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With prose that's alternately tough and tender (Dashiell Hammett meets Rilke), as well as downright wacky, Romanian ‚migr‚ Manea (Compulsory Happiness, 1993, etc.) offers another of his dense and often caustic views of modern eastern Europe. No one would dispute Manea's skill as a wordsmith -- to do so with lines like ""The suspect sun is called Thursday. Still a century to go until Friday"" would be to join the same orchestra of folly that many of his characters play for. But one could easily fault him for laying the metaphors on too thick. It's endlessly difficult here to figure out what's standing in for what. Bucharest, in the throes of a ""happy spring,"" finds Tolea Voinov struggling with a web of vague conspiracy and lingering communist paranoia. Fired from his teaching job, Tolea is working as a receptionist at a hotel while investigating the suspicious death of his father -- a Sorbonne-educated philosopher who fled Bucharest with his extensive wine cellar 40 years earlier. The wildly outspoken Tolea becomes more meditative as the novel wears on, and he familiarizes himself with the odd collection of cosmopolitan shut-ins who'll lead him to the photographer whose albums may provide the key to his puzzles. First, however, he must contend with a secret society of deaf-mutes that issues periodic, cryptic reports on his progress. In the classic Stanislaw Lem fashion of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Manea formulates Tolea's struggle as one pitted against an obsessive, anonymous bureaucracy bent on ensuring that ""nothing gets lost: everything is transformed -- signs, substitutes, and invisible networks."" None of this, though, prevents Tolea from participating in one of fiction's zestier sex scenes, during which he pumps ""the lava of the fiery night"" into a woman who asks him for a match. Nothing new, but the telling is handled in such a preposterously slippery way that it frequently seems so.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"