It was curfew, and in the center of town the bell tower tingled out 11 o'clock over empty streets. A middle-aged Bolivian heard pounding on her front door and stiffened.

Her brother-in-law's house had been raided by men who said, "We're looking for books by Che Guevara," but they had never come to her. Already she had burned in the stove certain papers that might be considered subversive. The woman looked through the peephole. Two teen-aged girls were standing on the steps, out past curfew, frightened of soldiers and pleading to stay the night.

The woman who told this story last week is living in what Bolivians in the wake of the military coup four months ago have begun to call the half light of the semi-underground, of hidden books, exiled relatives, averted eyes on the street and conversations guarded carefully even with close friends.

"I avoid going to cafes, because in cafes people will denounce you," she said. "We don't even talk in our home. You don't know whether they've bought one of your maids."

The new president showed up at a football game a few weeks ago. His arrival was announced over the pocket radios that many people in the audience use, and Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, president of the Government of the National Reconstruction of the Armed Forces, was booed. Whistles and hoots showered down from the stands. Young men from the opposition passed leaflets outside; "The Government of National Destruction Is Preparing a New Economic Package Against the Bolivian People."

The young men were arrested. For some days nothing was heard from them. There were reports they were beaten.

On a special evening program, the young men appeared on national television. The moderator explained that Bolivia was stable and at peace, but that extremist groups still fomented trouble within the nation. A duplicating machine was displayed. The camera shifted to the young men. One of them said he was sorry. He said he would work for the nation in the future. He named a few high-ranking opposition leaders, whom he said had misled him. Another of the young men also apologized. They were taken back to prison.

Lidia Guelier, the congressionally selected interim president whom Garcia Meza forced from office, is in exile in Europe. Hernan Siles Zuazo, the winner of the general presidential election in May, is in exile in Peru. Marcel Quiroga, the head of the Bolivian Socialist Party, is dead, murdered on the street the day of the coup.

Officially there are no more political prisoners; opposition and diplomatic reports say people are still being held in at least five detention camps -- prison facilities or towns so inaccessible that leaving is practically impossible. In La Paz, according to opposition Bolivians, up to 500 people are still hiding in private homes.

There are still regular reports of night work by security forces that no official will publicly acknowledge -- of interrogators who address each other as "Wolf" or "Lynx," of a woman who complained of terrible pain after her torture and was found to have been electrically burned inside her vagina.

One woman told a diplomat that the intruders had taken her copy of Eric Fromm's psychology work, "The Art of Loving."

"There were currents in the country," said Fernando Palacios, the goateed minister of information for the new government, which brought it to a total, almost absolute state of lack of control. This is something which is not widely understood in liberal circles, especially in countries like the United States. When the democratic route is taken by countries that definitely, doctrinally, do not believe in democracy, you are simply giving a tactical step, through the democratic route, to the establishment of a totalitarian government."

Tours still unload on the narrow La Paz sidewalks. West Germans and French make their way around the quick shuffling glide of wide-skirted Indian women in bowler hats and brilliant shawls. The mountain peak looms beyond the city. In the music clubs, they serve beer and play the deep, breathy flute music of the Andes.

The announcers close the bars at 10 p.m. so the tourists will not get shot for walking past curfew. There are no reliable statistics on the number of people the soldiers have killed, but the lowest commonly heard figure is five. Late at night there is gunfire, but no human voice. When the gunfire stops there is only the rumble of troop carriers, an occasional barking dog and the slow click of soldiers boots on the cobblestones.

"It's turned into a nightmare," said a professional man.

"In the neighborhoods where we live, there are soldiers to terrorize the people," said a peasant leader who has fled his own village. The woman who heard pounding on her front door at curfew said, "We've known some of them (the Army men now in power) since childhood. Each generation has its own monsters, no? The real monstrosity is how so few people can run the country."

The universities are closed, for "structural corrective measures." Young soldiers, their rifles cradled in khaki sleeves, stand guard before the tall ocher main building.

Students still in La Paz say many of their friends have fled, seeking refuge and classes in countries to the north. The ones left behind are working, or trying to find work, or meeting in clandestine groups to talk about books and documents printed on secret mimeograph machines and passed hand-to-hand among people who trust each other.

A dozen radio stations have been shut down, some by men who are reported to have smashed the equipment when they entered.Palacios explained that the stations were in violation of the national radio code.

Many reporters have spent time in jail or left the country. No one prints information perceived as even moderately critical. A government office sends written admonitions to newspaper editors: "Surely it has not escaped your notice that our media conduct themselves strangely in spreading information contrary to the common good."

The office has a title and an official seal. It is called Psychological Operations. A copy of one of its circulars was made available to this reporter. Palacios said there is no such office. He also said there is no censorship.

"The first day, the government guaranteed liberty of the press," he said.

The Revolutionary Leftist Movement, one of the political coalitions currently banned, celebrated its ninth anniversary in September by taking out a newspaper advertisement with a smiling 9-year-old girl.

"Mirtha Iriarte Rodriguez," read the ad, using the first initials of the movement's Spanish name, "salutes her friends and companions and promises to go on growing to serve her family and her country."

Two weeks later, the same photograph appeared in another newspaper ad. "Mirtha Iriarte Rodriquez," read the ad. "Since the 17th of July, MISSING. She was 9 years old. She wore a double-faced jacket, red on the outside and black on the inside. Her conditions of survival were precarious, owing to her general debilitation and her intellectual deficiency. Please give information as to her whereabouts to whoever can proceed in the proper manner with the sanctions prescribed by law."

The labor confederation building, an old colonial that was heavy with symbolism, is being demolished. The work goes slowly and without much noise, and the piles of broken brick are a little higher every day. The building was nationalized from one of the wealthy "tin barons" during the 1952 revolution, and its downstairs cafe had been named in honor of miners' leader Juan Lechin, who until the coup was one of the most powerful labor leaders in South America.