This elegant tour de force is the kind of thing at which the French excel -- a light-hearted Borgesian pretense in which the narrator unearths documents in the course of his scholarly research, ""A Contribution to a Study of the Role of the Waskel Principality in the Crisis of European Nationalities (1846-61)."" He does this with the appropriate pompous pseudo-qualms about the publication of previously classified documents, naturally allayed by the fact that ""a century had passed and that three wars had upset the chessboard of European powers."" What the ""documents"" reveal is the government's eventually eschatological search for 17 of its missing soldiers and officers -- a significant part of the army of this tiny Palatinate city-state -- all unhappy and all last seen in the company of Rosa, the amorous proprietess of a military cafe. This amusing evocation of what is in retrospect an innocent 19th century pastorale, replete with bogus history and the petty bickerings of inflated municipalities, falters only when it inevitably must -- the fourth dimensional place inside Rosa's body where the men are hiding. It is redeemed by a morally devastating ending in which the army dynamites Rosa, the deserters, and -- symbolically -- the mini-society of their utopian classless existence. The clear and swift-moving prose is admirably translated, once again by Richard Howard.