WHEN a British novelist casts about a jaundiced eye, seeking a locale ripe with the makings of satire, his gaze sooner or later falls on Africa. More than 50 years ago, Evelyn Waugh moved things into high comic gear with Black Mischief. More recently, William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa brought the jibes and jeers up to date, and, just last month, Christopher Hope's Kruger's Alp brought them as close as current headlines. But British satire is more often, and most outrageously, directed at Britain's own icons and institutions, and nothing strikes a British satirist as funnier than the Foreign Office.
Put this all together and you get Alan Judd's Short of Glory, a gloriously funny and murderously barbed send-up of British foreign relations in the midst of typically African chaos, confusion and cock-ups. It may well be the best satire of its sort since the Boulting Brothers' 1958 film, Man in a Cocked Hat, in which a bumbling Terry- Thomas, minion of a befuddled F.O., painted a white stripe across Peter Sellers' mythical kingdom of Gallardia.
Patrick Stubbs is the newest recruit to the Foreign Office, only just hired on and immediately, before he has a chance to dry behind his ears, sent out to the British embassy in Battenburg, Lower Africa. There he is to replace the consul, Arthur Whelk, who has mysteriously vanished, perhaps kidnapped, perhaps simply done a bunk and disappeared into the vast unknown.
Patrick is a likable sort, neither officious nor ambitious, decent and honest but green, very green. He thinks of himself "not only as approximately normal but also as what was normally called 'nice', more or less." He imagines Lower Africa to be "an exciting controversial country" and that he will be involved in "an activity called diplomacy." When, on his arrival, a colleague points out the jacarandas, "The word was familiar, possibly a tribal name."
Life in the embassy matches none of his expectations and includes no such activity as diplomacy. Instead, the heart of the matter is eternal paperwork. "Minutes were drafted, redrafted, lengthened, filed, rewritten, lost, found, abandoned, resurrected and superseded. Programmes were drawn up, revised, split, merged, provisionally accepted, provisionally rejected and filed for ever." The key to success is good drafting of reports. "The essence of good drafting," the ambassador explains, "is to be both clear and comprehensive which is never easy . . . The essence of good diplomatic drafting is where possible to avoid saying anything that admits of only one meaning." As for talking, his advice is: "Never say what you think till you've thought what you ought to say." The point of all embassy activity is, at bottom, to avoid something dreadful known as embarrassment. "Mention of embarrassment was like mention of plague in a medieval city."
Patrick, approximately normal, does not thrive in this atmosphere. He doesn't get on very well with his frenetic colleague Steggles, his stupefied deskmate Longhurst, his dotty ambassador, Sir Wilfrid (who ducks out of diplomatic garden parties to catch cricket on the telly) or with Jim Rissik, Lower African Police Force officer, whose girlfriend Patrick inadvertently steals. Then there's Chatsworth, the Lost and Found man (and fugitive from a J.P. Donleavy novel), sent out by the Foreign Office to find the lost Arthur Whelk. And finally, in a scene both hilarious and horrifying, and productive of immeasurable embarrassment for all concerned, there's Arthur Whelk, followed hard upon by no less imposing a figure than the mysterious and terrible Lion of Bapuwana himself.
JUDD IS expert at plotting a mad course for his hapless characters, and Short of Glory is a very funny novel indeed. It is also the very best sort of satire, its humor punctured throughout by knifepoints of serious criticism. Lower Africa -- and we all know who you are -- is a society of people who have deliberately taken leave of normality. Patrick likes the Lower Africans he gets to know, especially Joanna and even the sometimes vicious Jim Rissik, but their insistence that things simply are as they are in their country creates a barrier past which Patrick's normality cannot reach. And Lower Africa forces people, citizens and observers both, to examine their own ideas. In the end, even Joanna tells Patrick, "You can't be neutral here," a sentiment that would be equally at home in a novel by Andre Brink.
Among the comic scenes in Short of Glory are scenes of bombs and beatings and bloodshed. Laughter may or not be the best medicine, but in capable hands, as it is here, it may turn out to be a very sharp and effective weapon.