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Vargas Llosa novel of a rebel gone cold

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 310 pp. $16.95. In his best novel so far, ``The War of The End of the World'' (1984), Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa examined in great depth and with considerable empathy an abortive 19th-century socialist revolution that took place in the backlands of Brazil. In his new novel, the use of the nameless narrator distances us from the story of a communist revolutionary who has lost his fervor.

``The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta'' portrays the revolutionary temperament by researching the life of an ``obscure'' Trotskyist intellectual who had led a failed rebellion in the Andes Mountains in the late 1950s.

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The researcher-narrator begins with a Peru of the near future. The capital, Lima, is an ugly, decaying, garbage-filled city crawling with occupation forces. The air is filled with the thuds of beatings and the crackle of gunfire.

The writer turns away from the present toward the past for ``something inspired by his life. Not a biography, but a novel. A very free history of the period.'' What he comes up with -- Mayta's story -- is not reassuring.

Our unease increases as the narrator interviews Mayta's relatives, friends, and unaffiliated citizens who observed the failed coup in the outback city of Jauja. These interview scenes are complicated ones in which the narrator's present conversations intermingle with his fictional scenes, observed sometimes from his own viewpoint, sometimes from the one he attributes to the Mayta he is ``constructing.''

An incomplete and contradictory image of Mayta slowly emerges. A relative says that the young rebel undertook a hunger strike out of sympathy with Lima's starving poor. According to the woman to whom he was briefly married, Mayta was a homosexual -- and this possibility can't help determine our perception of his motivation. How much was he influenced to activism by his feeling that ``in this society . . . whatever seems abnormal seems a crime or a sickness''?

One former acquaintance discloses Mayta's ``complicity'' with the Army; another claims Mayta was exiled from the Revolutionary Workers' Party for attempting collusion with Stalinist rebels (the Trotskyists' enemies).

At stake is the romantic notion of revolutionary purity.

The broken-mirror effect, if that's what it is, is a technical accomplishment. The shifts from present interviews to fictionalized past, effected without transitions, demand the reader's alertness and concentration. They are energizing and manage some brilliant parallelisms. A single example: The narrator learns from a former Stalinist of Mayta's secret meeting with him; simultaneously, we observe the narrator's rendering of Mayta's intricate thought processes and, flashing forward, Mayta's interrogation by his furious Trotskyist comrades.

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Still, the novel staggers beneath its weight of ideological argument and speculation. It's as if there's nothing but politics in these lives. The only exception -- Mayta's supposed homosexuality -- has the effect of further trivializing his character.

The relevant comparison seems to be Dostoyevsky's ``The Possessed.'' But there the author took the time to interest us in the lives of even his most absurd and pathetic characters.

``The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta'' has much more interest for its author as an aesthetic and moral problem than it has for us.

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