Friday, September 20, 2013

Black Mischief

Something zany is going on in the East African Kingdom of Azania in the early 1930s.  Seth, the new Oxford educated emperor, wants to modernize the country.  This means that the army must wear boots instead of going barefoot, the cannibalistic natives must stop eating human flesh, they must have an economy based upon worthless paper money just like the Europeans, and they must have lots of birth control.  In support of this mission Emperor Seth brings in his old chum from Oxford, Basil Seal, to run the Ministry of Modernization.

In brief this is the plot of Evelyn Waugh’s 1932 dark comedy Black Mischief.  Waugh wrote Black Mischief after traveling to Ethiopia to observe the coronation of Emperor Haile Salassie in 1931.  Waugh had written a travel book, Remote People, about his travels in Africa in which he was very much not impressed.  

The always politically incorrect Evelyn Waugh smoking a politically incorrect cigar.

Black Mischief is racist, sarcastic, outrageous and over the top.  It is also very funny.  As one reviewer on Goodreads said it’s like reading the script for an extended Monty Python sketch.  The native troops who have never worn shoes boil their new shoes and eat them.  A family moves into an overturned truck in the middle of the highway (this is apparently something Waugh actually witnessed in Africa!).  A group of cannibal natives eat the daughter of the British Ambassador and feed her to her unsuspecting boyfriend. Black Mischief is composed of one farcical scene after another.  

The book does have a serious point.  Waugh is satirizing “modernization.”  Whatever is deemed “modern” Emperor Seth has to have.  No doubt taking a jibe at the rising fascist states in Europe in the early thirties, Waugh has his English Modernization Minister say:

 “we’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago.  If we’d had to modernise a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bicameral legislature, proportional representation, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, referendums . . .”
“What is all that?” asked the Emperor.
“Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.”

(It is ironic that Waugh took a pro-fascist stance in favor of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1935.)

Although Waugh had recently converted to Catholicism, Black Mischief was not well received by the Catholic press.  Ernest Oldmeadow, the editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet complained that Black Mischief was “ a disgrace to anyone professing the Catholic name.” *    Outraged by the sexual references in the book, Oldmeadow was particularly outraged by Waugh’s description of a Nestorian Monastery which was based upon Waugh’s real life visit to a monastery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

“A well substantiated tradition affirmed that the little river watering the estate was in fact the brook Kedron conveyed there subterraneously; its waters were in continual requisition for the relief of skin diseases and stubborn boils.  Here too were preserved among other relics of less certain authenticity, David’s stone prised out of the forehead of Goliath (a boulder of astonishing dimensions), a leaf from the Barren Fig Tree, the rib from which Eve had been created, and a wooden cross which had fallen from heaven quite unexpectedly during Good Friday luncheon some years back.”

English Catholics were not the only people who were not too happy with Waugh’s humor.  When Waugh traveled back to Ethiopia to cover the Italian invasion for a London newspaper, the British Embassy, offended at Waugh’s lampooning of British diplomats in Black Mischief, refused to offer him any assistance.**  

If you can overlook the racist nineteenth century “White Man’s Burden” viewpoint and juvenile humor (Waugh was only 31 when Black Mischief was published), Black Mischief is still a great deal of fun.  

* Humphrey Carpenter,  The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, p. 241.

**  Ibid p. 282.

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