WHEN the Spanish version of ``Strange Pilgrims'' appeared in the Southern Hemisphere, I was in Chile where taxi drivers, professors, lawyers, and students were reading this long-awaited collection of 12 short stories by Latin America's foremost man of letters, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Now available in a masterly English translation by Edith Grossman, ``Strange Pilgrims'' has an interesting history as revealed by Garcia Marquez in the prologue. First written almost 18 years ago, the stories were lost, searched for frantically, and finally recomposed. Unlike his three previous collections, ``No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories'' (1968), ``Innocent Erendira and Other Stories'' (1978), and ``Leaf Storm and Other Stories'' (1979), these pieces were written, he says, ``in a single stroke, with an internal unity of tone and style that would make them inseparable in the reader's memory.''
The collection allows one to take an eventful pilgrimage through the various European cities represented. Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome are seen through the eyes of Latin American exiles who arrived there in great masses during the military dictatorships of the 1970s.
``Strange Pilgrims'' tells of nostalgia as well as the search for familiar objects and identities that can recapture the essence of a lost homeland for expatriates.
Each story speaks with compassion about dispossessed exiles searching for a new place. The first, ``Bon Voyage, Mister President,'' is an ironic tale about an exiled president who finds solace from a poor Colombian ambulance driver. Garcia Marquez carefully evokes the president's feeling of displacement in Geneva - so different from the bright, sensuous Caribbean.
Other stories in this collection resemble newspaper chronicles where real literary figures appear, as in ``The Ghost of August,'' which includes a visit to the mysterious castle of the Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva in Arezzo, Italy.
Most of these stories are set in urban landscapes, unlike Garcia Marquez's other works, and the magical element identified with writings from Latin America is not as evident. The exception is ``I Sell Dreams'' - a complex narrative about a Viennese woman, Frida, the narrator met 35 years ago in Vienna in a tavern frequented by Latin American students.
Frida is a psychic whose premonitions come in the form of dreams. With great imagination, Garcia Marquez intertwines the presence of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and his wife, Matilde Urrhutia, making this story a mosaic of literary anecdotes about Neruda's life as well as the dreamer Frida. ``I Sell Dreams'' is perhaps the most ambiguous story in the collection because he experiments with elements of detective fiction, literary anecdotes, and magic realism.
In ``Srange Pilgrims,'' Garcia Marquez skillfully creates stories of great beauty, and compassion. He makes the reader feel a bit like an exile, but at home in a world of enchantment, beauty, and restless wondering.