Sy Kirschbaum is hours away from completing his translation of a – in his opinion, the – masterpiece of modern Czech literature, by a writer named Horak. A labor of love (and, we learn, close to hate), it has taken him 17 years. Jan Horak is the greatest dissident writer of them all, but he is an egomaniacal monster. Alone in Prague, Sy broods over his struggle and his imminent emancipation.
He has also been unstrung by an eruption from his own emotional past. A short time earlier (imprecision is endemic in this book) Sy made a trip to Maine, his first since being consumed by his translation. A letter from the love of his life, Ida Fields, has summoned him back. Ida, who is the wife of his best friend, Gabe Slatky, is seriously ill, whether physically or mentally is unclear. His first stop on reaching Portland is a rendezvous with Gabe in a grubby bar in the basement of a hotel.
What takes place there over the next eight hours is a virtuoso demonstration of shape-shifting that includes, among other things, the book’s “Preface” Sy never writes.
Seth Rogoff is one of the most beguiling writers I have read in a long time. He needs to be because very little in “First, the Raven” (a reference to the raven sent out of the ark by Noah) is as it appears. On the first page, the author tells the reader, “one doesn’t always get to the essential by traveling a straight path… the essential bends and twists; it spirals off into the distance.” You have been warned.
Rogoff was born in Portland, has lived in Berlin for 10 years and now resides in Prague. All three cities make their appearance in the novel, but even the Portland bar, though called the Captain’s Cabin and decorated in maritime kitsch, exudes mitteleuropisch noire.
Sy and Gabe have much to discuss, including a long-ago affair between Sy and Ida. As a blizzard gets going outside, they are joined by two women. On another plane, beyond the snowstorm, Ida…