24 August 2008

Paul Torday - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

At a festival this summer I heard Paul Torday speak about his most recent book, about a man who drinks himself to death exclusively on fine French wines. He was an odd chap - a businessman for most of his life, he wrote his first novel, at the age of 59, to great reviews and, presumably, healthy sales. He seemed a bit nervous in front of a larger crowd than he might have been expecting (I think Maureen Lipmann was on next), and his responses to softball questions weren't particularly illuminating.

Anyway, I picked up his first novel with few expectations, to see what the fuss was about. And my conclusion is that I can see why people are reading it, but it certainly doesn't deserve the praise it's received.

The book is a satire upon modern government, although a very slight one, and not very well written. It has been praised for its innovative structure - the book is told in a variety of forms - emails, diary entries, newspaper clippings, transcripts of interviews, and no 'straight' authorial narrative - but this isn't so original, and it's hard to do well, to distinguish between the tones of the different forms. Torday largely fails to do this - the central character, Alfred Jones, supposedly speaks in interviews in exactly the same way that he writes his diary, which is, implausibly, in the manner of a novelist. There's little consideration to who the audience of each piece might be, so how the style should be adjusted - people in interviews don't reproduce conversations verbatim, nor become lyrical for no reason; they're far more guarded. Torday uses the forms as a device for telling the story in much the same manner as he would in a straight narrative, rendering them redundant, and in fact irritating by their inconsistency.

There are also inaccuracies that grate - Torday creates extracts from Hansard, but fails to understand the structure of PMQs. He also has a character, Alfred's wife, who is an Oxford-educated economist who has worked in a big international bank for twenty years, supposedly on the fast track, who earns £75,000 pa, and is very proud of this, even though it's smaller than the amount a woman in her position might expect in the real world by a large factor. Does this matter? To an extent it does. An effective satire needs to be rooted in the world it's lampooning, and while deviations from it can serve a comic purpose, inaccuracies such as these just distract, and highlight the author's lack of awareness. The latter example wouldn't matter so much if the author didn't make such a big issue out of her earnings.

The plot itself is merely passable, as farces go. A government that wants to distract the public from an unpopular Middle Eastern war latches on to a mad plan by a Yemeni sheikh to introduce salmon fishing to his country, despite the obvious unsuitability of the country for such a project. Alfred Jones is the government scientist deputed to find a solution. The climax is worthy of Ben Elton, but could have been written up a little more. There's not much more to the book - the characters are mostly two dimensional, it's witty in parts but the targets are barn-door wide. Good for the beach, when your brain is mush already, but no more demanding than that.

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1 comment:

Tor Hershman said...

This sounds most amusing, thanks.