Waugh's postcolonial studies.
From early manhood Waugh was a tireless traveler, often to countries where the weather, both physical and political, was inhospitable. During the early 1930s he visited Egypt and Somalia on the way to Ethiopia to cover the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie for a London newspaper. On other journeys he visited Aden, Zanzibar, Uganda, and what was then the Belgian Congo. Even as a middle-aged man, overweight, increasingly deaf, and no longer capable of enduring discomfort for long periods of time, he visited Israel and Jordan, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and British Guiana. In one way or another, every one of these trips was recycled into literature, both conventional travel books and extremely memorable novels. Of the latter, the best of these--still in print in Britain but, for reasons which will soon become obvious, often difficult to obtain in the United States--is a hilarious send-up of African politics and European meddling in the Dark Continent, Black Mischief, which first appeared in 1932.
Black Mischief is an amusing fable, but one which, read seventy years on, casts a vivid light on the differences and similarities between Africa past and present. The setting is a place Waugh calls Azania, which, depicted in a map drawn by the author himself, appears to be an elongated island in the shape of Madagascar, floating just off the Horn of Africa. Its current ruler is a twenty-four-year-old, recently returned from studies at Oxford, who styles himself Emperor Seth I. Dazzled by the glamour of Europe, the young ruler is determined to replicate it down to the last detail at home. Seth is a naive, rather pathetic figure who goes about his tasks half-oblivious to the realities on the ground, half-determined to eradicate them (but without the genuine authority to do so).
These realities begin with a savage population divided into two tribal groups, the Wanda and the Sikuyu, over which the central government in the capital, Debra Dowa, exercises only nominal control. The real powers in the land are back-country warlords whom Seth has attempted to domesticate by giving them European-sounding titles (earl, duke, viscount, etc.), as well as the intriguing members of the high clergy of the Nestorian church (the official confession of the Empire, though in fact most Azanians appear to be animists). As in many non-Western countries, the only people who can be relied upon to get things done are energetic emigres from minor European countries, represented here by Mr. Youkoumian, an Armenian fixer and jack-of-all-trades, one of Waugh's most brilliant comic inventions. Even the Azanian army, hardly more than an organized rabble, is commanded by an expatriate Irishman, "General" Connolly, whose curriculum vitae includes neither Sandhurst nor Woolwich but service in the South African Police and the Kenya Game Reserve Rangers.
Onto this scene bursts an Englishman by the name of Basil Seal. The son of a former Conservative chief whip in Parliament, Seal is a madcap playboy who had struck up a casual acquaintance with Seth when both were at Oxford and who decides to take advantage of the relationship now that the latter is on his throne. But Seal's objectives are not mercenary; he is out for fun and adventure. He is bored with conventional life in London and the respectable career his socially prominent mother has mapped out for him. "Every year or so there's one place in the globe worth going to where things are happening;' he explains, to justify his sudden departure for Azania. (The fact that the country's extreme remoteness puts him wholly out of the reach of his many creditors does nothing to detract from its appeal.) He finances the trip by purloining his mother's emerald bracelet and is well on his way before she discovers the theft.
Once in Debra Dowa he makes contact with Seth, who immediately sets him up as his Minister for Modernization, with the ubiquitous Mr. Youkoumian as his second in command. For once Seal applies himself seriously to the task at hand. All sorts of changes are decreed to make Azania modern. But as quickly as Seal works, Seth is always several steps ahead of him. When not fiddling with an architect's drawing board--he plans to tear down the capital and rebuild it along the lines of London and Paris, complete with a full-scale reproduction of St. James' Square--the young emperor has taken to ripping out articles from European magazines on things which catch his fancy, forwarding them to the ministry with a demand for their immediate implementation.
These sudden obsessions produce some hilarious cases of cross-cultural confusion. When Wanda notables demand raw beef at a banquet (Seth had previously forbidden uncooked meat), Basil tells the court chamberlain, "Give them raw beef. Call it steak tartare." When the chamberlain inquires somewhat hesitatingly whether that is "in accordance with modern thought" Basil replies, "Perfectly:' At one point Seth discovers nudism in a European magazine, and despairs: "Here have I spent four weeks thing to enforce the edict prescribing trousers for the official classes, and now I read that it is modern not to wear any at all!" The funniest episode involves Seth's determination to popularize birth control, an affair so hilarious in Waugh's description that it would be a disservice to any potential reader to reveal it here.
Although Azania is a geopolitical backwater, one would never guess as much from the paranoid machinations of M. Ballon, the French minister, who is consumed with a desire to detach the country from what he imagines to be the "Anglo-Saxon" sphere of influence. In point of fact, the British presence in the country is rather tentative, to say the least, since His Majesty's Minister, Sir Sampson Courtney, is a scatterbrained diplomat whose only interest is his personal comfort; his staff are likewise radically inattentive to their professional duties. They live for the arrival of the diplomatic pouch from England, containing not merely mail but cuttings and bulbs, phonograph records, and magazines. (One attache is playing chess by correspondence with someone at the Foreign Office; when Sir Sampson's butler--in the pay of M. Ballon--purloins the letter, the French minister is convinced the moves represent a secret code.) In fact, nothing could be further from Sir Sampson's mind than Azanian politics; he cannot even remember the proper names of the principal personalities at court. (The best he can do: "the one with glasses and gold teeth" ... "the old black fellow who drank so much Kummel" ... "that what-do-you-call-him Prudence said was like Aunt Sarah?')
In his relentless anti-British campaign M. Ballon picks up intelligence that Seth's uncle Achon, long thought dead, is actually alive and has been incarcerated for many years by the monks of the Monastery of St. John the Evangelist at a remote point far north of the capital. This information inspires him to hatch a kind of Jacobite plot in conjunction with General Connolly and the Earl of Ngumo ("feudal overlord of some five hundred square miles of impenetrable highland territory"), both of whom resent Basil's interference in their respective domains. The idea is to replace Seth with a figurehead responsive both to the French legation and the local conservative party. The earl secures the release of Achon--now nearly ninety years old, blind, and senile--through the timely exchange of a sack of gold coins, but the legitimist candidate unfortunately dies while being conducted in a sedan chair back to the capital. Early news of his impending return, however, plunges Debra Dowa into a kind of civil war, in which Seth himself is a major casualty. At the end of the book Azania remains without a native ruler; it has been transformed into a League of Nations trusteeship, jointly administered by the English and the French.
This plot outline can hardly convey the sense of delicious irony and wit that informs the book. Part of Waugh's narrative technique is to assume a completely straight face while describing wholly ridiculous situations. For example, when he describes the honor guard for the Emperor at the train station he adds deadpan that "only in a few cases were shoes and stockings lacking?' The emperor's birth control decrees strike the landed gentry as a blow to "the very root of sport and decency?' A banquet at the palace is described thus: "Every side of Azanian life was liberally represented. The court circle and the diplomatic corps, the army and government services, the Church, commerce, the native nobility and the cosmopolitan set?' But in fact this is merely the country as the emperor wishes it were. Most of the people in the ballroom hardly know how to act out the "European" roles to which they have been assigned. In any event, official decorum is immediately shattered by the unexpected arrival of the Earl of Ngumo, who pushes aside the horrified chamberlains and loudly demands "a table, some gin and some women and some raw camel's meat for my men outside?'
Like most backward regions of the world, Africa has long been a source of irresistible attraction for various itinerant world-savers and utopians completely insensitive to local conditions--or, what is more crucial still, to local cosmologies. In Black Mischief, Waugh reminds us as much by introducing into the story Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, two English ladies who travel around the globe advancing what today would be called animal rights. (Although Dame Mildred is demonstratively oblivious to the plight of Azania's undernourished children, her nights are haunted, we are told, "by the appealing reproachful eyes, limpid as spaniel puppies', of murdered lions and the pathetic patient whinnying of trapped baboons.") Not surprisingly, the Azanians do not grasp the concept, and when at a banquet at the palace honoring the ladies a notable is called upon to welcome the visitors "from the great country of Europe," he can think of no more appropriate comment than that "we too, in our small way, are cruel to our animals"--at which point he digresses to recount "in hideous detail what he had himself done with a woodman's axe to a wild boar." Even Basil falls into the trap by insisting on modernizing the army by forcing the native levy to wear boots instead of going barefooted. Unfortunately, their delivery is mistaken for extra rations and consigned to the evening stewpots. And so forth.
Even at the time of its publication, the book aroused anger on the part of the anti-colonialist European left, who deeply resented its caricature of Africans. The most distinguished of these, Conor Cruise O'Brien, denounced the novel as "a sly appeal to the white man's sense of superiority." Whereas Waugh "laughs at Basil Seal and various Bright Young Things," he claims, "there is affection, nostalgia, even admiration in his laughter.... When Mr. Waugh turns, however, to Seth, the black king with 'western' ideas, there is something different, something brutal about [it]." Whether or not this charge rings true depends entirely on the perception of individual readers. What is certain is that four decades after O'Brien's review, Black Mischief is even more out of tune with current liberal sensibility, which has devised its own softer, gentler racism of low expectations or has embraced what amounts to the same thing, the perennial assignment of blame for Africa's current plight to everything but the Africans themselves. On the larger question of what is now euphemistically called "development,' Waugh anticipates the dilemma since revealed not only in Africa but also in what used to be called the Third World, namely, that modernity is not a series of material objects but a state of mind. It cannot be imported or bought or imposed by ambitious rulers. Less still can it be donated by guilt-mongering "rich countries" or by the United Nations.
When Black Mischief was republished in 1962, Waugh produced a new introduction in which he observed that thirty years before "it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration." And then he closed with a stinging flourish: "History has not followed what then seemed its natural course." More than forty years after that, history has resumed what Waugh would call its unnatural course, and with a vengeance. Instead of Seth, who for all his naivete truly wished his people well, Africans have been victimized by a different race of leaders altogether--Emperor Bukassa, Idi Amin, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, and, worst of all, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The consequence has been famine, disease, exile, inter-tribal slaughter, genocide (in the case of Rwanda), and almost uninterrupted economic decline. Seth's plan to rebuild Debra Dowa on European lines never gets very far off the ground in Waugh's novel, but in the 1980s the government of Ivory Coast squandered literally millions of dollars reproducing St. Peter's Basilica (complete with air conditioning) in a remote village in the bush which happened to be the president's home town. Egged on by Swedish social engineers, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere uprooted thousands of villagers to create agricultural collectives that produced nothing but hunger and social dislocation.
Zimbabwe is a particularly egregious case. One BBC reporter recently found "hungry people queu[ing] for the meager rations offered by church workers, their children's hair already changing color from malnutrition. [Some] compete with wild animals for what they can scavage" Azania by comparison seems a harmless paradise. From the grave--having long since departed this world--Waugh reminds us how far and how badly the continent has traveled since Basil Seal's lark eight decades ago.
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|Title Annotation:||Evelyn Waugh|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2006|
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