THE PALACE OF THE

WHITE SKUNKS

By Reinaldo Arenas

Translated from the

Spanish by Andrew Hurley

Viking. 328 pp. $19.95

MODERN CUBAN writers take special delight in the possibilities of language. Some, like Alejo Carpentier, build convoluted edifices of ornate prose, artful and mysterious. Others, closer to Jose Lezama Lima and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, use words like verbal noisemakers, language that is heated, cluttered, jazzy and loud, alive with metaphor. Reinaldo Arenas, until his recent death an exile living in New York, belongs to this second school, and The Palace of the White Skunks is less a narrative than a cacophony of crowded words jarring against each other.

The story, such as it is, opens with Death, idly spinning a bicycle wheel in the unkempt front yard of Fortunato's family shack. Why? It's hard to say, so let's put the question aside for the moment.

In rapid succession the author introduces the household: young Fortunato (who briefly entangles Death in a mosquito net), his grandfather Polo, his grandmother, a cluster of aunts and various cousins, one of whom will shortly die. Barely has the novel gotten under way when all of its inhabitants try to tell us what's going on, often speaking at the same time, often contradicting each other. This is not an easy book.

But it is rich, various and sometimes spectacular, kept moving at a fevered pace by Andrew Hurley's lively translation. Arenas has created a surreal world where future, past and present are as simultaneous as life and death, and where characters, though always distinct, occasionally change places: "Sometimes I stop being Adolfina," says the most memorable of the aunts, "and turn into Fortunato." God shuffles onstage, is chastised ("This old goat doesn't know which way is up") and shuffles off again, cursed behind His back as "the Great Flim-Flam Man, the Bad Guy, the Jerk whose fault all of this was," and a "son of the biggest bitch that ever lived."

What did He do wrong? Apparently, He gave life and, in a world obsessed with death, that was enough. Death offers escape from earthly torment, and the figure playing with the bicycle wheel turns out to be the central character. It finally claims Fortunato -- who then becomes his late cousin's spectral playmate ("Early in the morning we go out . . . to pick stars") -- and tries to get Polo, who simply retreats into his ramshackle shop and refuses to be got.

Most others in the novel, however, attempt no such escape; nothing becomes their lives so much as the possibility of getting out of it. Trapped in misery and squalor, their only hope is blissful extinction. As the wise but peculiar Adolfina puts it, "all of a sudden I realized that the world was coming to an end -- and about time, I say."

The world they want to end is that of pre-revolutionary Cuba, but their objections are not political. Although Fortunato attempts to join the rebels, he does so simply to get out of the house. He succeeds, but only by getting killed in the attempt, which, given the terms of the book, is probably a more satisfactory exit anyway.

Arenas divides The Palace of the White Skunks into a "Prologue and Epilogue" (which opens the book), six major sections, called "agonies" and a brief dramatic coda in which the characters speak more or less directly to us with tantalizing hints about what's been going on. Interspersed within this structure are bits of allegory, news reports, press releases, advertisements and ruminations on a fly, whose segmented vision seems just right for this segmented novel. IF ALL this sounds a bit more complicated than it need be, that's probably true, but the author has set himself a complicated task. He is giving us a language opera, full of arias, choruses, recitatives and cadenzas; were there any mythological heros, it all might seem Wagnerian.

The novel is the second in a five-volume, semi-autobiographical sequence tracing the writer's own artistic and personal development. The first ("Singing from the Well") and third ("Farewell to the Sea") have been published here while the final two were completed before the author's death but not yet translated. Arenas further claimed that the series recounts the history of Cuba, although, except in the most abstract terms, that's hard to see. What he did accomplish should be enough.

The main character, who dies and is reborn several times in the course of the saga and changes names from book to book as he ages, is truly memorable. We are made to feel his isolation, the agonies of an outsider in a world made for insiders, a loner in a world of multitudes.

Filled with insight, black humor and a certain unexpected grace, those volumes secure Arenas' place in the front rank of contemporary novelists. It is tragic that this voice has been stilled while in full song.

James Polk writes frequently about Latin America.