Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh (1932)

Black Mischief was Evelyn Waugh’s third novel, published in 1932. It very obviously recycles material from his six-month-long trip to Ethiopia and then along the East Coast of Africa which he had chronicled in the previous year’s travelogue, Remote People (1931).

The novel describes the efforts of Seth, the young English-educated Emperor of ‘Azania’, a fictional island off the East coast of Africa, based loosely on Zanzibar, to modernise his Empire, aided by the 28-year-old scapegrace and ne’er-do-well, Basil Seal.

Jaded author of jaded characters

Having just finished reading Vile Bodies and still reeling from its shockingly nihilistic ending, I think I can understand why Waugh leapt at the opportunity of fleeing rancid England. He had gone, as a temporary foreign correspondent for a London newspaper, to go and cover the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. The disgust and misanthropy which becomes slowly more obvious in Vile Bodies goes a long way to explaining why he felt the need to get clean away from the shallow party culture he describes in that book.

This hunch was confirmed a third of the way into the novel by the book’s leading character, Basil Seal, who is depicted as sick and tired of the posh, jaded, endlessly partying circles he moves in. Here he is talking to a crusty old colonel at his club:

‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘Eh?’
‘Don’t you hate London?’
‘No, I do not. Lived here all my life. Never get tired of it. Fellow who’s tired of London is tired of life.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Basil. ‘I’m going away for some time,’ he told the hall-porter as he left the club.

And a bit later, talking to Lady Metroland:

‘I want to go abroad. I’ve been in England too long.’

And, a little later, to his mother:

‘You see I’m fed up with London and English politics. I want to get away.’

So it’s repeated three times. Sick to death of London life and desperate to escape. No ambiguity about Basil’s motives, then.

Waugh’s recurring characters

Basil starts out in a London full of the same cast of characters we encountered in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, and who were expanded in the sequel, Vile Bodies – people like Lady Metroland (who played such a central role in Decline and Fall), her son Peter Pastmaster, Lord Monomark the owner of the Daily Excess, whose gossip columnists played a central role in Vile Bodies, Sonia Trumpington who keeps a genuinely bohemian menage with husband Alisdair and who Basil visits before his departure. In an atmosphere of loucheness significantly further down the line than anything in Bodies we find the couple in bed and their bedroom littered with drunk or passed-out young men whose names they don’t even know. It’s that kind of behaviour, which Basil himself is expert at, which he has grown sick of.

Thousands of Europeans for well over a century had fled to the colonies to leave behind unsatisfactory lives and reinvent themselves. Obviously Waugh didn’t become a settler or anything like, but the complete change of scene offered by this sudden opportunity to become an (albeit temporarily) freelance journalist, allowed him to apply his forensic gaze and lucid style in a new way. It gave him radically new subject matter and a drastic new variety of characters to depict. To mercilessly describe what he saw in the wildly different setting of a rundown, backward and sometimes barbarous African nation. And then, being a professional, to recycle the everything he’d seen into the humorous and satirical exaggerations of this novel.

Black Mischief’s prose more solid and descriptive

What is immediately and strikingly different is the abandonment of some of the modish techniques in Vile Bodies. That novel gives the impression of being mostly made up of dialogue, the brittle, mannered dialogue of febrile London society, sometimes page after page of only dialogue and, in particular, the telephone conversations of the shallow young couple, Adam and Nina which Waugh was, rightly, proud of.

On the first few pages you realise Black Mischief is a different thing entirely. Describing London, even with satirical intent, had been done to death. It had been done by Dickens and Conan Doyle and E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and a thousand lesser known writers. Waugh does it very well when he wants to, he can knock off beautifully lyrical paragraphs when they need to be deployed. But not often, and short.

Whereas a fictional African country gave Waugh the opportunity to write huge chunks of descriptive prose, much of it recycled or reworked from the travel book, which is genuinely fresh and unusual and flavoursome.

For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds — emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda — Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words — Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior — and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.

The prose itself is like a tropical fruit, sumptuous and full of flavour.

Civil war in Azania

In actual fact the opening chapter is a little confusing. It hardly reads like Waugh at all. He clearly decided to make the most complete break possible with the world of Decline and Bodies.

Instead the opening chapter of Black Mischief plunges the reader straight into the confusion and anarchy which prevails in, Matodi, the port town of its fictional island nation Azania, amid the civil war prompted by the death of the old empress. Young prince of the realm Seth should have inherited the throne but instead has faced a rebellion led by prince Seyid.

The enemy army has appeared camping on a hill outside the town. During a long night of fear and paranoia everyone, including the emperor, expects them to enter Matodi the next day and trigger a bloodbath.

There are some very unpleasant episodes in which a noted Armenian merchant is threatened with hanging by troops who want to discover where he’s hidden one of the last boats on the island so they can escape. The emperor’s canny Indian scribe, Ali, is first interrogated and then strangled to death, making an awful shrieking sound in the courtyard outside Seth’s chambers. The entire chapter, its setting, the mood and its details are utterly unlike Waugh. They feel much more modern. They reminded me of the John Updike novel, The Coup or the hard, violent atmosphere of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

But the next morning it turns out that the army camping in the hills outside town was not the enemy army, but forces loyal to the emperor led by the Irish mercenary, General Connolly. Early the next morning he rides into town on a donkey followed by his victorious army to tell the emperor he has won, the emperor’s crown is secure, Seyid is defeated.

Is Seyid alive, can he be brought before Seth? Er, no. Connolly regrets to inform the emperor that Seyid surrendered to a party of the hard core native tribe, the Wanda, and that they, er, killed and ate him. So far so gruesome. It is very Waugh that it is only at this rather startling moment, that we receive the further startling news that Seyid was Seth’s father (!)

‘They should not have eaten him — after all, he was my father . . . It is so . . . so barbarous.’
‘I knew you’d feel that way about it, Seth, and I’m sorry. I gave the headmen twelve hours in the tank for it.’

The reference is to the one and only tank which Seth had purchased in Europe, wishing to make his army more up to date. Seth wants everything in his country to be modern and European. However, Connolly informs him that the tank turned out to be completely useless in jungle warfare until he found an alternative use for it. Since it heated up so quickly in the tropical sunlight, it turned out to be a good punishment cell. Hence locking the offending headman up in it for 12 hours for eating Seth’s father, a fierce punishment.

(Connolly, we learn, was previously an Irish game-warden. He has taken a local wife, who he lovingly refers to as ‘Black Bitch’, which scandalises everyone in the novel, and will scandalise any young modern reader, but the point is they are genuinely in love, he defends her, is faithful to her and she sticks by him right to the end of the story.)

The British diplomats in Azania

Having thoroughly undermined our expectations and landed us in a strange and terrible foreign setting, the narrative then switches to an extensive description of the British diplomatic community in Azania, who have been hunkering down during this regrettable war.

They are a collection of ripe caricatures, posh, nonchalant, stiff-upper-lip types, showily obsessed with trivia and utterly indifferent to the progress of the war or the two opposing sides, the names of whose leaders they affect to forget, in that blithe, dismissive, posh English way (same as Lottie Crump introducing frightfully important people as ‘Lord thingummy-jig’).

‘His Britannic Majesty’s minister, Sir Samson Courteney’ is more concerned about the frequency with which the cook serves up tinned asparagus every day than the perishing war, and likes to relax by having a long bath in the morning and a spot of knitting in the evening.

Lady Courtenay is full of empty tittle tattle about the doings of the small British community, especially their children, which schools they’re going to, how they’re managing with their various ponies. Her main concern is securing cuttings from London to continue embellishing the splendid little English garden she’s been cultivating at the Legation.

The Courtenays have a frivolous daughter, Prudence, who is in love with more or less the only eligible young man available, William Bland, the honorary attaché and assistant to Sir Samson. Sometimes the rather earnest bishop pops round for luncheon but the legation buildings are an inconvenient seven miles out of town along a bad road so he always ends up staying the night, which turns into a trial for all concerned. With the handful of other posh Brits who work at the Legation, they play endless games of bridge or poker dice or bagatelle, or Happy Families or consequences.

Prudence is writing a deep and meaningful book titled The Panorama of Life and Waugh shares with us some of her witless, factually incorrect vapourings. It is a cast of jolly English innocents abroad.

It is a running joke that the little French diplomatic community, led by Monsieur Ballon, are fierce rivals with the British and live in paranoid fear that the Brits are getting one over on them, are scheming and plotting and up to something, a seething paranoia which is satirically contrasted with the actual activities of the Brits, which are sleeping late, having long baths, supping cocktails before a long lunch, fussing about their roses or gymkhana ponies, having a nap in the afternoon, before dressing for an elaborate dinner and then spending all evening playing bridge – completely oblivious of French paranoia.

The rivalry is exemplified in the way William translates a top secret cable from London and breathlessly  presents it to Sir Samuel (‘Kt to QR3 CH’) only to be told it contains the latest chess move young Percy is playing with a chap at the Foreign Office. Whereas the French – who are, inevitably, spying on the British and hacking into their cables –suspect this very same chess move of being an extra-secret code conveying some kind of diabolical Anglo-Saxon plot.

Enter Basil Seal

It is only at this point, maybe a third of the way into the text of the novel, that we are first introduced to  its protagonist, Basil Seal, who we first encounter in characteristically jaded, post-party mode:

For the last four days Basil had been on a racket. He had woken up an hour ago on the sofa of a totally strange flat. There was a gramophone playing. A lady in a dressing jacket sat in an armchair by the gas-fire, eating sardines from the tin with a shoe-horn. An unknown man in shirt-sleeves was shaving, the glass propped on the chimneypiece.
The man had said: ‘Now you’re awake you’d better go.’
The woman: ‘Quite thought you were dead.’
Basil: ‘I can’t think why I’m here.’
‘I can’t think why you don’t go.’
‘Isn’t London hell?’

‘On a racket’. 1930s slang. Basil traipses round various friends, pops into Lady Metroland’s party, then goes to see his mother, basically to cadge money off anyone who’ll lend him five hundred quid to go to Africa. Why? Because, as he puts it, history only happens in a few places at any one time, and it’s happening right now in Azania. And he needs a break from London. Badly.

In the event the older, married women he’s having an affair with, Angela Lyne, coughs up the money which allows Basil to pack and leave London, flying from Croydon airport to Le Bourget, catch the train south to Marseilles, and so by steamer across the Med, down the Red Sea to Djibouti (exactly the itinerary Waugh himself took on his three journeys out to Ethiopia – except for the flying, Waugh caught a train across France) to arrive at the fictional island of ‘Azania’.

As well as throwing away all the advantages he has been given in life (for example, he was handed a safe Conservative seat which would have allowed him to become a Tory MP with almost no effort, but managed to throw away the opportunity) Basil is a thief. At the interview with his mother in her boudoir he nicks her expensive emerald broach and flogs it for a fraction of its price at Port Said. He shares a cabin on the ship to Djibouti, and his cabin mate only realises a few days after Basil’s departure that he’s nicked his shaving soap, bedroom slippers and ‘fine topee’. Like all Waugh’s characters, Basil is a cartoon but a complex cartoon.

Basil in Azania

Basil’s first impressions of Azania are described in luxurious detail. See the long paragraph I quoted at the start. He travels from the coastal port of Motadi to the nation’s capital, Debra Dowa, in the centre of the island. Basil’s impressions and journey overlap with scenes showing Seth impatiently telling his advisers what he needs is a modern man, a European, to help him bring Progress and the New Age to Azania.

We never see the scene where the two men meet or converse or Seth realising Basil is the man for the job. Instead the narrative jumps to a new chapter in which we find Basil already in charge of the ‘Ministry of Modernisation’. His official title if High Commissioner and Comptroller General. While still in the coastal town of Modati (where the narrative opened) Basil had come across the services of the excellent Armenian, Mr Krikor Youkoumian, owner of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores in Motadi. It is a pleasant joke that Basil makes Mr Youkoumian his number two, and very able he proves to be.

(It is worth remembering that in Remote People Waugh says that of the hundreds of people he met, it was two Armenians who stood out as the most steadfast and dependable, and he gives a little dithyramb praising their nation.)

Anyway, Basil has been commissioned by the Emperor Seth to modernise his country. What does this mean in practice? Oh, lots of things. First they must undertake a complete ‘reform of manners’. The capital, Debra Dowa, must be torn down and rebuilt in the modern style. Instead of wiggly lanes lined by low shanties, there must be a grand square, named Seth Square, with broad avenues radiating outwards (one to be called Boulevard Basil Seal, another the Avenue Connolly). Seth asks if they can build an underground tube network. Er, no.

He becomes obsessed with the topic of birth control. (It’s fascinating that the idea that women in developing countries must be given free birth control and education so they can stop being baby machines and become modern women in control of their bodies, educated into working in offices at modern jobs – that all this was familiar enough to be included in a comic novel 90 years ago. Thus Seth demands that the Anglican cathedral must be torn down and the square it’s set on be renamed Place Marie Stopes.)

Seth generates an ever-growing list of demands for reforms he has read about in all the European books and magazines which pile up on his tables, all for the cause of Progress and the New Age. This comic thread climaxes in a note he sends Basil:

For your information and necessary action, I have decided to abolish the following: Death penalty. Marriage. The Sakuyu language and all native dialects. Infant mortality. Totemism. Inhuman butchery. Mortgages. Emigration. Please see to this. Also organize system of reservoirs for city’s water supply and draft syllabus for competitive examination for public services. Suggest compulsory Esperanto.

His next fad is money and he decides to produce a home-made currency (with his own portrait on them) which he enthusiastically prints by the thousand in contravention to all economic orthodoxy. Basil is, by now, too tired and harassed by the emperor’s endless fads, to even try to talk him out of it. The worthlessness of the new currency provides a recurring thread of comedy from then on.

Growing opposition

All these changes generate opposition across a wide range of society. First to go into opposition is General Connolly. He strongly resents Seth interfering with the army which preserved him in power. There’s an extended comic theme whereby Seth decides the army must have boots, modern boots, European boots, like a European army. General Connolly is furious, explaining that the natives’ feet are tough enough to tramp through jungle whereas Western-style boots will give them blisters, infections and trench foot. Nonetheless, there is an extended comic thread as Mr Youkoumia hunts around for an importer of European boots, finds one, has them delivered in a big pile at Connolly’s barracks.

Connolly storms into Basil’s office and we wonder if he’s going to announce a mutiny but instead tells Basil that… his men ate all the boots (and then claimed they tasted more nutritious than their standard rations).

Then the birth control campaign arouses the ire of the churches. They are led by the leading Christian in the country, the Nestorian Patriarch who rallies the Chief Rabbi, the Mormon Elder and the chief representatives of all the creeds of the Empire against contraception and in favour of the decencies of married life etc. (Nestorianism is a Christian ‘heresy’ i.e. a branch of Christianity which early on diverged from what later became recognised as orthodox belief, was stifled in Catholic Western Europe but continued to flourish in the Middle East, hence then Patriarch’s authority here in remote Azania.)

Finally the French. M. Ballon and the French contingent hate and fear whatever the English are doing so they are infuriated by the influence the scapegrace Englishman has over the emperor. Only French scapegraces should have influence over African emperors.

Basil and Prudence

Basil has affair with Prudence Courtenay. She is a fresh young English rose, he is a dashing, handsome scapegrace, who never shaves or looks presentable but is tall and strong and manly and powerful. Of course, in the real world women are never attracted to tall, dark, handsome and rather dangerous men.

The RSPCA

Into the mix are thrown two prim, proper and high-minded ladies who arrive from England, Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Sarah Tin, on a mission to support animal welfare.

Their arrival is signalled at the start of a new chapter which opens with a refreshing change of modality or medium, namely from authorial narrative, to the texts of Dame Mildred’s letters back to her hubby in England complaining about pretty much every aspect of Azanian life.

This starts with the slapdash and almost insolent behaviour of the young attaché (William Bland) who is sent to collect them from the train station but makes it pretty plain his first priority is the monthly mail bag (complete with brand new records and magazines) rather than the two misses.

There isn’t space in his little car for the mail bag, the ladies and Miss Tin’s large trunk, which he leaves at the station assuring them he’ll send for it later and it becomes a running joke that this trunk never is retrieved and Miss Tin spends the rest of her stay bitterly complaining about it and having to borrow clothes.

The contraception campaign

The emperor’s contraception and family planning campaign becomes more feverish. He cares not that it will overthrow all native culture, both black African and Arab, by insisting on enforced birth control and smaller families. There’s a comic passage about a modern poster he gets made up and put everywhere showing two families.

It portrayed two contrasted scenes. On one side a native hut of hideous squalor, overrun with children of every age, suffering from every physical incapacity — crippled, deformed, blind, spotted and insane; the father prematurely aged with paternity squatted by an empty cook-pot; through the door could be seen his wife, withered and bowed with child-bearing, desperately hoeing at their inadequate crop. On the other side a bright parlour furnished with chairs and table; the mother, young and beautiful, sat at her ease eating a huge slice of raw meat; her husband smoked a long Arab hubble-bubble (still a caste mark of leisure throughout the land), while a single healthy child sat between them reading a newspaper. Inset between the two pictures was a detailed drawing of some up-to-date contraceptive apparatus and the words in Sakuyu: which home do you choose?

The comedy comes in the way the entire native population fails to get the message and picks the wrong home:

See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good; sit eating meat: and rich man no good: he only one son.
See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children: one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.

It all leads up to the great Pageant of Contraception complete with floats depicting the Modern Woman, empowered by birth control to lead modern economically productive lives.

Achon the pretender

Meanwhile the emperor’s enemies have joined forces. The central trio of Connolly, Patriarch and Ballon  realise they’ll need someone to replace Seth when they overthrow him. They have heard rumours that a long-lost cousin of Seth’s, Achon, a son of the Great Emperor Amurath, was seized by Amurath’s daughter (the Empress whose recent death signalled Seth’s ascension) and sent away to be incarcerated for life in the remote monastery of St Mark the Evangelist.

He must be pushing 90 now, but the trio command the Earl of Ngumo, a comically traditionalist black chieftain, to journey through the jungle to the remote monastery and retrieve him. (The monastery itself, down to its layout and description of its ceremonies, is clearly based on the monastery of Debra Lebanos which Waugh visited on his 1930 trip and described in great (comic) detail in Remote People.)

There then follow long and canny negotiations between the Earl and the ancient Abbot about whether Achon was ever taken there, if so whether he’s still alive, if he’s still alive, how much it will cost to take Ngumo to him. This takes days, the stylised and formal discussions ringing very true and testifying to Waugh’s first hand experience of this kind of culture.

When finally revealed, it turns out Achon is pushing ninety and has been kept for decades in a cave chained to the wall. He can’t walk and can’t talk and has no idea what’s happening to him. So this is the walking skeleton the Earl of Ngumo brings back to the capital, where he is kept a secret by the trio of conspirators.

The pageant of contraception

And so the day dawns for the dramatic climax of the book, the great Birth Control Gala commences, a great festival day for the population of Debra Dowa. In a nice narrative decision Waugh doesn’t describe the thing as an omniscient narrator, but makes us see the entire thing from the point of view of Dame Mildred Porch and Miss Tin, whose hotel room overlooks the town’s main street but is quickly so overrun by uninvited guests that they decamp up to the corrugated metal roof of the hotel, with its short concrete parapet, to enjoy the scene.

Unfortunately, what they witness is the chaotic coup staged by Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon. The procession of floats of the Modern Woman and Girl Guides carrying inspiring banners (“WOMEN OF TOMORROW DEMAND AN EMPTY CRADLE”, “THROUGH STERILITY TO CULTURE”) is suddenly interrupted by gunfire, the screaming of crowds, and then machine gunfire as troops move in.

After a long, confused and terrified afternoon trapped on the hotel roof in the blazing sun, as night finally falls the two women hear pukka English voices coming from down in the street. It is none other than young William from the Legation who has come to check they are OK. He is about to drive off when they chuck a whiskey bottle then a pillow down at his car which delays him long enough for them to run down the stairs and into the street and insist that he take them to the British Legation, despite his protestations and the knowledge that he’ll get it in the ear from his boss, Sir Sampson, who hates the even peacefulness of Legation life being disturbed in any way. Even by a coup.

The coronation of Achon

Again the omniscient narrator is ditched in favour of retailing the confused events of the next few days as they trickle through to the British Legation, isolated and fearful, 6 or 7 miles from the capital. Word comes through that Seth survived the coup but has fled.

Then we cut to the great ceremony, a week or so later, of the state coronation of Achon, who Connolly, the Patriarch and Ballon’s various propaganda channels have been telling the populace is the true heir to the throne. Unfortunately, when the Patriarch places the elaborate crown of Azania on Achon’s head it snaps his feeble neck and he dies on the spot. Chaos ensues.

At the British Legation

Fear in the Legation. Basil turns up in native disguise with camels and African servants. He helped Seth escape from the capital in the chaos after the coup, accompanied by bodyguards etc and has arranged a rendezvous in a week’s times.

Then he’s come to the Legation to see if they need his help. He takes over security and sets a watch of armed guards in case the locals or Connolly’s troops try to attack, but there is no attack. Instead, after a few days, a plane flies overhead and drops a stone with a message tied round it telling them to pack their stuff, more planes will be along soon. A few hours later some planes land in open fields by the Legation and tell the gathered Brits they are being evacuated. All the characters gather up whatever can be stashed in a small suitcase, and scamper into the planes which taxi and take off.

Prudence just has time for a last scene with Basil, begging him to catch a plane with them. But he is determined to make a rendezvous in the jungle with Seth. Prudence is wearing a rather fetching red beret. Sadly she scampers back to the planes which were waiting for her before they all take off together.

The view from up in the air is frightfully ripping till her plane suddenly seems to be flying lower than the others, the pilot yells something back to his passengers, then he has to make an emergency landing in a clearing. ‘Should have it fixed in a jiffy,’ he quips. I expected maybe Basil, trekking through the jungle with his camels, might find and rescue her. Little did I know…

Basil’s trek

There’s then quite a long description of Basil’s trek through the jungle to the rendezvous point with Seth. One by one the natives abandon him. On the second day his servants intercept a messenger who’s carrying a piece of paper stuck in the traditional cleft stick. The message is from Viscount Boaz to the Earl of Ngumo and says a) he is loyal to the new emperor Achon b) he has with him the former emperor Seth c) should he take steps to relieve the new emperor of this embarrassment? I.e. murder Seth?

Immediately grasping that Seth’s life is at stake, Basil orders the reluctant messenger to turn round and run back to Boaz and tell him Achon is dead, the coup has failed, so Seth has been restored as the rightful emperor, and not to kill him.

A day later Basil arrives at the rendezvous but, to cut a long story short, discovers Seth is dead. If only the messenger had returned a day sooner he would be alive. Boaz, who had captured Seth and is responsible for his murder, makes up various excuses and tells a stream of fictions about how Seth met his end, accident, illness, suicide and so on. Whatever the cause, he is dead. They take Basil to see Seth’s body, which native women are sewing up in a shroud with herbs and spices.

Basil decides on the spot to do the decent thing and take the body back to Seth’s ancestral birthplace, in the heart of the Wanda people. There follows more trekking through the jungle with camels bearing the dead emperor’s body.

Eventually Basil arrives and is sadly welcomed and there is a long, detailed and genuinely moving description of the funeral rites the Wanda people give their dead leader. Basil makes a long and noble exequy, such as would befit the funeral rites of a dead hero in the Iliad or Beowulf. There is not a shred of condescension as Waugh describes with forensic accuracy the ritual feast in which Basil joins, as the assembled tribal notables eat from a large pot of stew, scooping up the chunks of meat with flatbread, along with the ritual drinking and other traditional funeral rites. Waugh endows it all with great beauty as it builds to its climax of an impressive funeral pyre.

Soon the pyre was enveloped in towering flames. The people took up the song and swayed on their haunches, chanting. The bundle on the crest bubbled and spluttered like fresh pine until the skin cerements burst open and revealed briefly in the heart of the furnace the incandescent corpse of the Emperor. Then there was a subsidence among the timbers and it disappeared from view.

I actually found this scene genuinely moving because it is described so precisely and without a shred of patronage or condescension, Waugh and his character taking it completely at face value as rites becoming a dead emperor.

All the more shocking, horrifying and bitterly nihilistic is the sequel. Walking away from the ongoing celebrations around the burning pyre Basil comes across a drunk old man in the shadows, nodding and drooling. Suddenly a flare of light from the pyre reveals the old man is wearing a red beret. Basil realises it’s Prudence’s. Is she here? Basil shakes the old man and asks where the owner of the hat is. The old man pats his tummy and says ‘Here. We’ve all just eaten her.’

Waugh achieves his best psychological or emotional effects by distancing them, like the casual deaths in Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies. He doesn’t give Basil’s response or reaction or feelings. The chapter, and the entire Africa section ends on this genuinely shocking revelation.

Back in London

Next thing we know we are back in silly frivolous superficial London and Basil is ringing up his dissolute chums, owners of the bedroom where we first met him coming round from a drunken stupor, Sonia and Alisdair.

They inform him that while he’s been away there’s been some kind of ‘crash’ and everyone’s now beastly poor. It’s just too too dull. He pops round, they drink and play silly parlour games and every time he threatens to tell them anything about his African adventure they all tell him to shush. Nothing serious here, thank you very much. Later in the evening he goes round to see his mistress, the married woman Angela Lyne. The sense is of him picking up the shallow, cynical merry-go-round of London life exactly where he left off. Nothing has changed in the tone of eternal frivolity, the worship of superficiality,  the casual, depthless amorality. Except for Basil. He has changed, changed utterly.

Bleak endings

You often read people referring to the bleak ending of A Handful of Dust as an epitome of futility. I’d forgotten that the endings of Vile Bodies and Black Mischief are every bit as devastatingly nihilistic. Some people might find the killing and eating of Prudence funny, maybe I did when I was a callow youth, but now I am appalled by it and, like the death of vivacious Agatha Runcible, it casts a gloomy pall over everything which preceded it.

Epilogue

The League of Nations steps in and makes Azania a ‘protectorate’ to be jointly administered by France and Britain. We are swiftly introduced to the new generation of civil servants who are going to run the place, are building roads and hospitals and pretty little bungalows on the hill and gossip gaily about all the characters who have featured in the novel and have now departed. Sir Samson, his wife, the other Legation officials are old news now. Waugh shows with devastating accuracy how the gossip and common opinion about them has been twisted and distorted out of all recognition. It’s what happens to everyone all the time. Everything any of us does is quickly twisted and distorted out of all recognition by people who have never met us and don’t care.

The narrative focuses in on two young Brits who’ve joined the recently appointed Protectorate staff as they discuss the fate of old Colonel Connolly. They pride themselves on having gotten him expelled from the country and speculate that he might end up in Abyssinia, funny how he’s so attached to that native woman of his (Connolly’s ‘Black Bitch’ loyal to the last).

And then they agree how they all rely on the services of the estimable Armenian, Mr Youkoumian. Rulers may come and rulers may go but quick-thinking, flexible and adaptable merchants go on for ever.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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