THE LAUGHING CRY

By Henri Lopes

Translated from the French by Gerald Moore

Readers International. 259 pp. $16.95;

paperback, $8.95

If I wanted to be a publisher, it's Readers International I'd want to be. This British-based company specializes in the contemporary literature of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa -- from which its very best offerings are drawn -- as well as the literatures of Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Censored writings and the literature of exile, a specialty of our sad new world, figure prominently in its list.

Recent titles include "The Land" by Anto~nio Torres of Brazil and "Cathedral of the August Heat" by Pierre Clitandre of Haiti. With each new offering, Readers International's list becomes more impressive, and the just-published novel, "The Laughing Cry" by Henri Lopes, may finally bring the house the kind of attention it deserves.

Lopes, who currently works for UNESCO, was born in Kinshasa, Zaire, educated there and in Paris, and has served as minister of education, minister of finance and prime minister of the Congo-Brazzaville government. He is, in a sense, a prime example of one kind of modern African: educated, professional, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, but still African. He sees the life and the complex ways of West Africa realistically and honestly from a European point of view. But he still sees them through African eyes. Somewhere in the middle, in that conflict of views, is the truth about Africa, and Lopes has captured it in "The Laughing Cry."

To call "The Laughing Cry" a satirical novel about African politics and the nature of African dictatorships would tell only part of the book, but satirical it certainly is. Lopes' fictional country is run by Hannibal Ideloy Bwakamabe Na Sakkade, Marshal, Chief of State, President, Supreme Strategist, Creator of the New Regime of Popular Liberties, son of Ngakoro, son of Foulema, son of Kirewa, known to his people -- by his own decree -- as "Daddy." After all, doesn't he love his people as he loves his own children (of whom he has long since lost count)?

Daddy is a monster, a burlesque creature of tyranny, ignorance, greed and colossal paranoia. He drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, flies tailors in from Paris, dismisses cabinet officials for imagined offenses, makes one hapless official literally eat the grass from an airfield that wasn't trimmed to his satisfaction, is obsessed with achieving perfect pronunciation of his French vowels and carries the entire state treasury with him whenever he leaves the country, lest some opportunist do unto him what he had done unto his predecessor. Daddy is a brilliant portrait, especially in the magnitude of his personal contradictions.

Lopes has wisely chosen as his narrator a fairly nondescript man, a former mai~tre d'ho~tel selected by Daddy as his personal valet. So we have as guide to this difficult world a fairly straightforward fellow ("I haven't understood a thing about our politics since independence") who moves in Daddy's wide orbit yet is a man of the people. The result is a detailed and living painting of the context in which Daddy rules and a nation of decent people manages, somehow, to survive. We see, for example, the newspaper that prints government opinions, but we also hear the views of the underground radio broadcasts. We see the ministers of state who willingly pass their heads beneath Daddy's foot in tribute to his power, but we also see the army captain who almost succeeds in patricide.

An African man once told me about a politician seeking office who went to his mother's hut and gave her a box of Uncle Ben's rice. "And of course she voted for him," the man said. "What does my mother know? She is a poor woman in a village." If that woman lived in Daddy's country, she'd know, I suspect, the exact value of a box of rice. And she'd know, too, with the same exactitude, the worth of a Daddy.

Lopes' novel, in a very fine, colloquial translation by Gerald Moore, catches the confusion of modern West Africa and the conflicting needs of a people with a great sense of community and a natural reverence for a strong leader, a people who, at the same time, see the near possibility of personal freedom. In its conversational African style, Lopes' book is satirical, tender, bawdy, savage, and filled with love and hope.

So should we laugh or cry?

We should, as Lopes suggests, do both. The reviewer is a journalist and novelist with a special interest in African literature and music