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Westerners Behaving Badly In 'Good Man In Africa'

by Susan Coll
Aug 12, 2010

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It was nearly 20 years ago that I first read A Good Man in Africa. I lived in India at the time, and aspired to write sweeping literary fiction of the sort that featured memsahibs sipping sweet lime sodas against the backdrop of heat and dust.

The writing wasn't going so well, but there were many things to blame, apart from my own bad prose — the frequent power outages, the dry heat that seemed to bifurcate my brain, the travails, sometimes screwball in nature, of life abroad. Like the time our driveway was transformed into a funeral home, a body lying in the sun, in state, for days.

It's a long, twisting story — the stuff of dark, comic novels set in hot, distant lands. It's the stuff of William Boyd, as it happens, and from the moment I encountered his hapless protagonist — a misogynistic, misanthropic, overweight, oversexed first secretary of the British High Commission in the fictitious West African country Kinjanja — I knew I had discovered one of my favorite books, and one that would help me shape my voice.

Morgan Leafy is his name — the mere cadence of which makes me laugh — and he has logged three years in this corrupt, oil-rich country, the world's seventh-largest importer of champagne. It's the eve of elections, and the British are meddling, badly. Everyone is gearing up for an Independence Day visit by the Duchess of Ripon, the queen's third cousin twice removed, and there's a dead body on the High Commission grounds that no one dares to move.

By novel's end, the madcap plot has Leafy dressed as Father Christmas, his singed hair resembling an atrocious candyfloss perm, his missing eyebrow covered in an oblong Elastoplast, the result of an unfortunate petrol incident that involves the problematic corpse. Leafy's personal life is as complicated as Kinjanjan politics; among other problems, he's being manipulated — deservedly and hilariously so — by his Kinjanjan girlfriend, whom he treats with the same oblivious, imperious condescension that marks British behavior in this country generally.

It's comic fiction, yes, but Boyd, who spent his childhood in Ghana and Nigeria, is unflinching in his critique of British attitudes during early post-Colonial years. In one scene, the Kinjanjan elite are invited to view a film about the royal family meant to remind them, as non-British, "precisely just what it is they didn't possess and why, therefore, they just weren't quite such special people." Such observations place this book in the tradition of sharp social satires penned by earlier writers like Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and George Orwell — books that drew humor from deriding Western, and chiefly British, behavior abroad.

Arguably Westerners are still behaving badly abroad — it's just that the accents have changed. What's missing is the next generation of satirists to help make the world, if not a better, then at least a funnier place.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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