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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.