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THE term "Jimfish" is a derogatory word used for a black person
in South Africa. At the start of this novel, a youngster is found
on the sea wall at Port Pallid, and, because he does not seem to
fit into any racial category in what is then apartheid South
Africa, he is known as Jimfish. Neither black nor white, belonging
neither here nor there, Jimfish then sets out on a long series of
picaresque adventures across the world, in a novel that is
reminiscent of Voltaire's Candide.
Jimfish is naïve, innocent, or perhaps somewhat stupid.
Nevertheless, he is the eye through which the reader views the
world. First stop on the Odyssey is Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe
and his North Korean-trained goons are clearing the rats out of the
maize, as they put it, in Matabeleland. But the horrors of newly
liberated Zimbabwe are not isolated ones, as we see as we
accomplish Jimfish to the Soviet Union, East Germany, Romania,
Zaire, Liberia, and other dreadful places. We even meet some of the
people who are responsible for the mayhem, and whose names are now
bywords for misrule, such as the Ceaușescus and Mobutu, as well as
Charles Taylor. It is perhaps in Liberia that the apotheosis of
evil is reached, where murder becomes completely banal.
One is left wondering why the author takes us on this trip.
Perhaps we are in danger of forgetting what these lords of misrule
did, and the way so many of us turned a blind eye at the time? Or
is there a satirical point, as in Swift's A Modest
Proposal? Are we being told that we have become complicit in
the world's dreadfulness?
Certainly, the book has pace, but it hardly has the bite of
Swift or the wit of Voltaire. There is some symbolism evoked at the
end, concerning the sea creature the coelacanth, once thought to be
extinct, which is critically endangered. But what is this compared
with the danger posed to humans by their fellow creatures?