Jerusalem is a strange book from a writer with a history of strange books. OK, this one doesn't have talking Pigeons (The London Pigeon Wars), but it does have multiple narrators, some based in London and some in the fictional African State of Zambawe. Plus, there's a diary from a man who was injured in the Boer War. So often with multiple narrations the voices either blend into one, or have such ludicrous distinguishing features to make them sound phoney. Patrick Neate nails it - distinctive but credible voices.
The theme at the heart of the novel is colonialism and what made Britain great (and, I suppose, what made sub-Saharan Africa poor). So, at the London end of things, we have David Pinner MP, a junior minister in the Foreign Office with responsibility for Africa, and his son Preston Pinner (PP, or 2P, or Tuppence), who runs a style and promotion agency. Preston is BritPop cool, he is BritArt cool - in fact, he wrote the book on what's cool. Meanwhile, in Zambawe (which is a lot like Zimbabwe but a reference to Mugabe makes it clear that it's not an exact parallel), President Adini has been re-elected following a disputed election but has had to appoint his rival, the leader of the Democratic Movement, as Prime Minister; there's hyperinflation and trade boycotts. And those who don't like it end up in the jail from which some of the narrative comes. There is also a welcome reprise for Jim Tulloh, the star of a previous novel - Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko - a white guy who happens to be the President's friend. And there's a singer - called Nobody (which makes many of the sentences read somewhat oddly) with a radical reworking of the traditional socialist anthem Jerusalem.
It's a bit farcical; the characters are heavily stylised, the plot is secondary to the overall style. But it is damn readable, even if the scenes do set the mind wandering off in tangential directions. And I never did quite get to grips with the supposed Zambawean legend interludes. That leaves the reader drifting in and out of the story a bit - although Patrick Neate does cleverly weave in plenty of catch up summaries.
I travelled in Southern Africa in 2008 when this book was set - including Zimbabwe - and the depiction of everyday life is very authentic. The perpetual mistrust, the contempt for all things British voiced so often over a cup of tea, the fatalistic attitude of a people who had no hope of unravelling the mysteries and corruptions of those who governed them. Also, the hubris of 2008 London cool whilst the global economy collapsed all around - this is captured to perfection. This - the atmosphere - is the real strength of the novel and compensates in no small measure for any shortcomings in the story.
Patrick Neate will stay on my reading list a while longer.
Reading a great novel can be like watching an artist paint. They begin with a blank canvas, perhaps starting on some seemingly insignificant detail, moving from frame to frame upon the surface of the canvas, creating a structure, a semi permanent solidity to build upon. Then they start adding colour and detail, fleshing out the image till the whole vision takes shape. Perhaps an encapsulation of time, a snapshot of thought or emotion, a glimpse of the ordinary leading to the workings of the world.
A Bend In The River takes us on a journey to a young African nation, newly independent, the shackles of the colonial masters thrown off and a new bright all encompassing future awaits for all the citizens. Salim, a young man of Arabian descent moves from his coastal country to take up an opportunity to buy a small shop in a small town in this re born country.
Naipaul, uses his brush strokes sparingly, he concentrates on time and the movement of change, how easy it is to become complacent, soporific when we immerse ourselves in our daily tasks. The whole picture once revealed is of decay, a meltdown of reason, of order.