Wednesday, May 18, 2011

the last book I read

A Good Man In Africa by William Boyd.

Morgan Leafy is a mid-ranking British diplomat in the fictional African country of Kinjanja. This is not exactly a prime posting, as his status-conscious superior Arthur Fanshawe seems only too painfully aware, but then again Morgan is not exactly prime diplomatic material, being a little too fond of a drink, chasing after bored expatriate wives and general work-shyness than in climbing the career ladder.

Morgan's deviousness and poor impulse control lead him into some awkward scrapes: firstly he catches a dose of the clap from his on-off native Kinjanjan girlfriend Hazel, and this leads to an ill-tempered encounter with abrasive Scottish doctor Alex Murray and an embarrassing evening with Fanshawe's daughter Priscilla - having pursued her vigorously (her general posh spoilt appallingness being mitigated in Morgan's eyes by her spectacularly pert breasts) he then has to fight her off on the very night she has decided will be, you know, The Night, deciding (wisely, for once) that any short-term gratification would be outweighed by the long-term consequences of giving the boss's daughter a dose. Needless to say she is none too happy about this and soon takes refuge in the arms of Dalmire, one of Morgan's diplomatic colleagues.

Morgan has other things to think about, though, as Fanshawe soon gives him a top-priority assignment - get to know Sam Adekunle, a local politician, businessman, landowner and general high-roller. Adekunle is intending to run for president in the forthcoming elections and the British want to make sure he's on-side in advance of that, to the extent of being prepared to offer a little light bribery, which should do the trick, because, well, your African loves shiny trinkets and the possibility of a trip on an aeroplane, doesn't he?

Well, actually it seems that Adekunle is a bit more sophisticated than that, and it becomes difficult to tell who's manipulating whom. Morgan soon resolves this by rather unwisely sleeping with Adekunle's British wife, Celia, and Adekunle promptly starts blackmailing him. It turns out that Adekunle would like a bit of bribery done as well, this time of the seemingly incorruptible Alex Murray, who is on the approval board for a piece of property development work that will make Adekunle a large sum of money as long as the deal is approved.

The trouble is, not only is Murray seemingly a pillar of dour upstanding prickly Scottish moral rectitude, but Morgan's attempts at striking up a friendship haven't gone well. Following the vexed encounter at the clap clinic Morgan has tried to enlist Murray's help in getting the body of one of Fanshawe's domestic staff, Innocent, removed from the grounds of the diplomatic residence after she's been struck by lightning. Not only does Murray refuse to help (as it's outside his jurisdiction), none of the other native staff want to help either until someone has paid for a local medicine man to exorcise the bad ju-ju left by the lightning god.

Things come to a head, as they inevitably will - Morgan makes a half-hearted attempt to fulfil his obligation to Adekunle by trying to bribe Murray during a round of golf, Murray naturally refuses and threatens to go to Fanshawe to tell him what's been going on. Meanwhile Adekunle has won the election, but there's some doubt as to whether the result will stick, as some local protest groups view Adekunle as a British stooge, and there seems a possibility of a military coup d'├ętat as well. Besieged in Adekunle's residence with Adekunle, his supporters and the Fanshawes, Morgan suddenly finds himself siezed with an urge to do the right thing, with unexpected consequences....

This was William Boyd's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 29. Among the myriad bits of advice given to aspiring writers, "write about what you know" seems to be a favourite, and that is what Boyd has done here - he was born in Ghana and brought up in Ghana and Nigeria. "Copy a proven formula" might be another, as this reads very much like Boyd set out to write a modern African-set version of Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. Morgan Leafy and Jim Dixon are very similar characters - the preference for drink and women over notions like work and duty, the irritating boss who makes ludicrous demands of them, the loathing of humbuggery, pretension, affectation and old-fashioned social hierarchies, the catalogue of indignities heaped on them during the course of the respective books, some through their own venality and laziness, some through bad luck. In both cases there's an early dalliance with what might be considered the "right sort of girl" (Priscilla here, Margaret in Lucky Jim), only for that to be abandoned in favour of someone a bit more down-to-earth and interesting (Celia Adekunle here, Christine there, although Celia and Morgan don't get the happy ending that Jim and Christine get), and also a no-nonsense Scot who helps cut through the web of intrigue built up by the central character (Murray here, Julius Gore-Urquhart there). This being 1981 instead of 1954 Boyd felt able (or possibly obliged) to throw in a bit more sex and death, but the strong similarities remain.

None of which is to dismiss this as juvenilia, or hopelessly derivative, or anything like that, as it's very funny and readable - in any case, if you're looking for a literary template you could do a lot worse than Lucky Jim, one of the best comic novels ever written. It's just interesting to see the progression from this to The New Confessions in 1987, and my two favourite Boyds Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon in the early 1990s. Those are better books, I would say, but they're more complex and less funny, so it really depends what you're after.

Anyway, A Good Man In Africa won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1982 - as if to prove my earlier point Lucky Jim won it in 1955. My list goes 1955, 1964#2, 1976#2, 1981#1, 1982#1, 1989#2, 1996#2, 1999#3. It also won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1981, and was made into a film in 1994, the poster for which as displayed here reveals some rather underhanded promotional tactics as it features Sean Connery most prominently despite his playing the pretty minor role of Alex Murray, and doesn't feature Colin Friels (who plays Morgan) at all.

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