Speaking Desperanto : TURBULENCE: By Chico Buarque Translated from the Portuguese : by Peter Bush (Pantheon: $19; 164 pp.)

Howard is a book editor in New York City

Those of us who are overread and undertraveled console ourselves against our stationary condition with the notion that the books we read offer privileged vistas into the inner lives of countries and cultures we may never visit. "Turbulence," an intense, mordant and unnerving first novel by the popular Brazilian folk singer Chico Buarque, significantly rearranged this literary tourist's mental map of the Latin American soul, surely in the direction of accuracy. For instead of the lush, fantastic mindscapes of magic realism, strewn with miracles and paradoxes and fevered sensuality, "Turbulence" offers a bracing corrective: a vision of the spiritual death-in-life that awaits the citizens of every postindustrial society, north or south, and of the ongoing, low-grade apocalypse that is the social terrain of the postmodern city. It is not a nice place to visit, and there's a good chance you are already living there.

In literary terms, we've been here before many times: the country of alienation and affectlessness, the unreal city. Our unnamed narrator is a scion of the upper class, a dropout and luftmensch who subsists on handouts from his rich sister. He is set in motion by an early morning visit from a man he takes to be a private investigator--"Through the spy hole in reverse, he sees me as a concave man," the narrator observes, correctly intuiting his own hollowness.

What follows is a dreamlike and increasingly incongruous and violent walkabout in which the narrator functions as a human fault line between the two Brazils: the affluent class, decadent and edgy and ready to purchase all the "security" it can no longer feel; and the desperate denizens of the slums and the outlying shantytowns. Crime has become the sole language of communication between these two worlds.

Impelled by little except coincidence and whim, he yo-yos between brittle parties at his sister's extravagant condominium, the luxury boutique of his estranged wife and the suburban farm of his childhood, now swarming with a frightening horde of migrant workers and menacing young thugs. The effect is rather like a split-screen showing of classic-period Antonioni ("L'Avventura," "The Red Desert," "Blow-up") on one side and Hector Babenco's "Pixote" on the other.

Like so many of the dissociated antiheroes of modern literature--Peter Handke's, for example, or Walker Percy's--Chico Buarque's narrator proves a precise and original observer of the world he sleepwalks through, even as his slip-sliding sense of time and memory becomes more acute. We glimpse just enough emotional wreckage left in his passive wake to lend him some novelistic ballast: a rueful abortion his wife has performed in revenge for his indifference to her pregnancy, and a lapsed friendship with a brilliant, eccentric polymath who has encouraged his (unspecified) artistic pursuits.

His detachment, moreover, yields an oddly fresh angle of vision and many poetic coinages. His sister places a check by his plate "as if dealing a good card." Juxtaposed with a high-tech condo, a garden looks as if it "is studying architecture." An aging apartment is captured in the phrase "a dingy and honest building that has come to an agreement with time." Such gems of description and an appealing overall tone of laconic bemusement--both much to the credit of the translator, Peter Bush--keep "Turbulence" well away from the vicinity of existentialist cliche and nihilism-by-numbers.

But the death of God is in the details, and these startle by their dismaying familiarity. A boy with a shaven head is lost in the digital violence of a video game while his younger sister disappears into the space of her Walkman. One pack of threatening adolescents on red motorbikes surrounds a house; another pack, of television journalists, swarms about the scene of a murder like a plague of locusts. Everywhere can be seen the totems of surveillance and security: the checkpoint, the television monitor, the walky-talky, the semiautomatic. The technological intrusion and illusion with which the citizens of our era seek safety and entertainment (while virtually guaranteeing isolation and anomie) is now planetary. So much for magic realism.

"Turbulence" does have a plot, albeit one assembled serendipitously. As the peripatetic narrator says, "A man without commitments carrying a suitcase is wedded to the fate of his suitcase." With a flip nonchalance, he absconds with a cache of valuable jewelry from his sister's closet. He exchanges it for a suitcase full of marijuana with the thugs squatting on his family's farm. His attempts to dispose of the suitcase eventuate in some Buster Keaton-esque misadventures, while his exchange of the jewelry leads in some direct (if murkily connected) way to the rape of his sister and the terrorizing of his brother-in-law in the kind of vicious, thank-God-that-wasn't-us incident that dots the evening news. This climaxes in the book's only misstep, a violent denouement, complete with a trendily dressed chief of police with a ponytail, that has too much of the arty ellipticity and synthetic "atmosphere" of a "Miami Vice" episode for aesthetic comfort.

This does not diminish "Turbulence's" disturbing effect on the reader or negate its sober social and spiritual implications. Early in the book, the narrator says that his friend had, among his many projects, "invented . . . a language called Desperanto"--a brilliant and telling pun. Esperanto, of course, was a wholly invented language of the early 20th Century, meant to serve as the lingua franca of a unified planet at peace. "Turbulence" testifies unmistakably to a world growing even more unified, all right, but in its worst rather than best aspects.

As the landscape of our civilization darkens, Desperanto may well become our international literary tongue.

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