STRANGE PILGRIMS, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Jonathan Cape, $155). SHORT stories can be a terrible tease; their cardboard characters, their oh-so-clever plots and their glib, throwaway endings often combine to frustrate the readers they are aimed at. It takes a gargantuan effort from a fine writer to produce substance and depth from the claustrophobic confines of the genre. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, champion of magic realism and Nobel Prize-winner for literature, is a master, perhaps the master, of the art. The 12 stories in Strange Pilgrims are not new. Most were incomplete, lost or abandoned, but all have been reinvented and renovated. In Bon Voyage, Mr President, a young ambulance driver preys on a moribund patient by arranging his funeral for a fat commission. The roles of predator and victim seem clearly cast. Homero, the villain, recognises his potential victim as his deposed and exiled president. Posing as a political aide, Homero sets out to court the former president with his wife's elaborate dinners. The first dinner is a disaster. Two of the taboos of entertaining - politics and religion - are broken in hackle-raising arguments. A third taboo - sex - is too obviously in the air to warrant discussion, but the tension enrages Homero's wife, who is tornbetween fury and desire at the force of the old man's unexpected sexuality. The aura of genteel poverty and melancholy that surrounded the broken-spirited former president is gone, and in his place sits a corrupt, rakish despot scheming once again to seduce and exploit. Bon Voyage, Mr President is not a moral tale; Marquez is in the business of telling it how it is, not how it should be. The force of the story's irony lies beyond the opportunistic couple - after all, they are only victims of their delusions - and is revealed with a deft touch in a memorable final twist. Few writers could expect to keep the reader with them throughout a seemingly eventless tale about a girl who plays no active part - she sleeps in an aeroplane seat while the narrator, sitting beside her, tells the story. It hardly sounds promising, but Beauty and the Aeroplane is absorbing to the end. The girl is breathtakingly beautiful; a vision of platonic perfection. She has 'eyes like green almonds' and 'skin the colour of bread', similes that stress the contrasts of her exotic sophistication. Out of the corner of his eye, the narrator scrutinises her every elegant action until she sleeps, and he can watch her openly. The more he contemplates and describes her, the less he knows about her, while the reader learns more about the narrator throughthe fantasy he weaves. The story blows the trumpet for Marquez's works of magical realism by demonstrating the inadequacy of the tools of traditional realism, which in its anxiety to find an objective truth merely succeeds in creating the one dimensional. In I Only Come to Use the Phone, a woman who takes shelter from a storm in a stationary bus, waiting until she can telephone her husband, awakes to find herself in a lunatic asylum, among women moving 'as if they were on the bottom of an aquarium' Farcical misunderstanding gives way to nightmare surrealism (shades of Kafka's The Trial) as the woman, Maria, finds herself locked up for a crime she did not commit. Times passes, and doses of sedatives send Maria into the realm of the permanent aquarium, where she finds release from her worldly cares. Maria's psychiatrist sees nothing to distinguish her from the other inmates; madness, for Marquez, is symbolic of the spiritual nausea and emptiness at the root of the human condition. In Miss Forbes' Summer of Happiness, all the ingredients are there for an tender evocation of a 1930s childhood. Miss Forbes is a repressed German governess who looks after two young boys on holiday in Sicily with military severity. By day she is merciless towards the boys; by night she indulges her neuroses with hysterical readings from German melodrama and the aid of her absent employer's drinks cabinet. The wheels of supernatural retribution are set in motion when the children are forced to eat the meat of a vast black eel, left hanging on their villa door as a present. 'It had people's eyes,'' says the small brother, with a child's acuity of vision.To the child, the terror the eel inspires gives meaning to the events it prefigures; the events themselves are of less significance. This is fantastical magic realism, with abstract elements in personal experience again working to highlight what Marquez sees as the inadequate objectivity of realism. Miss Forbes' Summer of Happiness is one of the strangest stories in this collection. The uncharacteristic symbolism of Freudian wish-fulfilment hovers over what Marquez calls in his prologue the 'dividing line between nostalgia and disillusionment'. The child - our narrator - wants to remember his childhood as a Proustian idyll, but he knows it was a time when he lost his illusions about life. There is great depth to Marquez, but he never forces the reader to discover it. What meets the eye - the essence of human emotion distilled and released through words on a page - is usually satisfying in itself. As long as you remember that reality is alldone with mirrors.