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THE NARRATIVE ARTS : AFTER THE BOMBS By Arturo Arias translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz (Curbstone Press: $19.95; 221 pp.)

September 09, 1990|MICHAEL HARRIS

Quick. Why was Guatemala City bombed in 1954? I had to look it up too.

The CIA was involved. So was the United Fruit Co., whose land holdings were threatened by the civilian reformers who had overthrown Gen. Jorge Ubico in 1944. There also was the perennial nervousness about communism. A coup was engineered. The bombs fell, menacing little Maximo, the hero of Arturo Arias' novel, being wheeled through the streets in a baby carriage. Decades of military rule followed.

Yanquis are forgetful, but at least for us the information is readily available. Guatemalans remember but don't talk about it to Maximo, whose first memory is of a fall of explosives as natural as rain. His father, a government official, has disappeared. He and his mother huddle under a desk for what seems like years. Later, he and other children bury a dead bird with elaborate ceremony, ignoring the human corpses in the streets. He watches soldiers beat a "subversive" writer and burn his books.

How to make sense of it all? With the schools permanently closed, Maximo gets his education from his soccer pals, a whore, a philosopher, an old man who describes the Spanish conquest of the 1520s (when the modern oligarchy got its start), the 13-year-old daughter of a U.S. ambassador (who entertains him in the nude but won't let him touch her), and finally his mother, who breaks her long silence to tell him about 1944 and 1954. Maximo grasps "the power of the word" and vows to become a writer himself.

A fairly generic story. What makes it unusual is Arias' incantatory, repetitive style, fizzing with metaphor and grim jokes. In Latin America, where history so often consists of farce and nightmare, it's no wonder that authors resort to similar forms. Arias' literary method probably will sharpen the history that every Guatemalan reader knows, but will tend to obscure what little we Americans think we remember. Right: We'll have to look it up.

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