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Tour of the tyrants

by
05 June 2015

What, Alexander Lucie-Smith asks, is this novel's point?

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Jimfish
Christopher Hope
Atlantic Books £15.99
(978-0-85789-805-0)
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

 

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?

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