British Empire Books

Black Mischief

AuthorEvelyn Waugh

This is the bitingly satirical offering from Evelyn Waugh. It is set in an undisclosed East African state desperately trying to keep its independence from colonial interference in the interwar years whilst hopelessly cascading from one calamity to another. The Sultan is desperate to pull his reluctant people into the future, whilst his people are content with the old tribal methods. Into this mix come a host of parasitic European characters who are either duping the locals or being duped themselves.

The caricatures in this book are savagely done. This can make it odd for a 21st Century reader to be confronted by racist terminology or stereotyping. But, if you realise that Waugh set the story in a racist period and also savagely caricatures each and every possible actor on the stage he has set, then you can begin to enjoy what can be a hilarious book. You have an Irish mercenary who has a rather unflattering nickname for his local wife. You have scheming French diplomats who credit the British consul with far too much intelligence. You have an interesting lady from the prevention of cruelty to animals league who is more than slightly misunderstood and ends up doing far more harm than good. And to top it all, you have an English cad who tries to take advantage of the political turmoil to make his own fortune. There are no heroes in this book at all - it is a cast of ne'erdowells and bounders who mercilessly prey on one another. They pretty much all lose out and the moral is more than slightly obscured by the comic opera unfolding.

This is not a serious book at all, and yet it does capture something of the 1920s and 1930s free for all and transition from roaring 20s to depression era 30s. It is loosely modelled on the Ethiopian death rattles before the Italians descended under Mussolini. It is also gives an interesting into the mindset that modernisation must be better than traditional methods; that a European model of development was needed to bring an African nation into the future. It presupposes the development decisions of the colonial governments of the 1950s and the big spending attitude of newly African states in the 1960s and 70s that led to crippling debt and a cycle of poverty. So for a work of fiction, you can get an awful lot out of this book. Oh! and it is funny - sometimes painfully so.

Buy this book at: Amazon or at Abebooks

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by Stephen Luscombe