DOCTOR CRIMINALE By Malcolm Bradbury, Viking, 344 pp., $22.
ONLY a few years ago, Eastern Europe lay like an impenetrable twilight zone between the Soviet Union and the West, swept over by invasion, sunk in repression. It produced a generation of great writers, most of whom fled their homelands, and a generation of eccentric dictators, most of whom have met suitably unpleasant ends. For more than four decades, the Warsaw Pact nations remained so beleaguered that they seemed to shed - like the flames of Milton's hell - not light, but darkness visible.
With the parting of the Iron Curtain, the full sophistication of Eastern European society is on display for Western observers, who are responding with understandable fascination. British novelist Malcolm Bradbury's intriguing new book, "Doctor Criminale," is one of the crop of recent English-language fictions inspired by "Mitteleuropa."
"Doctor Criminale" is the story of two very different men: the title character, a world-famous Hungarian (or is it Bulgarian - one is never entirely sure) intellectual, and Francis Jay, a rather callow young British journalist who finds himself in the reluctant role of Criminale's television biographer.
Criminale is a philosopher whose theories are so subtle and ambiguous they're acceptable everywhere. He is celebrated both by Western socialites and Eastern strongmen; he can speak with equal fluency on the nature of post-war power or Madonna's latest hit single. By the time the novel begins, the charming and well-tailored thinker is so famous that sales of his books "rival Lenin's in Russia, Confucius's in China, Jacqueline Susann's in the United States."
But the most astonishing feat of this "Great Thinker of the Age of Glasnost" is his ability to totally obscure his past. Enter Francis Jay (an elbow-in-the-ribs allusion to Kafka's Franz K). By a series of post-modern mishaps, this "nonvisual" bumbler finds himself working for a fly-by-night London TV outfit trying to make a documentary about Criminale.
Francis is dispatched to Europe with his producer's order to track down the elusive genius and "nestle in his bosom like a viper." On the way, Francis encounters a pompous German academic whose study of Criminale seems to have been ghost-written by Criminale himself; a beautiful Hungarian publisher who may be a secret agent; and ultimately the mysterious maestro in the flesh.
Do any of these highbrow hijinks work? Readers will have to know something about recent intellectual fashions to get many of the jokes (names like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Francis Fukuyama litter the text). They will also have to appreciate a good game of guess-the-thinly-disguised-character: Professor Massimo Monza, for instance, a hedonistic, high-living Italian scholar, looks suspiciously like Umberto Eco.
Criminale himself recalls any number of famous intellectuals (Gyorgy Lukacs, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Jean-Paul Sartre) who managed, in the post-war ruins of Europe, to make peace with a variety of seedy regimes. Some readers will be diverted; others bored silly.
Beyond these difficulties, however, the novel has a deeper flaw: The focus of the book is a complicated, morally troubled man who has been forced by history to make a series of hypocritical compromises. Criminale, we learn, is both a critic of the powerful and their lap dog, a defender of feminists and an exploiter of women. Even more dangerously, he is clever enough to have elevated compromise and hypocrisy to a grand philosophy of life.
This is an engaging moral parable, but it is told, unfortunately, by a provincial innocent on whom the truth takes too many chapters to dawn. The book sometimes seems to be less about Bazlo Criminale's shady career than Francis Jay's grating naivete.
"Doctor Criminale" skillfully glazes big issues with a lighthearted, spy-novel frosting, and to this extent the book is reminiscent of Graham Greene's easy-going "entertainments." Its failure lies in never reaching much below the narrative surface. This is an account, we are told, of "a good and famous man who was almost certainly bad."
The finale answers certain trivial mysteries surrounding Criminale's life, but the deeper mystery of why decent and even brilliant men lead sordid lives is left hanging over the novel like a repressive regime.