By Rubem Fonseca

Translated from the Portuguese

By Clifford E. Landers

Dutton. 249 pp. $18.95

FOR A HUNDRED years and more, novelists born into the Portuguese language have been denied the universal literary fame they might otherwise have won. It's true of Portugal's great Eca de Queiroz and Brazil's equally great or greater Machado de Assis.

Even as Latin American writing enjoys great popularity in English and a new novel by Garcia Marquez or Vargas Llosa or Fuentes or Allende stirs plenty of excitement, new work of the same caliber by Brazilians like Scliar or Lispector or Franca reaches relatively few readers.

In 1986, Rubem Fonseca's 1983 novel, High Art, was published here and caused hardly a ripple. Last year, I asked Moacyr Scliar, himself a winner of the Casa de las Americas prize and a much-feted literary hero in his native Brazil, what was the single most exciting literary news in his country. Who was everybody reading and talking about? He didn't hesitate. "Rubem Fonseca," he said. Now Fonseca's 1985 novel, Bufo and Spallanzani, is available in English. It has already been a sensation in Europe, and it has every right to be a sensation in North America. Readers of Cortazar and Cabrera Infante should like it. Fans of Felipe Alfau should like it. Lovers of Umberto Eco and Julian Barnes should like it. For that matter, fans of Jim Thompson should like it, because Fonseca writes like an intellectualized Thompson, one who has gone to good schools but survived with his senses -- and his sense of humor -- intact.

Fonseca's narrator here is a famous Brazilian novelist who sets things going on a high literary plane with references, in the first chapter alone, to Tolstoy, Flaubert, Simenon, St. John Perse, Moravia, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Brazilian poet Murilo Mendes and, for good measure, Fonseca himself. (The novelist has also chosen his pen name, Gustavo Flavio, in particular homage to Flaubert.) There is also much talk about a dark dream involving Tolstoy, detailed description of a woman's body, unexpected sexual impotence, the difficulties of writing well, adultery, underwear, the efficacy of speaking French with bourgeois women and the relationship of poetry to carnal matters, all of which -- as things develop -- the book itself is about. But it is also about murder, detection, guilt and innocence, the creative process, music, art, food, sex, death, torture and frogs.

The murder -- of the narrator's adulterous lover -- happens early on, followed by a surprising confession that can't, it seems, be true. In structure, the novel then takes the classic route of North American detective fiction, a body of literature that has colored all of Fonseca's work, as it has that of many other Latin American writers. The current crime raises memories of past crimes and guilty secrets. Likely suspects abound. Motives multiply. Threats increase. The police get warm but keep missing the point. Another murder occurs in a remote mountain retreat. Nothing is what it seems. And guilt -- the guilt of a world that makes crime and falseness possible -- is everywhere.

"The writer must be essentially a subversive," the narrator declares, "and his language can be neither the bamboozlement of the politician (and the educator) nor the repression of the ruler. Our language should be that of nonconformity, nonfalsity, nonoppression. We do not wish to bring order to chaos, as some theorists suppose. We always doubt everything, including logic. A writer must be a skeptic. He must be against morality and good habits . . . Every highly intelligent means of expression is mendacious." Can such a narrator -- or such a novelist, for that matter -- be trusted? No wonder he ends his story with a question that constitutes a bold-faced challenge to the reader.

This is a smart book that's great fun to read. Translating it -- a novel about deception that may actually be deceiving the reader -- could not have been easy. Clifford E. Landers has caught all of Fonseca's grit and irony and lyricism, as well as his fast pace and fanciful speculations, and all of the narrator's subtlety and brass.

The eponymous Spallanzani, by the way, is a medieval alchemist in a novel that Gustavo Flavio is writing. Bufo is a frog. But then nothing should seem odd in a world in which, as Flavio says, "All you need to go crazy is to be sane. The healthier you are, the more severe the attack of insanity." On that basis, Bufo and Spallanzani is a very healthy book indeed.

Alan Ryan, a novelist and journalist, writes frequently about Brazilian literature. He is currently preparing for publication "The Penguin Book of Brazilian Short Stories."