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    Foreign correspondence

    By PHILIP HERTER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000


    IN THE COLD OF THE MALECON and Other Stories,by Antonio Jose Ponte, translated by Cola Franzen and Dick Cluster (City Lights Books, $10.95)

    In the Cold of the Malecon is a debut collection of minimalist stories written with an artist's delicate touch. Antonio Jose Ponte writes without blistering social commentary or socialist realism. Each of these emotionally controlled narratives shows a single, polished facet of life in a country whose glory is behind it. The title story concerns a mother, father and son who reminisce about old times and times that are getting old. In Coming, a boy returns from his studies in Russia bewildered about the girl he left behind. In A Throw of a Book of Changes, two brothers staying at a beach house play a game rearranging the furniture every evening. They discover that everything is a large room where change consists only of rotation. Ponte has an austere style and masterful control that belie his age and his Cuban literary roots. These melancholy stories are humane and spare, aglow with subtle smarts. In the Cold of the Malecon marks an impressive debut collection from a young writer to watch.

    ON THE CEILING,by Eric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska, $15)

    I confess a weakness for the silly novel. This genre is not particular to the French, but French writers from Voltaire to the Dadaists have excelled at it. From that tradition comes On the Ceiling, Eric Chevillard's wacky social novel about a man who spends his life wearing a chair on his head. Chevillard, author of eight previous novels, has created a protagonist who suffers the indignities of his world only because he hopes to change it. He is silly the way Candide is silly -- and just as enlightening. This is nutty-professor existentialism. For sheer playfulness and brains-to-the-wall humor, Chevillard should be commended. Read On the Ceiling and fall on the floor, laughing.

    - Philip Herter is a writer who lives in New York.

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