ARIEL DORFMAN'S first novel to come out in English is a failed ruse. An exile from his native Chile since 1973, Dorfman wanted the book to be read there. But since his subject is "the disappeared," the thousands of men and women who are taken away under cover of night and never seen again, the current regime was sure to ban his book just as it had his person. So Dorfman went literarily underground.

The plan was for Widows to take place in Nazi-occupied Greece and masquerade as the product of Eric Lohmann, an imaginary Danish writer and resistance fighter, himself disappeared 40 years ago. The book would be translated behind the scenes and make its debut in Danish. Then Dorfman would pull out his Spanish original, pass it off as a translation, and issue the book--still under the pseudonym Lohmann--in Chile. Savvy readers would linger between the lines.

The plot fizzled when the only publisher likely to pull off the deception backed out. By this time, though, Dorfman felt such a rightness about his doctored story that he couldn't bear to peel away its disguise and ship it back to South America. Inside the covers of Dorfman's Widows, then, we have Lohmann's.

The story is classically simple. A quisling government rules Greece, and its soldiers are out pacifying the countryside. Most of the men from one village have been missing for a year or more, and a newly arrived captain hopes the time has come to forget this unpleasantness. But dead male bodies keep fetching up on the banks of the local river--probably the handiwork of upstream thugs who are still wedded to outmoded terrorist policies--and forgetting is out of the question.

Already an embarrassment to the captain as the novel opens, the corpses become challenges to his authority after local women start identifying them, demanding the right to bury them, taking up riverside vigils when he refuses. Two women both claim the same unrecognizable body, and the villagers parlay the dispute into a righteous conspiracy: 37 women file rival petitions to bury the dead man. Because a German colonel is on the way for an inspection, the captain must resolve the conflict rapidly. His moves and the villagers' countermoves propel the book to a grim conclusion.

No one can say how Widows would have turned out on native ground, but the taut novel we have seems all the stronger for its displacement. Dorfman writes with a piercing intensity, scrutinizing the scene and its inhabitants like the old woman whose failure to blink unnerves the captain. Thus, in the village, "even at this early hour, the heat was drying, twisting, tightening the air."

And the novel draws much of its considerable power from Dorfman's ability to depict his villains from the inside. An orderly to the captain is not the fascist lackey he might have been in more impassioned hands but just a peasant who has spent his life mooning over the local millionaire's lush estate. The captain himself is no fiend. Rather than confront the women at the river, he would give anything to return to his family, "take off this skin that covered his body, turn himself inside out, trade these intestines for others. . ." What Widows may have lost in immediacy, Dorfman has more than compensated for with his empathy and craft.

The Empire's Old Clothes is a handful of essays on what Dorfman calls subliterature: children's and comic books, photo novels, and magazines like Reader's Digest. His thesis is that subliterature not only eschews controversy and spoon-feeds artificial optimism but also drums into its readers the superiority of the capitalist high-tech lifestyle to any other kind. As examples he cites the Babar books, in which poor, naked elephants don whopping clothes and assume the affluence of the French bourgeoisie, and Donald Duck comics, in which avaricious waterfowl waddle off to plunder the backward countries Azteclano, Chiliburgeria, and Foola Zoola.

That subliterature upholds the status quo is not a startling insight: one would hardly expect comics and McMags like Reader's Digest to foment unrest or soar above received wisdom. But it hadn't dawned on me how insulting some of our cartoons must appear to a keen Third-World eye.

Dorfman helps the reader analyze selected subliterary characters in new ways. He interprets the Lone Ranger and similar outsider-heroes as ombudsmen through whom the common man can "gain access to the workings of the State." And he offers an interesting account of how the Chilean comic-strip Mampato once broke with its genre by reflecting the turmoil of national politics. In 1973 the cartoonist sided with the country's plutocrats, and young Mampato's adventures that year amounted to a minor stratagem in the campaign to bring down Allende.

Dorfman also succeeds in pinpointing what is debilitating about Loony Tunes and Fantasyland--that their visions do not percolate upward from ordinary people's collective dreams but gravitate downward from entrepreneurs' strategy sessions. So whereas the best folk tales can give catharsis, Disney's bowdlerized rehashes tend to inflict narcosis.

But Dorfman is insufficiently afraid of repeating himself, and after a while there is something askew in applying references like Gramsci, Rank, and Barthes and terms like "autochthonous" to Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The real rub may be the uncertain identity of Dorfman's audience. Neither kids nor devotees of Reader's Digest are likely to plow through it, and hyperliterate U.S. adults will probably agree or disagree with it simply according to their political lights.

Yet in the fairy tale that gave Dorfman his title, it was enough for the child to call out the truth. As a recent exile, Dorfman speaks with a child's freshness when he warns that our subliterature is by no means the apolitical entertainment it purports to be.