The ‘City of God’—there is no irony in the name—is a slum of some 200,000 inhabitants on the western edge of Rio de Janeiro. It is famous for the unending shoot-outs there between drug gangs and police—an uncontrollable, escalating war, emblematic in various ways of wider social developments in Brazil. Five years ago, a remarkable novel depicting the life of the place appeared. Its author, Paulo Lins, was born in 1958 in Estácio, a black district of Rio, close to the docks; after the disastrous floods of 1966 he was rehoused with his family in the City of God. This development scheme—product of bungled planning by Carlos Lacerda, the notoriously reactionary governor of the times—was still quite new. Lins went to school there, and carried on living in the favela while he studied at the university. He knew the local gangsters—delinquents he had grown up with; and they came to trust him as someone who could mediate with the community on their behalf.

The most reflective and artistic circles in the favelas were alert to the subterranean cultural ferment against the military dictatorship in Brazil. By the seventies, discussions about popular music had become a locus of opposition, a form of political debate. On a much smaller scale, something similar occurred with poetry, where a subculture of casual colloquialism and mimeographed leaflets, passed from hand to hand, operated as an antidote to official censorship and conventional publishing. Some of these circulated in the City of God. In the early eighties the anthropologist Alba Zaluar, arriving to make a field study of the new criminality, provided another opening and source of intellectual energy. Lins became her research assistant, responsible for interviews. It was through the course of this investigation that he acquired the formal discipline and range of empirical knowledge that would make his novel a work of quite another cultural order.

Five hundred and fifty pages long, Cidade de Deus appeared in 1997.footnote1 The explosive nature of its themes, the scope and difficulty of its ambition and its unprecedented form of internal narration marked it out immediately as a major event—a work pushing back the frontier of literary possibilities in Brazil. It traces the world of what Lins calls the neo-favela, underlining the transformation of the older slum-world under the pressure of the narco-traffic wars, and the parallel developments in police violence and corruption.

The teeming, quasi-encyclopædic scale of the novel’s recreation of this process is reminiscent of the great gangster movies; but the story opens, subtly enough, with a relaxed scene of popular life. Young Barbantinho is sharing a joint with a friend, and daydreaming of a future as an ultra-fit lifeguard on the beach. Not one of those lazy loafers who let the sea carry people away—he’d make sure he took every chance to keep fit, even running back home from the beach after work: ‘Need to keep at it, feed well, swim as much as possible.’ Illicit activities coexist, calmly and guiltlessly, with altruistic impulses, modest ambitions, punctuality and respect; keeping up with the latest health fads while trusting in the protective powers of Yemanjá;footnote2 emulating the good example of his father and brother—also lifeguards. A degree of hesitation is introduced in the following pages, as this hopeful, conformist outlook is cast in doubt by poverty and unemployment—and by the first corpses, floating down the river. Quite another facet of popular life is about to predominate; but the contrast between the two, potentially surfacing at any moment, has a structural function, as if to suggest a historical perspective.

It is when the gangsters erupt on to the scene with the first armed robbery that the novel picks up the mesmerizing rhythm that will drive it to the end. Any serious reading of Cidade de Deus depends on taking the measure of this relentless dynamism. The figures in the action-packed foreground are lit up, as in a thriller. Revolvers in hand, the Tenderness Trio—Duck, Nail Clippers and Long Hair—tear across the playground into Loura Square to emerge ‘opposite the Penguin Bar where the truck loaded with cylinders of domestic gas is parked’. The driver tries to conceal his takings but they order him—‘the worker’—to the ground, then kick him in the face. Does the class description make their violence more reprehensible, or does it collude in jeering at the sucker who had tried to fool them? Impossible to tell. The ambivalence of the vocabulary reflects an instability of viewpoint, embedded in the action—a kind of con-artist’s to-and-fro between order and disorder (to adapt, for our times, the terminology of Candido’s ‘Dialectic of Trickery’).footnote3 Besides, the robbers themselves now hand out the cylinders of gas to the frightened bystanders, who had been trying to slip away from the scene but who now, instantaneously, carry the whole consignment away.

All is as clear as it is complex. Choreographic exactitude fuses with a blurring of good and evil. Cops and gangsters, exchanging fire, both put ‘half a face round the edge of the corner’—meia cara na quina da esquina. The internal rhyme and acute visualization suggest not only art as a concentration of life, but life as a process inspired by TV series that are watched by criminals and police alike. In the escapes and chases that follow, the favela is a series of crumbling walls, backyards and alleyways, where one character, setting off round the block to surprise a second from behind, comes face to face with a third he didn’t want to meet. The tension and danger, the vivid settings—seemingly made for such encounters—create a certain empathy; but any sense of adventure is undercut by the sheer brutality of what goes on. In the end, one is left with a kind of stunned comprehension.

Less palpable is a quasi-standardization of sequences, a sinister monotony in their very variation. First come the drugs, or some other diversion. Then the boys set off for a hold-up, maybe with killings; for a rape, or some other sexual revenge; to knock out rivals from another gang, or from their own. Going out for a good time—to play football on the beach, or to stir it at some party—always runs into complications and the same brutal outcome: one of the book’s most disillusioning themes. Finally, after the violence, escape—on foot, by bus, in a stolen car or taxi; and then holing up, till the necessary twenty-four hours have passed. Shut up in some room, the bichos-soltos—‘animals on the loose’—knock back milk or do more drugs, to chill out and get some sleep.