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Mutt and Jeff in Occupied Argentina : WINTER QUARTERS by Osvaldo Soriano translated by Nick Caistor (Readers International: $17.95; 192 pp.)

December 17, 1989|RICHARD EDER

Colonia Vela is a dull town on the Pampas of Buenos Aires Province. It consists of gray buildings of no distinction, a fatuous local bourgeoisie, a theater where the best people go to hear chamber music, an outdoor club where the rest of the people watch boxing or soccer, and a brothel on the edge of town.

Except for the brothel, it could be an Argentine version of Gopher Prairie. But it is a Gopher Prairie taken over by the equivalent of invaders from outer space. These have landed, killed some of the townspeople and turned most of the others, under their sleepy small-town normality, into robot-like servitors.

Such is the effect, in Osvaldo Soriano's witty and desolate tale, of the occupation of Colonia Vela by the Argentine armed forces. Soriano has written a parable of what the military dictatorship did to Argentina, though it reads less like a parable than a loony transformation of a Raymond Chandler action story.

Seemingly, only action is involved, but once the action plays itself out, a sense of universal corruption remains. Here, the corrupters are not millionaires and crooked politicians but a brutalized army with absolute powers.

One warm spring day, two outsiders get off the train from the capital. Each in his own way is an entertainer, brought in to star in a civic festival organized to celebrate the town's contentment under the tutelage of the Fifth Air Cavalry regiment. As with any military-sponsored spiritual manifestation, contentment is obligatory. We used to have good times, reflects Mingo, the town bum and dissident, "when nobody came along to tell you when you had to be happy."

The two arrivals--they are almost shot at the station until it is explained that they have been sent for--are a classic odd couple. Galvan, an unemployed pop singer, is nervy and cynical. Rocha, a fading boxer trying to make a comeback, is a 6-foot-9 hulk, impetuous and dumb. Together, they bumble their way through the nightmarish town like Mutt and Jeff in Hell.

Told in Galvan's irascible voice, their ordeal begins with a kind of undermined welcome. At the town restaurant--it is grubby and fancy at the same time; a sickly refinement attends the consumption of huge portions of meat--they are greeted effusively by Aguila, businessman and local big shot.

He takes them to his house, filled with crucifixes and silver-framed photographs. He offers them wine, or rather, because he aspires to cultivation, "Burgundy." "Anything, so long as it's red," says Rocha, the simple dolt. "Burgundy is always red," says Aguila, the pretentious dolt.

Aguila explains their roles at the festival, which he has ostensibly organized, though the real organizer turns out to be the Fifth Cavalry's cultural officer, Capt. Suarez. Galvan will sing before a select audience of town notables and officers. Rocha will be the popular attraction; he will fight the regiment's champion, Lt. Sepulveda.

Aguila has the flowery jitters. It would be best if the two visitors mostly stayed indoors. If interviewed, they must be sure to commend the army. He will come by the next day to take them to Mass.

Rocha is willing. He has caught sight of Aguila's repressed daughter, Martha, and fallen instantly in love. Galvan is not; instead of Mass, he goes to a cafe, meets Mingo, and hears about the old days before the army arrived to quell the opposition. It burned down half the town in the process, and 22 young people died.

Since then, things have been peaceful, though everyone has a friend or a relative who was killed or disappeared. The townspeople talk about it sadly but calmly, like an epidemic. The young people who survived have left town. Mingo looks wistfully at a book Galvan has brought along. "My father used to read a lot," he says. Argentina is despoiled and etherized.

As far as power goes, brutality is almost no longer necessary. But an army exists for display; what use is power if you don't flaunt it? It was not enough to kill the Jesuits in El Salvador; according to some reports, it was necessary to mutilate them afterwards. And as the book goes on, the army's hold on Colonia Vela becomes increasingly overt.

Two soldiers in mufti--Fatso and Gary Cooper are Galvan's names for them--drift around in one of the notorious unmarked Ford Falcons used by the Argentine death squads. They beat up Rocha and Galvan when the latter refuses to give them an autograph; they smash Rocha's right hand. He will be leading with his left, in any case, they point out helpfully. And Capt. Suarez calls in Galvan, says he is on a political black list, and suggests he get out of town immediately.

Galvan stays, and the action speeds up. There is an engaging slapstick scene in which Rocha is discovered in bed with the virginal Martha. There is pestilent comedy when Rocha and Galvan attend a Vivaldi concert played by the Fifth Air Calvary Regiment Chamber Orchestra.

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