Red Parrot, Wooden Leg, by Gregorio Kohon

Political repression, tangled love and a one-legged parrot who hates goats
Click to follow

The eponymous parrot arrives part-way through this coming-of-age novel about two wannabe Argentine writers hanging out in Rio de Janeiro. Leaving their rooms with three transvestite spiritualists in downtown Lapa, they move in with a communist artist, Olinda, whose drains are always blocked. Her house in Santa Teresa – the prettiest hillside quarter on the favela fringes – has been in mourning since the death of her young husband. Daniel, Luigi and Daniel's new girlfriend Wanda brighten the place up with a spring- and drain-clean and a coat of orange, blue and yellow paint.

Enter the colourful fan-parrot Joacaria, imported by Olinda's former mother-in-law, who ran Brazil's first vegetarian restaurant. The parrot comes with a reputation for attacking customers and goats, and shitting in saucepans, particularly those containing brown rice. Not good for business.

Two visits to the vet result: one to establish gender (male, but ambiguously baptised Joaquim Maria); the other to fit a wooden leg after a fall off his perch caused an amputation. Luigi sticks a rubber stopper to the base as Joacaria taps along the corridors screeching Kiss me in tochis! – apparently Yiddish for "kiss my ass".

Joacaria's adventures punctuate the narrative, through the couples' on-off relationships and the rise of political repression in their countries. He adds to a zany road-novel that's also a chart of how, once paranoia becomes institutionalised, youth's assumed entitlement to a carefree existence is subverted. Once the police state infiltrates civilians' lives, normality is suborned.

The book goes in decades. As the military seize dictatorial powers in Brazil in 1966, Argentina is undergoing its own repression. Eventually Luigi, in full mourning for his parrot, leaves for Bariloche, willing to brave the Nazi enclaves there. Daniel, the Jewish intellectual, returns to Buenos Aires. In 1986, with civilian government in the ascendant, he pens a letter to his dead friend that frames a critical 20-year span of history from which Argentina is still only emerging.

Despite the political undertow, this is a diary in the style of the Beats, with homage to Kerouac, Ginsberg and Miller. It extends its reach to Brazil in the throes of the new sounds of bossa nova and tropicalia. The encounter between the bourgeois porteños of Buenos Aires and the alternative lifestyle cariocas of Rio lends the book a character as original as that of the lame parrot.

Karnac books, £14.99. Order this book (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897