"Schemes in the Month of March" is a brilliant comic novel about exile, the writer as outcast, the Puerto Rican as pariah, and the different languages of banishment he speaks.

It tells the story of Puerto Rican writer Eddy Leiseca, who has fled Puerto Rico for Spain, deserting the new empire for the old one and discovering that he belongs to neither. Unable to write or work, convinced he is dying of consumption and supported by his long-suffering wife, Eddy lies as inert and impotent as his island, words swirling, imploding within his head in some of the most splendid passages in the book. On the outside, however, Eddy is reduced to making noises, speaking a twaddle as formless and meaningless as that babble of dependency the book parodies, the Spanglish that is the result of 80 years of American influence on Puerto Rico.

"Schemes, which was originally published in Barolona in 1972, is told in the collage style now popular with other Latin American writers such as Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Goldemberg. Diaz Valcarcel shows how the business of living gets done by the fragmentation of experience, losing track of everything that goes by, never finishing anything, jumping from bank statement to horoscope to telephone directory to newspaper to menu to inane dialogue. Unlike living, the business of writing gets done not by fragmenting but by freezing experience, stopping the frame, collapsing space and time into the distillation of gesture, the instant. In Eddy's disintegrating mind, however, the distillation is incommunicable and the writer's precision seeks not words but a "meticulous labyrinth of terrifying premonitions."

Historians have written about the proverbial "docility" of the Puerto Rican, the "passivity" of his history, which has no equivalent for the bloody wars waged in the 19th century by Haitians and Cubans against the French and the Spanish. What enrages Eddy in the letters he receives from home, especially those from "Nebraska Heights" (his development is Puerto Rico), are precisely the sentimental resignation and good-natured indifference of the Puerto Rican to what has happened to his island, his people and his language. Indeed, when the Puerto Rican has taken up arms it has been to fight those with whom he had no quarrel. The experience of Puerto Ricans who were drafted in the Korean War (among them Diaz Valcarcel himself, who has written some remarkable stories on the subject) is the target of the book's most horrific satire, in which a Puerto Rican butcher becomes a war hero under the guidance of an American army chaplain -- the Satanic Father Bob who wields a flame-thrower for Christ and country.

Diaz Valcarcel, who has dedicated his novel to the Puerto Rican revolutionaries, has made some comments on that endless (and largely futile) debate among Latin American writers about the "utility of literature as a revolutionary weapon." He has noted that, although he regards art as a weapon "true art has always addressed itself to human freedom and I know of no great work of art which goes against dignity, liberty, and justice." Thus, fiction ought not to promote slogans but to "present a revolutionary vision of the world."

(Yet I wonder at the fundamental inconsistency of the Latin American novels of social protest written by authors who live in pairs, Madrid or Barcelona, and which are filled with delectably cryptic literary allusions and cultural references clearly intended for the most sophisticated of the bourgeoisie -- why such morsels for the arch-enemy?)

The only unfortunate thing about this book is the erratic and Latinate translation, which so approximates the Spanish it seldom recreates in English the wit of the original (which was accomplished, for example, in the superb translation of Gabrera Infante's "Three Trapped Tigers," an equally difficult novel with a variety of voices, plays on words, slang and much intermingling of Spanish and English). To pick one small example, why not give us the English cliche "stony silence" for the Spanish cliche "silencio sepulcral" instead of the literal "sepulchral silence," with its weirdly gothic ring, which is entirely out of character in the letter where it appears? Because of this sort of thing several witty and amusing passages in Spanish appear quaint and belabored in English.

Nevertheless, the force of Eddy's predicament transcends these drawbacks. We follow the story of his disintegration under an alien, decorous European March sky. There, lightning is mute and easily snuffed. The novel ends with Eddy's final breakdown as he hides in a closet resisting the docile Puerto Rican wife, remembering the angry Puerto Rican writer who stayed behind to write. This friend never wrote Eddy during his exile except for one short sentence: "Come into the ring and face the bull."