THE mystery of the poet Ovid's exile from Rome by Caesar Augustus in the first decade of the first century continues to inspire speculation. It has long been thought that Ovid's capricious candor about sex irritated the emperor, who was trying to reform the morals of the capital city. A recent, well-informed guess is that Ovid failed to report a conspiracy against the emperor. This would at least explain why the poet never defended himself: The emperor already knew about the problem and would not appreciate having it broadcast. Another person who knew about it is the hero of a bestseller by the Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr. In ``The Last World,'' Ovid's youthful admirer Cotta travels to the Black Sea town of Tomi, where Ovid had been banished, to investigate a rumor of the poet's death.
Tomi subdues the Roman sophisticate; in escaping Rome - the realm of reason and necessity - Cotta travels in both time and place, exchanging boredom for something like madness as the ancient world merges with the 20th century and his search becomes a matter of life and death.
Ransmayr is a connoisseur of rocky deserts as well as imaginative prose. On his recent visit to the United States, he drove solo from Oklahoma to Nevada. Earlier, after studying philosophy in Vienna, he eked out a living by driving luxury bullet-proof Mercedes cars from Munich to customers in Damascus, Syria; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Presumably, during those marathon drives he did more than enjoy the scenery. He took in the atmosphere of tyranny. The logic of repression underlies the great success of ``The Last World.''
Enthusiastically received in the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Spain, France, and West Germany, the book plays less on an interest in the unhappy Roman poet Ovid and more on a weariness with political answers that seems to be inseparable from the recent uprisings in Central Europe.
In this novel, nature takes over. Extreme and abrupt changes of weather and seismic activity characterize life in the barren rocky coastal town - the town of iron, it's called: Smelting is its only industry. Life, such as it is, takes place between the two extremes of stone and sky. Life is a constant struggle against the forces of stone. Sometimes one gets to fly.
Escape takes the familiar forms: drink and transforming media. A traveling movie man shows dramas taken from Ovid's writings. The end of a two-year winter results in a drunken procession, with the people in the town dressed up as characters out of Ovid. The epileptic son of the grocer-woman (herself a raconteur of Ovidian powers) is an image addict and turns into stone as he sits by an overhead projector with which he has magnified and transformed bits of matter brought in by the locals.
Ovid is everywhere in Tomi, and nowhere. Cotta finds his servant Pythagoras in a camp above the town. There he also finds bits of rags tied to stone piles and inscribed with words Cotta comes to believe to be the final works of Ovid. But Ovid has vanished.
Ransmayr tells his story by shifting the scenery between the rocky no man's land of Tomi and Roman flashbacks. He shows Ovid giving a public speech in Rome, where he not only forgets to genuflect to the on-looking emperor but also tells the tale of a people transformed into social insects.
Later Cotta believes that Ovid prophesied the end of the world in a wilderness of rock. The moving story about the son of the grocer turning to stone beside his projector speaks clearly to a late 20th-century numbness with media and dependence on transforming reality, magnifying the trivial, and trivializing the truly significant.
Eventually Cotta has seen enough of Ovid's transforming presence that the search for the poet becomes a search for his own identity. In pages of Ovidian freshness, Cotta witnesses the birth of a mountain in the Black Sea. That mountain stands not only for the end of the world but also for the immortalizing power of art.
Ovid's characters - drawn from his giant epic, ``The Metamorphoses'' - come touchingly to life. Symbolism easily carries meaning throughout the novel. The penultimate scene, a re-envisioning of the bloody tale of Tereus and Philomela and their transformation into birds, gains in vinegary apocalyptic force what it loses of Ovid's tender celebration of married life.
Once censored by the Romanian dictator Ceausescu, ``The Last World'' involves, among all its transformations, the metamorphosis of Ovid into a late 20th-century imagination.