Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Cover image. © Penguin Books.
It is unfortunate that, although thoroughly enjoying this book, you can't help but feel a little bit dirty for having read it and liked it. That said, Evelyn Waugh picks apart the colonial world of the inter-war years wonderfully and treats most parties involved with the contempt they deserve. 

The story itself follows the story of a fictional African island state of Azania. Their Oxford-educated monarch, Emperor Seth, starts a programme of reforms to modernise his country. Emperor Seth recruits an Englishman, Basil Seal, who, needing something to do with his life, decides that working in Azania is a great idea. 

So with a cast of characters designed to add an element of chaos to the story, things move forward at quite a pace. The French consul, Ballon, becomes increasingly disgruntled with the modernisation plans, as do the church leaders - especially when their place of worship is threatened in an infrastructure building programme. 

Inevitably, all roads lead to a coup d'état and Seth is overthrown, to be replaced by his senile, and hitherto incarcerated uncle, Achon - who promptly dies during the coronation. 

One assumes that a lot of the story and the references to different ethnic groupings, and their relative characteristics, is based upon the author's time as a reporter in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). There are many striking similarities between place names in Azania and Ethiopia, and there is something very 'Haile Selassie I' about Emperor Seth. 

In Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh goes to town with mocking and satirising just about everybody who had an involvement in East Africa in the early twentieth-century; the British (pompous and out of touch), the French (paranoid and sly), the Africans (disorganised), the Arabs (greedy) and the church (getting involved in subverting the government). 

This is an interesting personal take on East Africa and is very much of its time. Some might argue that Waugh's treatment of the Africans in this story is racist at points - one example is the naming of one female character 'Black Bitch' by her white husband and this is before we consider the connotations of the title. A counter to this argument would be that because just about every big player gets the same treatment, the humour wins out.

For further critical reading: http://www.js-modcult.bham.ac.uk/articles/issue4_greenberg.pdf

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