Odd-country buffs have been on the lookout for a Robert Carver sequel since The Accursed Mountains (1988), which chronicled his daredevil exploration of Albania, Europe's terra incognita. Paraguay, South America's main candidate for lawless obscurity, makes an obvious choice for the follow-up. But despite his experience of Africa, Asia and the raki-dark Med, our especialista was taken unawares by the violence and corruption endemic in the country.
Flying into Paraguay was one thing, getting round it quite another. A lake awash with émigré-Nazi excrement forces the conclusion that our man in Asuncion is up that creek without the proverbial paddle. Inside the hotel compound, he resorts to casting a fine-meshed net among the eccentrics drifting in and out of the well-stocked bar. Ears precision-tuned to the ridiculous (never far away) make this unscheduled interlude more than bearable, with entertainment from travel-agent Veronica ("Indians and crazy people, I hate the interior") and the mysterious Caradoc Evans ("The Nazis are the good guys in Paraguay").
We are itching, all the same, for our hero to plunge into that certified chaos outside the capital. A kindly smuggler eventually spirits Carver upriver and the narrative enters classic heart-of-darkness territory as a first-rate writer moves into top gear. Fresh panoramas unfold such as Concepcion ("right off the communications map") and a finca straight out of a Mediterranean idyll ("hard to believe one was not in Ibiza"). Foes range from vampire bats to gun-toting Nazis, while allies include a rabidly un-PC Liberian academic and two genial guides who become the perfect captive audience as their client spins tales of socialist Western Europe – "far more exotic than what I told of them of Turkey and India".
Carver's vision of the Old World seen from the New puts this book into a mould-breaking category. His insights into spiralling state control and individual alienation back home owe everything to the immense gulf separating Paraguay's anarchy from Europe's control-freakery. Below the equator and far up the Rio Parana (seething with homophonous carnivores), in a land that bears a bizarre resemblance to 18th-century Poland, Carver finds a voice that troubles and enlightens. "The poorer the country, the more frequent the smiles"; "the richer, the more evident spiritual misery". By the final chapter, one is not certain which world is Paradise, and which teems with vipers.