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Through a Lens, With Ambiguity : THE ADVENTURES OF A PHOTOGRAPHER IN LA PLATA by Adolfo Bioy Casares translated by Suzanne Jill Levine (E. P. Dutton: $17.95; 167 pp; 0-525-24803-X)

December 31, 1989|Alejandro Morales | Morales' most recent novel is "The Brick People" (Arte Publico Press)

Few Latin American writers are as gifted as 75-year-old Argentinean Adolfo Bioy Casares. His translated novels include "The Invention of Morel," a metaliterary science-fiction story; "Diary of the War of the Pig," a fantasy on the war between young and old; "Asleep in the Sun," a metaphysical text on existence, and his renowned metaphysical mystery "The Dream of Heroes."

Although his work has been praised by writers ranging from the Cuban poet Jose Lezama Lima to French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Casares has not garnered the critical attention he deserves. Critics have declared that Casares' friendship and collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges has tended to eclipse his own productivity and creative power. Others have cited the obscure nature of his novels, which portray an apparently transparent and mundane world where characters lack any direction or purpose, psychological, social or historical commitment. But these commonplace life situations are mined with narrative traps for the reader, traps that represent the great art of Casares.

"The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata," Casares' latest novel, entices the reader through deceptive narrative simplicity. The novel chronicles the one week "adventure" of Nicolas Almanza, a young small-town photography, after he gets his first professional assignment: to photograph stills of the provinicial capital of La Plata.

"Around five in the morning, after a bus trip as long as the night, Nicolasito Almanza arrived in La Plata." Casares transforms this ordinary happening into an extraordinary event. Almanza, carrying bags of camera equipment, barely walks a block when a group of people wave to him. "A family, he thought, consisting of an older gentleman, two young women, an infant, and a little girl. The old man was tall, erect, poised, respectable-looking with white hair and mustache, a rosy complexion and blue eyes that looked at him benevolently, almost with a touch of mischief. The young women were attractive, one a tall blonde with the infant in her arms, and the other, dark-haired; the little girl was three or four years old."

From this introduction, the story moves slowly into the bizarre, gothic and humorous. Out of the blue, an elderly ne'er-do-well, Juan Lombardo, and his two daughters (Griselda, mother of the two children, and Julia) invite him to breakfast. Almanza accepts, and in so doing is made a member of the family. Don Juan shares with Almanza information to which only family members or intimate friends are privy.

Shortly after their arrival at the Lombardos' boarding house, Don Juan falls ill and requires a blood transfusion. Almanza is the volunteer: "He had never donated blood, but he knew people who had, without suffering the slightest aftereffects, so that the transfusion didn't bother him except for the strange, disagreeable odor in the room, and the fact that the old man's face--dark brown rings under the eyes--was as livid as a corpse. The old man managed to smile and remark: 'I knew that Almanza wouldn't fail us.' " Who is this puzzling family? Casares presents enough clues to entice the reader into investigating the mystery.

Almanza also becomes involved in an relationship with the crafty and slippery Juan Lombardo that allows him to fall into the beds of Griselda and Julia. One of the more comically peculiar and devilish episodes is his dalliance with Griselda. After knowing Almanza for only a few days, Griselda asks him to baby-sit for a few hours until the family returns from the show. Griselda returns alone and asks: " 'Don't you want me to give you your reward?' 'When?' 'Now.' As he was being tightly embraced, he managed to wave one arm in the direction of the children, without interrupting their gentle but dizzying fall together. Now that they were on the bed an explanation, barely whispered, was encouraging: 'They sleep so soundly, so soundly.' These words touched him like a caress."

In Almanza's view, Don Juan, Griselda, Julia and the children are a caring, wonderful family. Yet he is constantly warned to be careful, for he is a stranger in the city and unaware of the evil that resides there. "Whoever is not a good person," says Mr. Gruter, a fellow photographer, "is a devil who seduces in order to get something." Almanza's friend Lucio Mascardi also warns him to be wary of the family: "The bad part is that these supposed friends form a family. A family of spiders, and Almanza is already in the web."

Another mystery is the whereabouts of Ventura, Don Juan's missing son. Don Juan explains to Almanza that he has substituted him for his missing son Ventura. Don Juan further explains that he had taken out an expensive life insurance policy on Ventura, who left for fear his father would murder him for the money. Casares controls these suspicions and insinuations, builds a trap for characters and reader, and leads them to a suppressing revelation.

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