THE THEME of the retreat from civilization into the jungle has long fascinated Latin American writers. Back in the 1920s, the River Plate author Horacio Quiroga described in his masterful short stories numerous quaint examples of human flotsam and jetsam that had found their way to the remote northern jungle region of Argentina, and around the same time the Colombian Jose Eustasio Rivera produced The Vortex, a novel about fugitives from society who met their destiny in the steamy Amazonian backlands.

More recently, in the '60s, celebrated writers such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, in The Lost Steps , and the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude , employed the flight from the city to the jungle as a central feature of these novels.

The latest literary reworking of this persistent myth to come from Latin America is Marcio Souza's The Emperor of the Amazon , an intriguing collage of narrative snippets that is not much like anything else we have seen before. It was published in Brazil in 1977, enjoyed a notable success, and now appears in English in Thomas Colchie's adept translation.

In the traditional Latin American novel, the jungle conquers man and his ambitions. In Souza's whimsical and gently philosophical tale, man defeats himself, tripped up by circumstances and shortcomings of the sort that we might expect to encounter in a comic opera.

The majestic Amazon River and its port cities provide the setting; the time is the last few years of the 19th century. The booming Brizilian rubber trade, which was to collapse soon after the turn of the century, provides the lure for the poets, patriots and easygoing revolutionaries who are drawn into the central enterprise: saving from the depredations of industrious Bolivians a large stretch of rubber-rich Brazillian jungle known as the Territory of Acre. And there is a large cast of stock characters: zealots, soldiers, nuns, prostitutes, the de regueur American diplomat, and even a French travelling opera company for good measure.

Souza's story takes the form of a discovered manuscript, which he purports to present as it were written in 1945, with but a few asides and glosses tossed in here and there. The author of the manuscript appears to have been a Spaniard named Luiz Galvez, and this is his freewheeling story of how he became the Emperor of Acre.

Galvez is 39 at the beginning of his odyssey, a decent fellow, fond of creature comforts (liquor and ladies stand at the top of the list), who works in a desultory fashion as a journalist in the Brazilian coastal city of Belem. All that ends when he gets into serious trouble (owing to his casual style of living) and has to abandon everything and flee. He decides, quite reasonably, to head up the Amazon. A picaro in the true Spanish tradition, Galvez thereafter is obliged to live by his wits.

A second section of the novel deals with his eventful journey up the Amazon to the extraordinary but perfectly real river city of Manaus, a metropolis built with the wealth created by Brazil's rubber monopoly in the very heart of the Amazonian jungle.

It is in Manaus, distinguished for its most unlikely but undeniably elegant opera house (the most opulent of all Latin America!), that Galvez is enlisted for his role in the Acre expedition. Unaccountably, he is promoted, becomes its short-lived emperor.

Along the way, the reader is treated to endless scenes of revelry and ribaldry, as well as good-humored reflections on the curious destiny that was befalling Galvez. Aside from the delights of the narration, which Galvez confesses he has tried to adapt to the style of his favorite literary form, the feuilleton , there are ovious conclusions to be drawn about the political and moral stances of the time. If the characters tend toward stereotype, the sense of historical perspective is still clearly in focus.

An example of the way things were handled is the paragraph entitled "Acrean Obligations": "For the sum of fifty thousand pounds, I was obliged to liberate Acre from Bolivian domination, declaring the territory free and independent. Then I was to form a government which would attempt to gain international recognition. Once all this should be accomplished, my government was to solicit annexation by Brazil. My nationality would allay any suspicion of the latter's involvement. As to form of government, to them it was immaterial."

The hundreds of individually titled narrative fragments that make up Souza's work may seem an arbitrary and self-conscious technique, but the novel as a whole is effective. This type of "narrative shorthand" is being cultivated by a number of Brazilian authors today, but few will use it with the authority and grace of Souza.

Thomas Colchie's rendering is smooth and nearly flawless. If a "parameter" or a "hopefully" creeps in now and then, it does not detract appreciably from the carefully preserved tone of Galvez's remarkable memoirs.