BENEATH THE WATERS

By Oswald Franca Junior

Ballantine/Available

165 pp.

Paperback, $6.95

BEFORE HIS death at 53 last year in an auto accident in Brazil, Oswaldo Franca Junior was among that country's finest writers. Two earlier novels, The Man in the Monkey Suit (about an auto mechanic) and The Long Haul (about a truck driver), are available in English and clearly express Franca's deep concern for ordinary people. But Beneath the Waters, one of his last works, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret A. Neves, goes far beyond those two in demonstrating his passionate love for the warmth and variety of human life.

The novel's premise is simple: A river is dammed up and the waters rise to form a lake, covering a town, its homes and businesses, its farms, ranches and the countless places where local people have lived their very ordinary but breathtakingly vivid lives. Franca strings together their stories like a deck of snapshots, and prodigally pours out dozens of characters, tales, episodes, conflicts, moments of violence, sweetness, satisfaction, despair. Some of these glimpses into other people's lives are as short as a paragraph, others at most a few pages, but together they add up to all of humankind.

Opening the book at random, I find a man chosen to host a religious feast who is nearly done in by the cost; a dentist newly arrived in town who receives a welcome, actually intended for someone else, that warms all the rest of his life; a widow who rules a little bus company with an iron hand; a doctor who loses his temper one famous time; and a boy who makes a good profit in chickens. No one story has great weight, but together they have powerful consequence. This is a lovely book, sweet, warm and generous.

MAX AND THE CATS

By Moacyr Scliar

Ballantine/Available

99 pp. Paperback, $7.95

MAX AND the Cats is the ninth book by the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar to appear in English in the last five years. Such novels as The Centaur in the Garden, The Gods of Raquel and The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes and story collections like The Carnival of the Animals and The Ballad of the False Messiah have confirmed him as a unique and major new voice in Latin American writing. Two years ago, he won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize.

Descended from Russian Jewish immigrants who came to Brazil early in this century, Scliar has taken the notable category of Jewish writing in South America to new prominence. He writes with equal amounts of humor and graceful simplicity, constructing modern fables that provoke serious thought even as they charm.

Max and the Cats, translated from the Portuguese by Eloah F. Giacomelli, is the seemingly simple tale, in three parts, of a boy born in Berlin in 1912 who, as a young man, must flee a world of Nazis and secret police. As he crosses the Atlantic, he has a surreal experience with a jaguar. And later, settled successfully in Brazil, he has a frightening encounter with a Brazilian wildcat that is something other, and infinitely more ferocious, than it seems.

These felines may be symbols, but they are symbols with indisputably sharp claws and undeniably hot breath. Scliar smartly makes full use of them as characters -- the second part is called "The Jaguar in the Dinghy" and that cat is a nightmarishly terrifying beast -- but their representational value grows far beyond its particular facts. Scliar is a very serious artist with a very light touch, and not even Latin America has another writer quite like him.

CALLING ALL HEROES

A Manual for Taking Power

By Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Plover. 113 pp. $16.95

"THERE ARE some people who think that to understand something allows them to put it in the drawer of nicely arranged memories and let it rest," Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II says, in his own voice, in Calling All Heroes. He is speaking of the Mexican student movement for reform that drew worldwide attention in 1968 when the Mexican army opened fire on students in the capital. The event was Mexico's Kent State . . . but a Kent State multiplied, in blood and aftereffects, literally a dozen times; 49 students were killed. Calling All Heroes, translated from the Spanish by John Mitchell and Ruth Mitchell de Aguilar, is Taibo's lively meditation on what it meant then and what it means now.

Taibo's first work to be translated into English, An Easy Thing, a terrific detective novel set in Mexico City, appeared earlier this year. Calling All Heroes is a more demanding work and a more personal one, but it should reinforce the first impression of Taibo as a very important Mexican writer.

For a meditation on a tragedy, this is a colorful and inventive novel, lightened with humor and extravagant scenes. Made up of letters, scattered notes, conversations and disjointed reminiscences, the novel builds a mosiac view of the 1968 student movement. Then it moves into the typically Latin American realm of high invention. Taibo has the central character, a former partisan trying to reconstruct what happened, seek help from the only kind of source that seems able to make sense of such an immense event: an assortment of characters from fiction and fantasy. Before long, we see arriving in Mexico City Sherlock Holmes, Wyatt Earp, D'Artagnan, Dick Turpin and others. Madness? So was 1968.

Funny, smart, serious and challenging, Calling All Heroes is, like Mexico, both real and fantastic at the same time. And what that country can be in the future is the question at its heart.

HUMAN MOURNING

By Jose Revueltas

University of Minnesota

Press. 208 pp. $22.50

Paperback, $9.95

HUMAN MOURNING by Mexico's Jose Revueltas (1914-1976) was first published in Spanish in 1943 and was first translated into English in 1947 as The Stone Knife. This new translation restores to print a novel that, despite its imperfections and its unrelenting bleakness, still has power to move readers.

The novel shares several features with William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It tells the story of a small group of peasants, burdened with the body of a dead baby, who are trying to escape a flood, and it uses interior monologues and flashbacks from several points of view to capture both the lives of the characters and the larger past of their world. In their present struggle, the savage universe brings them only to hopelessness and ugly death. At the same time, they -- and the reader -- come to realize that everything in their lives before this has meant nothing. Their struggles with the unyielding land, their sufferings in the Mexican revolution, their years of poverty and pain have brought them only to a place where they can watch the impatient vultures that will soon devour their bodies.

It isn't a pretty story, and it isn't very well made. But it isn't easy to forget, either.

FADO ALEXANDRINO

By Antonio Lobo Antunes

Grove Weidenfeld

497 pp. $24.95

ANTONIO Lobo Antunes is among Portugal's foremost contemporary novelists. An earlier novel, South of Nowhere, has been translated into English and gives a gritty autobiographical account of the author's military experience in Angola. For Portugal, Africa has been a kind of Vietnam and Antunes's latest novel, Fado Alexandrino, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa, deals with the psychological aftermath of the country's other messy African affair, Mozambique.

It tells the tangled tales of four ex-military men who meet in Lisbon to celebrate -- if that's the word -- the 10th anniversary of their return from Africa. Tortured by memories, by a painful parting from the comradeship of service, by an even more painful homecoming, by frightening thoughts of a military coup and revolution and by uncertain futures, they drink heavily and trade often bitter stories, searching in the clutter of their lives for a place with reliably solid ground.

Antunes's kaleidoscopic account may be the great modern portrait of Lisbon, seen through the lives of dozens of living people. And his central characters are vividly adrift. "Everything in my life has changed without my being aware of it," one says, " . . . exactly what I needed never to change."

Long and dense with detail, made more difficult by Antunes's method of interweaving parts of stories out of sequence, Fado Alexandrino is not easy to follow, even in Gregory Rabassa's energetic English version. But, brilliant at times, it is certainly a powerful and very modern novel of individuals, a city and a country all struggling to make peace with the past and to find a place in the present and a purpose in the future.

Alan Ryan is currently preparing for publication "The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories" and "The Penguin Book of Brazilian Short Stories."