Friday, 22 April 2011

Review: Black Mischief

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh (1932)

Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda, Tyrant of the Seas, and Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University is determined to be the apostle of Progress and the Future for his country.  Unfortunately, his vision of the Future is based upon whatever he happens to be reading at the moment.  This is never good and it is particularly bad in an African autocrat of an state so backward that cannibalism is still pretty high on the local menu. 

Actually, Waugh's Azania is a parody of a fairly accurate description of every failed African state up to the time of publication.  It's a miserable cross section of native tribalism, Arab slave trading, and half-hearted European contact that has resulted in a savage back country ruled by a fly-specked capital city loaded with Imperial flotsam and jetsam.  The vainglorious Seth is determined to haul Azania into the 20th century, but he has no idea what he's doing, how money works, or the fact that he's barely holding on to power by his finger nails after a civil war with his uncle that had half the capital's population running for the boats.  Into this comes Seth's old university classmate Basil Seal, a British reprobate of the first water, who becomes his Minister for Modernisation.  Added is a dipsomaniac Irish ex-pat head of the army, the British legation who are more interested in the latest mail from London than anything happening around them, and the French ambassador who is convinced that his British counterpart is a Machiavellian genius.  In a land where people still sharpen their teeth, this is a bad combination.

Black Mischief is Waugh's third novel and it has a bite that never lets up.  Seth is a wonderfully comic figure who is hopelessly lost in his vision of himself and utterly unable to understand the country he rules and wants to fundamentally change   Small wonder that he sounds rather like a particular 21st century American president.  Azania itself is like an untamed force of nature filled with deep-running native currents that make Seth's modernisation efforts seem like pounding sand–especially when they are in the hands of a man like Basil, who only came out to Azania because he found London too much of a bore.

Waugh's gimlet-eyed satire is relentless from his portrayal of the oblivious British legation to the conspiracy-obsessed French to the opportunistic Armenian merchant.  No one is spared as along the way we are treated to a pair of clueless animal rights activists whom the native nobility think  are actually promoting cruelty to animals, an English girl who thinks that life can be reduced to necking and bad novel writing, and a bewildered 90-year old pretender to the throne who's spent most of his life chained in a cave.  All of this climaxes in a farcical carnival of contraception (don't ask) that descends into chaos and coup in short order as Waugh's dramatic curve alternates between farce and horror.

Mischievous and dark fun all around.

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