which Heinrich Heine notes that the Countess only had one eye - a fair warning that the narrator's tale isn't going to come into focus.

Esterhazy enjoys setting up parallels. His narrator looks suspiciously like himself: a post-war Hungarian child travelling west on excursions with his businesslike Uncle Roberto. These early journeys foreshadow the narrator's later sweep from west to east when he travels as a professional, in the pay of a 'Contractor (Hirer)'. According to his prospectus, 'the hired traveller will bring the world to your doorstep . . . Hire a traveller and you hire infinity]' The series of reports which the paid traveller sends back to his employer form the basis for the book.

Postmodern? When the 'Contractor (Hirer)' puts that question to the narrator in one of their increasingly tedious telegram exchanges, he gets a curt reply: 'Up yours'.

Given that the novel's structure relegates them to passing incidents, it is a serious indictment that the portraits of family and friends are the most readable and revealing sections of the book. First and foremost there's Uncle Roberto himself, the womanising part-time spy, and Nelly Backwater, an aristocratic Viennese aunt. But, in references back to his childhood, the narrator frustrates the reader with the same ellipses which turn his description of the Hungarian capital into a worn set of modernist generalisations and clever-clever paradoxes such as the following: 'At every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence'.

Esterhazy has little time for the recent turning points in central Europe. There is a scornful reference to Westerners who come to look at new freedoms because they are bored with their own, but East Germany seems as far as way as the Habsburgs or the Huns. His narrative technique tends to put historical events through an intellectual grinder which turns out compact categories, rounded and distinct, but without any defining chronology or context.

Esterhazy is more than happy to put it all in and shake it all about, and pass off the result as an allegory of the Danube and Central Europe itself. Unfortunately, despite an excellent, sparky translation by Richard Aczel, the net result is of a hand dropped in a fast-flowing river. You feel the force of the current but all it leaves afterwards is dampness.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas