BOOK REVIEW / Signs of life at the end of a dirty war: Hand in hand alongside the tracks tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni & Susan Ashe Constable pounds 9.99

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HOW INFORMED a view can one have of another country through its recent fiction? More specifically, what can a reader glean of the state of Argentina through reading a collection such as this? What, if anything, might define an Argentine story?

Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the translator and friend of Jorge Luis Borges, has selected 18 stories that may provide answers of a sort. Twelve are written by men, six by women; nine writers make their first appearance in English, while five of the stories have not yet been published even in Spanish; 14 are set in Argentina, two in Europe and two in unspecified locations; the longest story is 12 pages, the shortest three.

So much for statistics. The stories themselves concern war, love, death, sexual attraction and deception. Some of them refer to la guerra sucia (the Dirty War), that period under the military juntas when thousands of young people simply 'disappeared'. The late Huberto Constantini gives a terrifying, hallucinatory account of an unnamed man returning to Buenos Aires at night during the repression; Hector Tizon provides a finely observed and subtly underplayed story about a retired customs official and his wife waiting uncomprehendingly for news of their vanished son.

In the title story, by Sylvia Iparraguirre, a middle-aged woman bids her older husband goodbye at the station, and then engages a young soldier in conversation on the train. Sympathetically and wittily, the tale contrasts the innocence of the working-class soldier with the sophisticated attitudes and easy manner of the woman, while suggesting an unlikely mutual attraction. More surprising still is Juan Forn's 'Video and Chinese Takeaway', written from the point of view of a youthful grandmother; her overheated imagination, and a not quite selfless interest in the emotional affairs of her own daughter, lead into unfounded fantasies.

Best of all, however, is 'Sexton' by Juan Jose Hernandez. Recounted in the first person, in a confessional tone, this tells of a pocket fascist of self-declared influence who has achieved power the hard way ('Nature has the unfortunate habit of favouring the mediocre and humiliating the exceptional'). Sexton addresses his brother Francisco's former wife, who is pleading unsuccessfully for the life of her husband.

Relying on charm and good looks, but little intelligence, Francisco has eased his prurient way through youth, mixing - in the view of the morally upright Sexton - with undesirable sorts ('. . . are not sensual chaos and social turmoil at root one and the same?'). In his refusal to intercede for his brother, Sexton admits a frustrated desire for the discarded wife ('It may surprise you to find out that in my delicate breast dwells an imperious eagle'). Here is a story close to perfection: concise, stylish and consummately crafted. Like the best of the tales printed here, it offers evidence that Argentina, perhaps through the traumas it has suffered in recent years, is now producing some of today's most worthwhile fiction.