THE CARDBOARD HOUSE, By Martin Adan, Translated by Katherine Silver, St. Paul, Minn: Graywolf Press. 103 pp., $17.95 THE Peruvian poet Martin Adan (1908-1975) was something of a legend in his own lifetime. He published his first - and only - novel, ``The Cardboard House'' (``La casa de cart'on''), in his 20th year and went on to produce some seven volumes of poetry. He was recognized as a major influence on his country's literature, twice winning his country's National Prize for poetry and serving as a member of the Peruvian Chapter of the Academy of the Spanish Language.
Although he made his mark on the literary scene early in his career, he soon retreated into an eccentric, isolated life, writing his poems on scraps of napkins in coffee houses and later committing himself voluntarily to a psychiatric hospital, where he remained until the year of his death.
``The Cardboard House'' was written between 1924 and 1927, when the author was in his late teens. Its publication in 1928 established Ad'an's reputation as an iconoclast and innovator. It has no story in the traditional sense, only a handful of shadowy characters, and might well be described as a collection of prose poems in which the narrator, a precocious schoolboy, describes his impressions of the Peruvian resort city Barranco, where Ad'an himself spent many of his summer vacations as a boy.
Ad'an had the misfortune to have lost every member of his immediate family - brother, father, mother, aunt, and uncle - by the time that he had grown up, and even before then, the family fortunes had been in decline. Yet, although it is possible to find traces of nostalgia in Ad'an's evocative descriptions of the city, there is also a great deal of irony, youthful audacity, and just plain showing off:
``Ample, hard, firm end-of-February sun. There is no shadow possible in this immutable, exact, artificial midday. Night will never arrive. It is two o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun is still halfway across the sky, stuck in a stubborn and foolish affinity with the earth.... The sultry air isochronously strikes the eardrums of the window glass - tense, pained membranes....''
...sad stars are an excellent motive for writing sonnets.... But I do not believe our lives have any relationship whatsoever with the stars. Oh, Catita! Life is not a river that flows: life is a puddle that stagnates....''
``I am not wholly convinced of my own humanity; I do not wish to be like others. I do not want to be happy with permission of the police.''
This Peruvian first novel of the late 1920s has obvious affinities with the Modernist experiments on the borderline between poetry and prose that were taking place in Europe and, if not in North America, then by North American writers leading the expatriate life in Europe. Indeed, Ad'an's schoolboy narrator slips in disdainful references to Joyce, Shaw, and Pirandello, which might be interpreted as a New World writer's uneasy display of hostility toward Old World writers whose influence has been too close for comfort.
Then again, there may be a touch of self-mockery in Ad'an's portrait of boyish indignation. Certainly, there is humor, charm, and originality in these pages, which include - among other delights - a bestiary in which roosters are compared to Englishmen (they ``constantly shiver from the cold, rise at dawn, and do not understand females. Soon they will smoke pipes, read magazines, play polo...'') and a brief description of the narrator's first love: ``my then-Russian soul rescued the ugliest girl from her solitude with a grave, social, somber love that was like the closing session of an international workers' congress.''
Published as the fourth book in a series dedicated to providing English translations of outstanding Latin American literature unavailable in the United States, ``The Cardboard House'' is instantly identifiable as a pioneering experiment in narration form. Hindsight, however, tends to rob this - and other - texts of that period of some of their freshness. Nonsequential novels no longer surprise us. Often, alas, they no longer even interest us. The shock of the new is quick to wear off.
BUT reading ``The Cardboard House,'' one is reminded that the desire to experiment with form is not always and not only a game. Here, as in other Modernist works that have stood the test of time, the writer's quest for formal innovation bears some relation to his desire to find ways of representing aspects of life previously left out of more conventional fiction.
In Ad'an's novel it's the sidelights, the stray thoughts, the sights and sounds of strolling through a city and the metaphors they suggest to the mind of the innovative young poet that strike us, not only with the shock of the new, but also with the shock of the real.