The Dictator and the Hammock
Daniel Pennac Harvill, 304pp, £10.99
If you've ever had the feeling that Tony Blair has been replaced by a gormless automaton, then this might be the novel for you. Manuel Pereira da Ponte Martins, the agoraphobic dictator of a semi-fictional South American state called Teresina, is terrified by a prophecy that he will be ripped to shreds by an angry mob. He sets sail for Europe and is replaced by a series of doubles, each of whom looks less like him than the last. Pereira then returns to Teresina to find that his "double" bears no resemblance to him whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the man Pereira originally hired to replace him has travelled to the US in pursuit of his dream of becoming an actor. That's only half the book, though, as behind all this the character of Pennac lounges in a hammock, recalling the time he spent living in rural Brazil and wondering how he should write his novel. Underneath the absurdity lies something darker - a land where thousands of impoverished peasants starve needlessly and even the benevolent landowners are complicit in their oppression.
In the hands of a lesser writer, The Dictator and the Hammock might descend into a self-reflexive mess, but Pennac's eye for detail makes this a darkly comic meditation on life, death and the illusions of power.