by Tony | 2/20/2014
" I'm generally a fan of acerbic British fiction and satire, but haven't taken the time to go back and read any Waugh until I picked up this longtime talisman of foreign correspondents. The story concerns the efforts of rival newspapers to "scoop" each other with regards to a possible war in the fictional East African Republic of Ishmaelia (which appears to be a kind of mashup of Ethiopia and Liberia). The central player in this satire is an impoverished member of the rural gentry named Boot, who pens a soporific "Rural Notes" column for a London paper called The Daily Beast. The book starts in London, where a charismatic society lady arranges to have one her proteges, an up and coming young novelist also with the surname Boot, sent to Ishmaelia by the Beast as a special correspondent (with a commensurately special salary). Alas, through a mixup worthy of P. G. Wodehouse, the paper ends up sending the other Boot, who would prefer to be left to rot in peace in the country, but can't turn down the large salary on offer. This first part of the book is a lot of fun, with lots of great comedy, a wonderfully funny country household, and the society lady, who completely runs away with the show.
Alas, she disappears from the narrative as the wrong Boot heads off by planes, trains, and automobiles to Ishmaelia. From this point on, the story is intent mainly on skewering the news business at every turn, along with businessmen, politicians, innkeepers, and pretty much any one else who comes into contact with the hapless Boot. Some readers may find the portrayal of the Africans to be offensive, although to my mind, they don't come off any worse than the European characters, and if anything, seem a great more clever. Unfortunately, like a lot of comic writing based on exaggerated behavior, the book reads a little too much like slapstick for my taste, than it does nuanced satire. Of course, humor is often a matter of taste, so others may find it vastly more amusing.
On the whole, it's a book that would benefit from a nice ten page introduction to give it some context. For example, the reason Waugh is able to paint these preposterous portraits of foreign correspondents is that he was one himself. Like the first Boot in the book, he was a shiny young novelist whose lifestyle demanded a larger income stream, one which the newspapers could provide. Several times, Waugh held his nose and traveled as a foreign corresponded for the Daily Mail, despite being an apparently indifferent journalist who thought the profession mere hackery. In that context, this book might be interpreted as a work of self-loathing, in which he pillories himself -- since, by all accounts, he really indulged in all the worst behaviors that he satirizes in the novel. In fact, he had a kind of formula, whereby he would get paid to go on a trip as a correspondent, then milk that experience for both a non-fiction travelogue and a work of fiction. His first trip to Ethiopia was the impetus for his earlier novel Black Mischief, while a trip in 1938 to cover the Italian invasion led to a widely panned travelogue called Waugh in Abyssinia and this book.
On the whole, if you like comic fiction it's worth the brief time it takes to read, if only for the opening and some great deadpan stuff throughout. Especially amusing are the cryptic telegrams Boot gets from the head office. But on the whole, it struck me more as a broad farce than a surgical satire, and thus was a little disappointing. "