An Argentine Collection

Edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe

North Point Press. 184 pp. Paperback, $9.95

ABOUT a year-and-a-half ago, television viewers in Buenos Aires discovered that nothing in Argentina happens without consequence. According to a news item, a man passing an apartment building was struck and killed by a dog that fell from a high floor. The shock caused a witness on the street to suffer a heart attack and die. The tableau was so arresting to a startled bus driver that he crashed his vehicle, killing pedestrians and injuring passengers. There are no random events in Argentina.

Nor does anything happen by accident in this fine collection of stories selected by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the principal English translator of Jorge Luis Borges. When the vagaries of airline travel force the narrator in Santiago Sylvester's "Cousins" into an unplanned layover in a strange city, the fates take over. The man is swept into a whirlwind of twisted motive and subterranean goings-on, a ruthless game that seems to have been only awaiting his arrival to begin.

There are even lingering consequences from the Spanish Conquest. In "For Services Rendered," Alberto Castillo shows us a tired Indian, "worn out . . . as if from ages past, from the blood of his race, long since tame or tamed over years of degradation and systematic extermination." Suddenly, centuries later, this exhausted representative of his exhausted people is given a chance to right the ancient wrongs.

The majority of these 14 stories, however, feature middle-class protagonists in urban settings, which is no accident either. Of all the countries in Latin America, Argentina sits closest to Europe and has the most cosmopolitan self-image. While much of the continent -- particularly the north and west -- is awash in the everyday magic of an Indian heritage, much of Buenos Aires is awash in the very different magic of psychoanalysis. Instead of campesinos struggling to make ends meet in a thousand tiny, sun-baked pueblos, the truth of Argentina lies closer to its cities, where anxious urbanites struggle to make ends meet in the concrete jungle.

But in these jungles, there are some happenings every bit as strange as anything in Garcia Marquez's Macando. Many of them involve death. In "A Memory of Punkal," Angel Bonomini describes a deserted city of the dead, a place where "the horror was too present to be thought shocking," where a man can meet his own corpse and "not see this duality as either metaphor or dream: I was dead and I was alive."

Death takes grisly revenge on the living in ironic and sinister ways in Fernando Sorrentino's "The Visitation," and plays cruel, relentless tricks in "Mule," by Jorge Asis. Javier Wiconda, in a story by Fernando Sanchez-Sorondo, is called back to Buenos Aires by a mysterious telegram announcing the death of one of his sisters and spends most of the journey wondering which sister he is being summoned to mourn.

Smoothly translated (except for a selection by Eduardo Gudino-Kieffer, where lower-class English slang grates on American ears -- hardly the fault of the translators), the collection represents a cross-section of contemporary Argentine writers and their concerns. From honored veterans such as Silvina Ocampo and her husband Adolfo Bioy-Casares -- both compatriots and sometime collaborators of Borges -- to a younger generation embodied in the work of Asis, Sorrentino and others, the writers focus their fire on a surreal world where specters lurk in the shadows and where the way things seem has only an incidental connection with the way things are. For Bioy-Casares, for instance, the edge of the universe exists upstairs in a house in East Berlin, while it's perfectly natural for the artist in Ocampo's "The Drawing Lesson" to be woken and criticized by the shade of herself as a child.

Where is the real in fictions like this? The answer is that it's all over and is a deeper kind of real than just mass and volume. As di Giovanni points out in his introduction, the short story is a particularly Argentine form, and writers there are particularly accomplished at compressing and intensifying their fictional journeys.

They learned from the master. Borges, after all, is one of the giants of 20th-century literature. And he never wrote a novel.

James Polk writes frequently about Latin America.