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March 30, 2006

Black Mischief IV - V

It is no small measure of Waugh's ability to entertain that he can put off triggering his plot until the second half of Black Mischief. In Chapter Four, the final bits of setup are completed. Basil secures a seat on the train from Matodi to Debra-Dowa thanks to the willingness of Krikor Youkoumian to put his wife at mortal risk to make a buck. The train is to be a special train - the victorious Emperor is on board. This does not assure a prompt departure. "The Emperor has given no orders for a delay" must surely be one of the more bottomless wells of humor. After further displays of Azanian incompetence, the train proceeds to the capital, and, after an interlude at the Legations, the novel proceeds to the Victory Ball, at Prince Fyodor's night club, Perroquet. The ball, of course, is a perfect rout, Le tout Debra Dowa shows up, only to be poisoned by Prince Fyodor's bathtub champagne and ridiculed by the author. Basil is there, too, at General Conolly's table.

The Emperor had signified his intention of making an appearance some time during the evening. At the end of the ball-room a box had been improvised for him with bunting, pots of palm, and gilt cardboard. Soon after midnight he came. At a sign from Prince Fyodor the band stopped in the middle of the tune and struck up the national anthem. The dancing couples scuttled to the side of the ball-room; the guests at supper rose awkwardly to their feet, pushing their tables forward with a rattle of knives and glasses; there was a furtive self-conscious straightening of ties and removing of paper caps. Sir Samson Courteney alone absentmindedly retained his false nose. The royal entourage in frogged uniforms advanced down the polished floor; in their center, half a pace ahead, looking neither to right nor left, strode the Emperor in evening dress, white kid gloves, heavily starched linen, neat pearl studs, and jet-black face.

"Got up just as though he were going to sing Spirituals at a party," said Lady Courteney.

The racism that poisons Waugh's pen will make Black Mischief a difficult, if not impossible, read for tender souls, but I think that it's possible to get beyond it and enjoy the book's deeper satire, which has not race but planned economy (eg Communism) as its target. Then again, I'm not black. If it's any comfort, Waugh thought little better of Americans.

Continue reading about Black Mischief at Portico.

Posted by pourover at March 30, 2006 04:36 PM

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Tracked on December 5, 2006 04:24 PM


Let me start with two quotes (both from you). First, with regard to Black Mischief you write:

The racism that poisons Waugh's pen will make Black Mischief a difficult, if not impossible, read for tender souls, but I think that it's possible to get beyond it and enjoy the book's deeper satire, which has not race but planned economy (eg Communism) as its target. Then again, I'm not black. If it's any comfort, Waugh thought little better of Americans.

Second, with regard to satire, generally, a comment you make in your recent Daily Blague post about Thank You for Smoking:

Satire operates on the principle that laughter is the best first step toward reform.

It is without question true that Waugh chooses to cast the Emperor Seth in a stereotypical racist fashion; yet, his depictions of the other characters in the novel are equally stereotypical: the bumbling British nincompoopish-delegation, more interested in the latest gossip from home, silly games and gardening than Foreign Office dispatches, several of which 'were swept up and incinerated among the litter of envelopes and wrappings' that arrived in the latest mail-bag; the suspicious, wily French, scenting conspiracy round every corner, but completely misconstruing the meagre intelligence they manage to collect (i.e., the evidence of the 'affair' between Mme. Ballon and General Connolly); the hypocritical man of the cloth (i.e., the Nestorian Patriarch, who 'whatever his personal indulgence, his theology had always beeen unimpeachable'); the Arabs (who are offended by daily contact with 'dirty fellows with foreskins; unbelievers, descendants of slaves; judges from up country, upstarts, jacks-in-office giving decisions against you in the courts...Jews foreclosing on mortgages...'); the money-grubbing Armenian, Mr. Youkoumian; and then, of course, the conniving, dilettantish and ultimately clueless imperialist, Basil Seal. No one, black or white or brown, escapes Waugh's 'poison pen;' and perhaps if all races and nationalities were able to laugh more freely at themselves, all would be well (or at least better) in the world. To be sure, some of Waugh's references, particularly with regard to the African characters in his story, are repugnant to modern ears; but they would, it seems to me, be far more repugnant if the white characters were portrayed in a more favorable light than they are. So, let us laugh at the bumbling diplomats, the conspiracy theorists, the religious hypocrites, the culturally insensitive functionaries, and, yes, the overly-reactionary people of color, and recognize, from their faux pas, how we all must alter our behavior. But perhaps this is all easier said than done; like you, I am not black and, consequently, may be too sanguine when it comes to accepting Waugh's political incorrectness.

In many ways, Waugh's depiction of the Emperor Seth's progression, again in your words, from 'modest and progressive' to 'imperial,' reminds me of nothing so much as the trajectory of Robert Mugabe, who (although I claim no particular expertise in this area, my views being based solely on what I have read in the western press) seems to have started as someone with the best interests of his people in mind but ended as a megalomaniac. Similarly, Seth's command to Basil that they draft a decree requiring 'communal physical exercise' and 'community singing' puts me in mind of some of the programs of Nazi Germany (cf., The Twisted Muse by Michael Kater, which discusses, among other things, the Nazis' use of music as a propaganda tool). But my favorite passage in these chapters (which one might say in some ways anticipates the U.S. under the current administration) is the following exchange between Basil and Seth (at pages 168-169 of the the Back Bay Books paperback):

'You know,' he [Basil] added reflectively, 'we've got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago. If we'd had to modernise a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bicameral legislature, proportional representation, women's suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, referendums...'
'What is all that?' asked the Emperor.
'Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.'

Actually, the preceding passage is my second-favorite; my absolute favorite is Waugh's depiction of the arrival of the boots:

Ten days later, the boots arrived at Debra-Dowa; there were some formalities to be observed but they were rendered simple by the fact that the departments involved were now under the control of the Ministry of Modernisation. Mr. Youkoumian drew up an application to himself from the Ministry of War for the delivery of the boots; he made out a chit from the War Office to the Ministry of Supplies; passed it on to the treasury, examined and counter-signed it, drew himself a cheque and in the name of the Customs and Excise Department allowed his own claim to rebate of duty on the importation of articles of 'national necessity.' The whole thing took ten minutes.
Can you say 'government contracts'...

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 1, 2006 10:25 PM

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