An insane asylum as refuge from the madness of Nazi-occupied Poland in World War II - at first glance, the metaphor seems hopelessly trite. Yet this skillful, semiautobiographical first novel just skirts the edge of allegory, and its author's artistry steers it gracefully away from the dangers of cliche. But then it's no ordinary first novel. The Polish author Stanislaw Lem wrote it in 1948, long before he achieved fame as one of the world's leading contemporary science fiction writers. Now published in English for the first time in a solid translation by William Brand,, ''Hospital of the Transfiguration'' is the pensive story of Stefan Trzyniecki, a directionless, despairing young doctor who takes a job at a provincial Polish mental hospital at the outset of the war. There he confronts the absurdity of life through events that occur both inside and outside the asylum walls. Many of the hallmarks of Mr. Lem's mature science fiction style are present in this melancholy work of realism - the penchant for metaphysical discourse, the command of technical details, the flashes of humor. If it suffers from some of the common weaknesses of a first novel - occasionally excessive bursts of passion, a certain disjointedness - it is nevertheless strong testimony to the profound understanding of people and life that underlies even the lasers and spaceships of Mr. Lem's better-known oeuvre.
The New York Times Book Review
A version of this review appeared in print on October 30, 1988, on page 726 of the New York edition.