Strange company

<strong>Teeth Under the Sun</strong>

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão <em>Dalkey Archive Press, 368pp, £

This extraordinary Brazilian novel consists of the ramblings of a mad clerk, a frustrated and delusional bookkeeper in a hardware store. Like Dostoevsky's anti-hero in Notes From Underground, he's disappointed, even bitter, but thinks he's doing something valuable: "What I do is relate events, hoping to reach positive conclusions for everyone. A man needs to understand his people and his hometown to live happily."

He is a self-appointed secret investigator who gathers "the testimonies of the dissatisfied". Through his investigations he seeks to make sense of the town's history, especially the story of a brutality that occurred in 1897, and a curse that came with it - but few people are prepared to talk to him. Investigation is a sure-fire way of making enemies in a small town. And "They", those who once punished the free-thinking Ceres Flude, the "liberator", don't approve.

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão's book was written and set in the mid-1970s, when Brazil was governed by a repressive military regime. Brandão's Araraquara is a lost town, surrounded by desert, with winds bringing the coarse sand on to the streets and into every house. Silently, people watch one another, suspicious. "The town was famous for the eyes behind its blinds." And with the winds and the sand, rumours swirl around the town - we're told that "They say . . ." is the most used phrase in Araraquara.

Many people - the narrator's friends and contemporaries - have left for the big city, and those who remain have done so only through a lack of will. What exactly is wrong with the place? Imagine sick building syndrome afflicting an entire town. And everywhere the sweet smell of honeysuckle - sometimes heady, sometimes stifling.

Brandão's narrator is cruelly isolated here - an exile in his hometown. For him, it's a town of locked doors, of people in thrall to the small goddess Television and too fearful to venture out into the streets. So he becomes an expert on doors, keyholes, locks, and learns to match types of fitting to personalities. The smallest keyholes, he deduces after some research, are found in the doors of those suffering from piles.

He throws typewriters out of windows. He writes to people he finds in international volumes of Who's Who: "I worried. I wondered if the Rt Hon Paul Meerne Caedwalla Hasluck, PC, MA, MP, Australian historian, politician, and diplomat (born April 1, 1905) had received my letter. It had been five months since I wrote him. Mustapha bin Datu Harun Datu, OBE, from Borneo, hadn't answered either." And as the story progresses, so does the mad-man philosophy.

Interspersed with his "Memoirs of Exile" are pages from his dossier of "Facts" - the little character stories, tales of his fellow Araraquarans, all apparently quite true. The man who hid himself in a telephone; the swimming pool into which a group of friends disappeared, one by one; the man who accidentally grew a prodigious harvest of metal wire; the father who sun-baked his children in an aluminium basin; a man with a bottle-cap for a mouth, another born out of the surface of the street; the lamppost that cleverly uprooted itself (then fell over); the man savaged by a tiger in the street; the old couple whose house is dismantled by a freak indoor windstorm; the man who collected all the phone numbers in the world. These lists are often funny, too - unsettlingly and sometimes grimly funny.

We inhabit the narrator's increasingly chaotic mind; we follow a narrative increasingly contained within his fantasies. Brandão's subtle repetition of small echoing narrative fragments in this relentless Groundhog Day life - that quick glance of Maria do Carmo's husband having coffee with the bank managers - is intricate and satisfying. In Cristina Ferreira-Pinto Bailey's crisp translation, the dialogue never quite attaches itself to its characters, whose voices are not easily distinguished, but this is inevitable: the perspective makes it generally hard to develop any characterisation beyond the principal protagonist. This is made up for, however, by the pleasure of that one character, by the game of is-it-true-or-isn't-it? that you'll play in his most unusual company.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time