The more he saw of the world, the less he understood. Worse still, what he did understand was so crazy, so cruel, that none of the lessons of his old teacher Soviet Malala seemed to apply; not rage nor the many sides of history, neither the lumpenproletariat, nor the settler entity.
While the main character’s rage proves elusive, the rage of the author is writ large. It’s not only communist ideology that bears the brunt of his anger, but capitalism – particularly in its American form – and basic greed. Underneath it all, I detect the sadness that – even with the saintly Nelson Mandela elected president – apartheid hasn’t died, but merely mutated. It’s a disturbing message, and one I can’t disagree with, but I felt bludgeoned by this (thankfully short) novel, accurately described on the dust jacket as “part fable, part fierce commentary on the politics of power”.
I’m drawn to dark topics but Jimfish took me to the limits of what I can endure. Unlike other uncomfortable reads, such as John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Christopher Hope offers the reader few handrails along the way. As with Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, there’s a love story of sorts, but the characters are mere ciphers for the message of doom. The prose is utilitarian and the plot contrived; intentionally so, I’m sure, for this is satire and its purpose is not to entertain. Although I found some humour in the live televising of the “Marines ambushed by the media in Mogadishu” (p145) and the Comoros Islanders welcoming an invasion as their sole claim to fame (p157), as with Real Monsters, I found it too heavy-handed and too tragic to merit much more than a smile.
This is an important novel, and I do feel somewhat guilty that I want to look away. Published in the UK on 7 May, I’ll be interested to see what other reviewers make of it – perhaps, as I sometimes find, a Guardian review will show me what I’ve missed – my thanks, meanwhile to Atlantic books for my review copy.
I first encountered Christopher Hope as part of the generation of politically active white South Africans writing about the evils of apartheid within their country. In an ideal world I’d have been hearing from more of the Black voices, but it was his 1981 debut novel, A Separate Development, along with Hilda Bernstein’s chilling Death Is Part of the Process in 1983 that helped bring the horrors of the regime to the forefront of my mind. So Jimfish makes a good tie-in to the latest flash fiction challenge from Charli Mills to write a 99-word story that tackles racism. It’s a topic that has featured in my reviews in recent months, particularly with Lindsay Hawden’s novel about the Gypsy Holocaust and Celeste Ng’s debut about a tragedy within a Chinese-American family. In a cruel twist on the South African story, racism and xenophobia is also a factor in the post-apartheid nation, as borne out in (one of my rare non-fiction reviews) A Man of Good Hope.
Charli’s posts take her followers on an exquisite journey from some aspect of her personal experience to the often unpredictable prompt. This time she began with the excitement of experiencing a minor earthquake giving way to the devastating news from Nepal. I was reminded of the novel about the 2010 Haiti earthquake which spurred my disorientation flash and decided to stay in that territory for my take on the “social earthquake” of racism:
It was a tough assignment and only four hours to turn it around. We’d had a tipoff about an expat Texan who hung out on Freak Street. But finding him? The taxi stalled three miles out, roads churned to rubble, street signs gone. Phone lines dead. Asking around, we were met with blank stares. Kids wailing. Families sheltering under tarpaulin. Cardboard. Those with homes still standing terrified to go indoors.
We were filming a kid blubbing among the bricks that killed his parents when we found her, tears streaming prettily down pale-pink cheeks. “The holiday of a lifetime. Ruined.”
Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but I do get irritated with reporting that seems to assume it’s easier to empathise with Westerners and those with white skin. But I’m interested that, although I wrote this before I read Jimfish, it seems consistent with the pessimism of that novel. What do you think?