Argentine's haunting satire of military repression;
By Kristin Helmore Kristin Helmore reviews books by international publishers for the Monitor. EVENTS have overtaken this book in a way its author could hardly have predicted, or even hoped for. Humberto Costantini completed ''The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police'' in Mexico in 1979, after fleeing his native Argentina, with its repressive and violent military regime. Last October, in a departure from nearly 40 years of Peronist or military dictatorship, his countrymen actually elected a new president, described recently as ''an honest, warm, and democratic leader who relies on thoughtful advisers'' (The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1984, in an article by Elizabeth Fox and Stanley Meisler). But if we look back on the last eight years of random terror, with an estimated 30,000 Argentines who simply ''disappeared'' without a trace, this satirical allegory provides a haunting, intimate portrait of life in Buenos Aires in 1975. The ''Little Guys'' are a strait-laced and ardent group of poetry buffs, calling themselves Polimnians, who meet on Wednesday evenings to read their own verses aloud. The exalted moments of a certain Wednesday's meeting are lovingly, though somewhat stuffily, recorded by one Jose Maria Pulicicchio, whose specialty is the sonnet. Tenderness, small personal details, and wry humor pervade his account, contrasting it strongly with the two other interweaving narrative strands. For, unbeknownst to the Polimnians, a tough and trigger-happy right-wing death squad is bent upon engineering the poets' ''disappearance,'' by means of abduction, torture, and murder, on the very Wednesday evening in question. Thus we are also treated to an inside view of the ''Police,'' with their grandiose but tenuous hierarchy, their detailed files on each Polimnian's life history, and their Orwellian talent for turning the most innocent pursuits and connections into evidence of ''subversive delinquency.'' In his obvious despair at finding no sane explanation for the random violence that had prevailed so long in Argentina, Costantini ironically gives us the Greek gods, with their all too human rivalries and squabbles: as good, or as bad , an ''explanation'' as any. Athena, Aphrodite, and Hermes may be benign, and highly interested in preserving their mortal proteges, but Hades, in vengeance for the death of a fascist general, is bent on their destruction, and his schemes are not to be foiled. While the Olympians waft down impulses of love and delight in an attempt to sweeten the Polimnians' last hours, Hades is issuing orders of Denunciation and Prompt Execution to the death-squad thugs. The tension builds, and doom seems inevitable. Even if there is a reprieve, it can be only temporary, for Costantini sees the forces of evil as an easy match for the forces of good as represented by the Olympians. The book is absorbing, moving, and often sadly funny, but the Homeric accounts of the antics of the gods are a bit long-winded. Toby Talbot's adroit translation embodies the flowery Latin courtliness of the Little Guys and the offhand bureaucratic slang of the Police. It only falters when tackling the sweeping epic narrative relating the exploits of the gods, which was probably a bit tedious in the original, too. To Costantini, the supreme irony seems to lie in the fact that the Little Guys are so wrapped up in their esoteric and emotional cocoon as to be totally oblivious to the violent death they so narrowly escape. Nor have they any idea that their salvation is only temporary, and that Hades will contrive soon again to destroy them. Toward the end of the book, the spokesman for Polimnia writes, ''To summarize accounts, I can assert that in the wake of that memorable evening . . . happiness has entered our midst and there seems no reason for it ever to abandon us.'' It probably came as a surprise to Costantini that the vulnerable optimism of his Polimnians was borne out in the positive turn of political events in Argentina. Let us ardently hope that in the present reign of the Olympians there will not echo the mutability of the Polimnians' escape from disaster. Kristin Helmore reviews books by international publishers for the Monitor.
The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police, by Humberto Costantini, translated by Toby Talbot. New York: Harper & Row. 230 pp. $14.95.