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.

Seth Rogoff Photo by Tomáš Železný

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 and Horak, like two electro-magnetic poles, keep the quintet in the bar dodging and weaving. Quintet, because the protagonist of the novel Sy has translated, Josef Kostel, hovers over the discussion throughout, merging now with his creator, now with the translator. Everyone around the bar table has a doppelganger.

In some ways, “First, the Raven” reminded me of James Cowan’s books, “A Mapmaker’s Dream” and “A Troubadour’s Testament.” In both, a historical figure gets the chance to spread his wings in post-modern meditations. Rogoff takes the extra step of inventing his main character, though one as fixed in his historical milieu as Cowan’s.

Actually, Rogoff has invented two main characters and a masterwork for each one. Horak’s book, “Blue, Red, Gray,” is named for Kostel’s greatest painting. Kostel’s career as an artist (and indeed, Horak’s as a dissident) follows the horrors of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia. Describing imaginary works of transcendence, whether written or painted, has challenged many writers. Early Kostel is recognizably like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, but it’s harder to imagine his ultimate paintings, which he calls “color-light forms, or simply ‘flashes.'” Instead, Rogoff tells us how they affect the viewer. With supreme irony, an actual description of “Blue, Red, Gray” is left to a trio of commissar critics who deconstruct it in Marxist terms.

Living in Prague – and himself a translator of Kafka – Rogoff has a deep familiarity with the city that he is in no particular hurry to share with the reader. The result for this reader was a blurring between the actual and the fictional, certainly consistent with the rest of the book. Thank heavens for Wikipedia. Jan Zizka, who is mentioned early on, was an early-15th-century Czech hero. On the other hand, a heretical movement inspired by Jacob’s struggle with the angel, on which Rogoff gives a crucial exegesis, appears to be his own creation. One of its followers is a “gnostic interlocutor of Pico della Mirandola” (said to be the first person famous for being famous) called Herschel of Ancona. Googling him led to a chic line of backpacks, women’s purses and the like. I would have found Herschel of Ancona irresistible too.

Rogoff’s book shimmers in the reflections of all its levels and subplots, some of them only ever dimly seen. His command of all the intricacies he has created is dazzling. Even the typos are esoteric, ‘waive’ for ‘wave’, ‘wrung’ for ‘rung.’ Beautifully designed in a small format, “First, the Raven” is a fascinating and impressive first novel.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of For the Beauty of the Earth.