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To learn that Aczel has never before written in English--and then to move into this effusive, bitter, cosmopolite comic-novel--is to feel a lovely astonishment: it's almost like heating that Bernini simply had a chisel thrust into his hands and was told to chop. Gaudily baroque and upholstered, yet framed in iron with the infamous histories of modern Europe, Aczel's book tells the story of Dr. George Feldheimer, a 40-ish Hungarian oral surgeon living in London during the Fifties; Feldheimer was a Party glamour-boy back in Hungary . . . until he and the State could stomach each other no longer. So now, in London, he waits eternally to receive the dental equipment he's ordered for his new office (it never comes); he's periodically questioned by British intelligence about his past (he finds all the interrogators' identical styles depressing); he listens to his ÉmigrÉ-friends' tales of adultery with nude dancers; he has Thurberesque dreams of ditching (even dispatching) his longtime, live-in mistress Livia. And then, one night, on the way back by car from a housewarming party, a traffic accident renders Feldheimer shaken, increasingly woozy, and, within a few days, blind. Aczel's chapter headings--""Glimpses,"" ""Flashes,"" ""Reflections,"" ""Adumbrations,"" etc.--sew a net of metaphor: sight and non-sight; appearance and reality; blindness--considering what there is to see in this century--as ""the severity of judgment and the magnanimity of absolution."" But the imagery never gets too hazy or precious because this remains basically a political novel--as becomes clear when Aczel sends Feldheimer off to Vienna to consult with a famous philosopher/opthalmologist (who's then killed, with other mystery-angle disappearances to come). Everyone the blind Feldheimer meets on his journey has a long soliloquy of a story to recount horror and death--chiefly Nazi or Stalinist--and with it the unaccountabilities of spirit throughout. He becomes a sort of urbane Homer (there's even a couple, Penelope and Odysseus, who are worked in much more subtly than you'd think). And ultimately this turns out to be a book that is essentially about survivors. True, as with any rococo-ish construction, there are holes and weak links here: much of Aczel's material--the stories Feldheimer gives ear to from inside his darkness--seems faintly orphaned, like stepchildren to the narrative proper. But even this fault rings true--because if culture is now merely an artifact, made so by 20th-century terror, it feels right that these little stories should float doughtily free. An engrossing, special novel, then, the sort that no American could write--untainted by piety yet remarkably full and rich in its seriousness.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1981
Publisher: Pantheon