BOOK REVIEW / Sharpe notes heard in Latin class: 'The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Gusman' - Louis de Bernieres: Secker, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'A HAPPY policeman is a human condom barricading the womb of society against the infected and obscene ejaculate of disorder and dishonesty.' De Bernieres' books have a lot of pronouncements like that, and lots of barmy characters too.

We have a restaurateur who doesn't see why she should spoil her own lunch and consequently shuts at all internationally accepted meal times. The occasional Mexican narrator lives with two identical twins and a bevy of black jaguar cats whom he has to fight for space on his bed, and, throughout, there is a string of deliciously salacious authority figures: Father Garcia, for instance, who preaches that God is in fact Satan and ends his unorthodox sermons with: 'Let us fornicate munificently so that no one will sleep at night for the mewling of babies and the necessity of changing shitladen garments . . . Amen.'

This is De Bernieres' third novel in a trilogy, of which The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord were the first and second. While displaying a strong empathy with the themes and settings of South American literature - the easy surrealism, the lyricism and the religious and sexual obsession - De Bernieres manages to imbue them with a very British sense of humour. Gabriel Garca Marquez meets Tom Sharpe. Latin enigma via British farce.

De Bernieres' range holds surprises, too. In this bizarre South American state a swamp is sculpted to form a huge Mercator's projection of the world viewable from a cliff, St Thomas Aquinas turns up to explain himself, and the cynical president, forever on holiday, has an erection pump fitted to his fading member. And although the Latin milieu feels like the medieval past, there are mischievous mentions of Reagan, Castro, kalashnikovs and those irritating American helicopter missionaries. The setting changes constantly too: a Spaghetti Western here, the prettiness of the snow-covered Andes there, the viciousness of Fascists everywhere.

Nevertheless, the structure of this book seems over-ambitious: the relentless mixing of tenses and points of view and the frequent digressions compromise a clear sense of what's happening. Still, De Bernieres has created his own realm and, within it, written a solidly funny book.