PETER ROBB is a tough customer. In a bar in north-eastern Brazil, he recognises a suspected leader of organised crime - someone linked to the murder of an opponent by cutting off his arms and legs with a chainsaw, and hammering nails into his head. The man is a Brazilian federal congressman and has control of his murdered brother's billion-dollar fortune. He is also the prime suspect in arranging the fatal shooting of his brother.
Loaded with nothing more than several shots of cheap whisky, Robb suggests they get together for a chat about this death, and various other intercontinental criminal activities. When Robb is confronted by a dozen nervous military policemen with their weapons trained on him, he asks them casually how they feel about not being paid for months because their local authority is falling apart.
But then Brazil is a tough place. Robb doesn't pull his punches in this knotty, muscular, frequently brilliant memoir of 20 years of Brazilian life. He begins the book with a maniac holding a knife to Robb's throat, while the mugger tells him his life story.
Robb's engagement with Brazil is very much a love-hate affair. On the surface of its social life, from the personal to the political, there is an avoidance of confrontation: "an endless elasticity of evasion and spurious amiability". Behind the carnival flamboyance, however, the killing rate falls within the UN definition of a low- intensity civil war.
Brazilian society has never developed the sense of the common good. …