Mildew and Metamorphoses : THE LAST WORLD by Christoph Ransmayr translated from the German by John E. Woods (Grove Weidenfeld: $18.95; 240 pp.)

"A hurricane--a swarm of birds high in the night, a white swarm rushing ever closer, cresting suddenly into a monstrous wave that lunged for the ship. The hurricane--screaming and weeping in the dark below deck and the sour stench of vomit, a dog gone mad in the pitching seas and ripping at a sailor's tendons, spume closing over the torn flesh."

With these lines, whose energy is almost equal to what they describe, Christoph Ransmayr begins his powerful allegory of rise, fall and change. Through the tempest, a ship bears Cotta, a Roman citizen bound for a desolate village on the Black Sea. He seeks news of the poet, Publius Ovidius Naso, exiled for subversive immorality and a lack of deference to the Emperor Augustus.

A Roman citizen. Or is he an Italian? "The Last World" tells of Cotta's strange search, but it also speaks of steamships, postcards, newspapers and a German deserter from concentration-camp duty. Ransmeyer's Ovid and Cotta lived 2,000 years ago, but they also live now.

The story glitters between two poles. One is the Empire, a self-proclaimedly eternal monument to law, order and the immutability of human works. Its builder, Augustus, is a monument himself; all but dead within his stolidly grinding machine, an old man who falls asleep at ceremonies and spends the days watching his pet rhinoceros slather itself with mud.

The other pole is Ovid. Not for his "Art of Love" but for his "Metamorphoses," those retold Greco-Roman myths of maidens turning to trees, lovers turning to stones, tyrants turning to ravening birds; in short, of the gods incessantly messing about the natural order on a whim, an itch, an envy.

"Nothing retains its form," reads a banner that Cotta finds when he begins his mysterious quest in Tomi, the decaying, rust-brown port that is his destination. The words are the seed of the "Metamorphoses." They are a seed profoundly subversive of all that Roman monuments stand for. They subvert any prideful human empire--ancient or modern, Communist or Capitalist, political, social or intellectual--that imprisons itself in its own achievements.

There is nothing Olympian or didactic about Ransmayr's parable. It is told at extremes, in harsh images and bleak ellipses. It is strung along mysteries--Where is Ovid? Who are the townspeople whom Cotta encounters in Tomi?--and its tone is grotesque and frozen by turns.

Set in stony soil, mauled by icy winters and blistering summers when the fish rot in the sea, Tomi has the back-of-beyond lifelessness of Balkan villages to this day. Cotta finds its inhabitants suspicious and vague about the fate of the exiled poet. There is also something uncanny about them: their names.

The butcher is Tereus; his wife is Procne; the rope-maker, who lodges Cotta in his house, is Lycaon. The voluble town prostitute with a strange deformity is Echo. The weaver is Arachne. A dwarf, who visits each year to show movies projected against a whitewashed wall, is Cyparis. These Black Sea peasants bear names of the characters in Ovid's mythological transformations.

Cotta goes up to Trachila in the mountains to find the ruins of Ovid's house. The poet has disappeared; his old servant, Pythagoras--another strange doubling; it is, of course, the name of the Greek philosopher of change and transformation--is still there. He speaks incomprehensibly, but he shows Cotta a series of stone pillars, each with an inscription upon it. Partly obliterated by swarms of slugs, they form the message: "Naso (Ovid) has completed a work that will live forever and is ready to die."

Cotta moves among the villagers, seeking the meaning of such a message. These encounters alternate with the story of Ovid's last days in Rome and of the action that led to his exile.

A celebrity for his earlier writing, he becomes even more celebrated when he locks himself away to write a new work. Little is known of it; a few extracts are published here and there; rumor proliferates. We think of Salinger, Pynchon, Brodkey at various stages of their careers; or of the book that was to set New York society on its ears and that Truman Capote never did write.

In keeping with his status--he is lionized at the dinners of the illiterate mighty--Ovid is invited to give the seventh speech at the dedication of a vast stadium. Augustus is there, though asleep in his chair. The speech is a shocker. Ovid tells of a plague that kills everyone on the island of Aegina. Ants come and cover the corpses so completely--every feature, hollow, dimple--that the swarms take on the corpses' forms. They arise, these ant-men, and come to Rome where, ant-like, they build an empire and, slave-like, preserve it.

It is a passage of almost unbearable brilliance. Almost equally brilliant is Ransmayr's account of the delayed reaction. The bureaucratic machinery--ant-like, again--slowly turns to carry out the emperor's presumed will--he himself is oblivious--and punish the poet.

We return to Cotta wandering around Tomi. He finds, not unexpectedly, that the villagers bear more than the names of Ovid's creatures. Lycaon, like his namesake, turns into a wolf. Tereus, like the king of Thrace, has raped his sister-in-law and torn out her tongue to keep her silent. He, his wife Procne and the victim, Philomela, take the bloodshed further until all three turn into birds. Echo vanishes; Battus, a village boy, turns into stone.

Ransmayr's transformations, suggestive as they are, have a serious flaw. In the old myths and in Ovid's tales, a nymph is real and touching to us even before she becomes a tree. Meeting Tomi's villagers, with their mythical names, we get little feeling for what they are. Essentially, we see them transformed already. The story, spectacular as it is, turns wooden.

As a parable, nonetheless, it has a vivid and unsettling force. Cotta never finds Ovid's manuscript; he no longer needs to. Ransmayr writes:

"Banned from Rome, from the realm of necessity and reason, the poet had finished telling his metamorphoses beside the Black Sea, transforming this barren, craggy coast, where he froze and ached with homesickness, into his coast, transforming these barbarians, who harassed and drove him to the forsaken world of Trachila, into his characters.

"Books mildewed, burned, turned to ashes and dust. Cairns toppled back down the slopes as formless rubble, and even letters chiseled in basalt vanished under the patience of slugs. Reality, once discovered, no longer needed recording."

Civilizations grow old and perish. Art grows old and perishes too. But even as it dies, Ransmayr tells us, it transmits humanity's hope of transfiguration and rebirth.

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