Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Humour in fiction may be as British a speciality as treacle tart or Gloucester Old Spot pork, but sometimes we don't (as it were) take the subject quite seriously enough. This week, Ismail Kadare - Albania's great, unsinkable fable-spinner, a sort of riddling Balkan blend of Franz Kafka and George Orwell - came to London to talk about his life and art at the Institut Français. It was one of those occasions when hearing a writer gives you a precious clue to the voice that runs throughout their work. And the defining quality that arose from Kadare's dialogue with his translator David Bellos was a night-black, rock-dry deadpan wit, both a shield and sword for this dogged survivor.

Kadare grew up under Mussolini's occupation, dodged jails (or bullets) in Enver Hoxha's more-Stalinist-than-Stalin tyranny, and still deploys all the ruses of parable and satire to show Albania's murky past and baffling present. "Once you have satire, comedy, the grotesque in literature," he said, "it's a sure sign there's something healthy about it. If you can get the spirit of mockery to spread" in a dictatorship, "that's a real triumph." Not for nothing, he noted, did Milan Kundera call his first subversive masterpiece The Joke.

We don't have to grapple with the totalitarian ordeals that Kadare and Kundera both outfaced. Rather, a sort of pompous paranoia governs our political discourse, punctuated by squalls of self-righteousness. The British pickings for satirical storytellers have never looked juicier. Why, then, do we have to rely so heavily on the fearless old guard, the unbowed veterans of mischief-making fiction? Have the young guns all gone AWOL?

First, John Mortimer (at 83) tackles the crazy injustice of panic-stricken anti-terror laws in Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (Viking, £18.99). Here, our bewigged trouble-stirrer rides to the rescue like a portly Quixote when false evidence lands a Kilburn doctor, Mahmood Khan, in the entrails of Belmarsh. Rumpole being Rumpole, it all jogs along amiably and craftily enough. Yet there's no disguising the bracing whiff of vitriol amid the claret fumes. A stirring court showdown sets Mortimer's freedom-loving mouthpiece against the legal toadies who believe "everyone's guilty the moment the government says so".

Now Sue Townsend has returned to her redundant royal family - from The Queen and I - with an update on their estate-bound Midlands lives in Queen Camilla (Michael Joseph, £18.99). Here as well, paranoia rules an "unhappy land". "Unknown and unknowable threats" darken the political scene in Townsend's alternative state, as the ex-queen and her shambolic clan row, feud, gossip, sulk and generally enjoy post-palatial life in Hell Close. Back in London, "Boy" English and his "toff lite" New Cons plan a landslide against Jack Barker's meddling, canting Cromwell Party. An official onslaught on dogs spurs the counter-revolution, as a canine revolt ("Dogs of England see the light/ Leave your homes and join the fight") brings humans out in militant sympathy.

It goes on a stretch too long, while Townsend never slips in one vaguely topical gag where six will do. And the sweetly imagined role-reversal royals, with Charles's sessions in his beloved garden and Camilla's trips to the "Everything a Pound" shop, spring from a different - and deeper? - comic root to the political knockabout.

Still, Townsend and Mortimer concur in their gently bristling suspicion of the forces that now "muck about with civil liberties". Both strike a blow (or perhaps chuck a pie) for freedom. Both know how to flick the narrative switch that turns silliness to satire. (In Queen Camilla, insurgent hounds chew up the nation's ID cards.) We're not yet in Albania, and don't yet need a Kadare of our own. But it's heartening, and strengthening, to have these stalwart scoffers on the case.