WHAT WE HAVE here is a curious piece of publishing, although -- and this makes it all the more curious -- through no fault of the publisher. These are, as the title says, the Collected Stories of Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez, but they are short by two notable omissions of being the complete stories. They are drawn from the three volumes of stories -- No One Writes to the Colonel, Leaf Storm and Innocent Er,endira -- that Garc,ia M,arquez brought out through Harper & Row, his original American publisher, before he decamped for Knopf, but they are incompletely drawn; the title stories of the first two collections are not included in this volume because the author regards them as novellas -- though they are of approximately the same length as "The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Er,endira and Her Heartless Grandmother," which is included.

With all due respect to Harper & Row, which did Garc,ia M,arquez admirable service for many years and which got the short end of the stick when he departed, these omissions render the Collected Stories a largely useless, if most attractive, book. Inasmuch as the three original story collections are available in handsome Harper Colophon paperback editions at $3.95 apiece, there hardly seems a legitimate reason for anyone except the collector of Garc,ia M,arquez's work to shell out $16.95 for a new book that does not include two of his most important works and thus falls considerably short of being the definitive volume one would expect such a collection to be.

The one justification for the Collected Stories is that the book reprints the stories in the order in which they were first published in Spanish -- although, again, whatever benefits the reader derives from this are significantly diminished by the omission of two pivotal tales, most notably "No One Writes to the Colonel." Published chronologically, the stories make even clearer for American readers that Garc,ia M,arquez made an almost unimaginable leap from his apprenticework in the 1940s and '50s to the unblemished mastery of One Hundred Years of Solitude; it requires the skills of a literary archaeologist to locate the roots of that novel in the first 11 stories herein, assembled in a section called "Eyes of a Blue Dog."

The relationship of those stories to the great novel and the other work that has followed it is suggested only in an occasional glimmer, as when a woman's private demons are described as coming "from the heart of her father, who had fed them painfully during his nights of desperate solitude." For the most part, though, these stories contrast starkly with the author's mature work. There is in them little of the exuberant mixture of the fantastic and the literal that now characterizes Garc,ia M,arquez's work. Rather, they tend to be morose, interior stories -- though there's precious little story to any of them -- that muse gloomily about death. The one hint they give of work to come is their pervasive sense of twinning: mirrors, double images, actual twins are all employed to convey that sense of death in life, life in death, that pervades the novels and later stories.

It's at this point in Garc,ia M,arquez's career that "No One Writes to the Colonel," originally published in Spanish in 1961, assumes great importance. In it the author moves away from his preoccupation with death and toward a more energetic encounter with life; an early reference is made to Macondo, the town that subsequently became his equivalent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and also to Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the larger-than-life figure who appears over and again in the major work; and hints are given of the interest in military power that eventually produced The Autumn of the Patriarch. But the reader of Collected Stories, of course, misses all of this.

Instead, in a second section of 10 stories called "Big Mama's Funeral," he finds himself quite suddenly in fictional territory that he knows well from the novels. Macondo is here, and Aureliano Buendia, and the astonishing magic that makes the mature work as distinctive as any in the world. In a story such as "One Day After Saturday," we know at once where we are. Here, for example, is "His reverence, Anthony Isabel of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar Castaneda y Montero, the bland parish priest who, at the age of ninety- four, assured people that he had seen the devil on three occasions":

"He lived ten steps from the church in a small house without screens, with a veranda toward the street and two rooms which served as office and bedroom. He considered, perhaps in his moments of less lucidity, that it is possible to achieve happiness on earth when it is not very hot, and this idea made him a little confused. He liked to wander through metaphysical obstacle courses. That was what he was doing when he used to sit in the bedroom every morning, with the door ajar, his eyes closed and his muscles tensed. However, he himself did not realize that he had become so subtle in his thinking that for at least three years in his meditative moments he was no longer thinking about anything."

The wry affection with which Garc,ia M,arquez views that priest is everywhere present in these post-1961 stories. Of one character he writes: "He was erect and skinny, with a look that rarely corresponded to the situation, the way deaf people have of looking." Of another: "She was older than he, with very pale skin, and her movements had the gentle efficiency of people who are used to reality." The intermingling of human and natural life, so crucial to the novels, also permeates these stories; the smell of roses is "the smell of God," two swimmers "were leaving the sea of catastrophes and entering the sea of the dead," the wind for Er,endira is "the wind of her misfortune."

Several of these stories are, as one would expect from Garc,ia M,arquez, quite splendid: "Innocent Er,endira," "One of These Days," "There Are No Thieves in This Town," "Balthazar's Marvellous Afternoon," "One Day After Saturday," "Death Constant Beyond Love." Inescapably, though, by contrast with the two great novels and even with the more slender one, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, they seem minor and tentative. Whether fairly or not, one tends to read them less for their own intrinsic virtues than for what they show us about the roots of the masterpieces; the delight we feel upon a chance and unexpected encounter with the name of Aureliano Buendia, or upon hearing a man speak of "the sign of solitude," is the delight of finding ourselves suddenly back in a landscape we love. They are very good stories, and the hint of greatness is in them, but only in the novels is it fully realized.