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BOOK REVIEW / Nando's brilliant career: 'A Lonely Devil' - Sousa Jamba: Fourth Estate, 12.99 pounds

POLICE STATES, dedicated to bringing out the worst in their subjects, facilitate exquisite forms of perfidy. Carnal infidelity pales in comparison with the betrayal by the man who, after the arrest of his lover as a subversive, trots down to the police station to denounce her. For Sousa Jamba's narrator, it's the start of a brilliant career. Before long, he has risen from a propaganda hack to a torturer in the secret police. His lover's fortunes, of course, are terminated altogether.

Jamba's lonely devil inhabits an imaginary island in 'the armpit of Africa' called Henrique, adjacent to Sao Tome, and not a million miles from it in political character. The young Angolan writer's antipathy to socialism is adroitly employed in a mordant sketch of tinpot totalitarianism. After the hurried exit of the Portuguese in 1975, a Marxist republic is proclaimed. The East Germans get themselves a new holiday resort; in return they build a gigantic brewery, and impart their skills to the security services. Secret policemen are easily distinguished by their brown leather shoes, gold bracelets and Old Spice, and they swear in German.

This is the caste to which Nando, the lonely devil, is admitted by his show of initiative. He is classic secret police material: alienated and embittered, rootless and therefore free from existing allegiances, eaten by implacable envy. The pattern is classic - political struggles are conducted between factions of the social elite, which recruit enforcers and functionaries by playing on the resentments of subordinate classes. In this case, the elite is an ethnic group, the section of the Henriquean population that is descended from Angolans. Nando's lover is one of their number.

Brought up in an orphanage, Nando learns one day that he was sired by the man whose corpse he had boasted of having seen hanging from a tree. The unwitting betrayal is repeated, to a higher power, when he murders a man in detention who turns out to be a half-brother.

This is not, of course, the most original of sins. And A Lonely Devil is unfortunately short on fresh psychological insights. Jamba has set himself the task of exploring the subjectivity of an institutional serial killer, apparently determined not to play to his strengths. He shows his flair for setting, for descriptive detail, and for satire; ingredients essential to the success of a different kind of novel altogether.

Jamba's great strategic mistake, which may have been hubris or simply a bad call, was to tell the story in the first person. Nando might have been sufficient if he had more than one voice, if he was less than entirely integrated. But African Psycho he is not; merely the sort of self-pitying nobody who gets the banality of evil a bad name.

Nando maunders extensively about his need to be loved, and he embarks on a trite odyssey in search of innocence, which takes him fruitlessly to Brazil. A misanthrope who sees his fellow Henriqueans as a mob of drunkards ruled by snobs, he is detached from culture or tradition that would add resonance to his musings. All he has to suggest is that some people are just born with the devil in them, and certain social systems encourage that wickedness to be expressed. There is little in his tale to challenge or animate this.

Part of the trouble is that the narrative peaks in the middle before coming to a soggy end. Amid the contemporary literature of multiple murder, A Lonely Devil is remarkable for being underwritten. It would be nice to feel that was a point in the book's favour, but Nando inclines you to think Patrick Bateman wasn't so bad after all.