Mungo's heir

DARKEST ENGLAND by Christopher Hope, Macmillan pounds 14.99

THIS hilarious new novel deals in reverses of fortune and of perspective. Hope stands the commonplace western idea of the heroic missionary-traveller opening up the dark continent of Africa on its head in order to mock it. The ex-Empire fights back: this time it's the darkest England of the book's title that comes under the spy-glass and fails to live up to expectation. Christopher Hope keeps a straight face throughout as he recounts his bizarre and grotesque tale. It's the reader who falls about laughing. Often this laughter is pain-filled, for the novel's comedy is founded on the rage and bitterness of a satirist who spares us nothing in his determination to expose the corruption and stupidity he sees as endemic to English culture. Certainly this is a funny book, but it's a very serious one too.

Hope's narrator, David Mungo Booi, is the descendant of the San or Bushmen who once lived in the distant Karoo. Booi's people, having survived invasion and colonial exploitation, have become nomads, their lands stolen and their rights denied. They decide to remind the current Queen of Britain of her ancestor's promise, repeated by the latter's grandson, "good King George ... to kick the Boer to hell and gone whenever we should ask".

Booi is chosen as messenger, embarking on a mission never before attempted by civilised people: to explore England as a site suitable for settlement by the Bushmen and to assess the potential friendliness and capabilities of the natives. Many are the questions to be answered: "Would there always be an England? Did the Lord Mayors of all great English cities keep talking cats? Had Jerusalem been built in England's green and pleasant land, as legend insisted? At what precisely did the English aim their arrows of desire? Were there corners of foreign fields that were forever England?"

So far, so amiable. As Booi lands in England, falls foul of the immigration authorities and is whisked into brutal detention, the fun turns nastier. Booi is re-classified by horribly well-meaning white liberals as a victim, to be pitied, patronised, despised and jollied along. He is rescued by the Reverend Farebrother (is this a swipe at the idealised cleric of Middlemarch?) who, as an ex-flying Bishop once dedicated to reassuring priestess-hating Anglican clergy that they were indeed "the roast beef of Old England", now devotes himself to going "to bat for the little fellow". To be a little fellow is to be a woolly aboriginal, "last of the a dying breed, mere children adrift in a world of uncaring adults, living relics from the Stone Age". The local villagers have equally clear ideas: Booi is either an enemy or a pet; while to Farebrother's repressed daughter, he is the epitome of untamed and primitive sex.

Booi's slow journey towards Buckingham Palace allows him to encounter, Gulliver-fashion, the horrors of modern England: the public schools, bullies, racists, woman-haters and wife-beaters, the hopeless inhabitants of run- down housing estates, the muddle-headed New Agers and fellow-travellers of all kinds, the murderous children, the mad aristocrats running zoos dedicated to preserving forms of near-extinct life such as penis-worshipping nymphettes and orange-hatted miners.

Hope's targets are widely scattered and varied. He swipes cheerfully and savagely in all directions. Most of the time he hits his target, and makes the reader wince. The comedy explodes in the gap between Booi's misunderstanding, based on his gentlemanly and naive idealism, and the reader's inside knowledge of the true state of affairs. Just occasionally, the sophisticated certainties slip, and Booi himself seems foolish, which Hope can't have intended.

Delicious farce to end with: slipping into Buck Palace along with the tourists, Booi stays behind, imitating one of those tasteless statues of black servants. He stands so still that the cleaning lady has a go at him with her feather duster. This busy cleaner reveals herself as the Monarch, struggling to survive the recession, and opens her heart to her faithful subject in one of the funniest, and, it must be said, sweetest set-pieces of this otherwise angrily subversive novel.

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