Jerusalem is the third part of a loose trilogy spread across Africa and England, which includes Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and Twelve Bar Blues. While it shares some of the same characters and concerns of its predecessors, it is a more ambitious piece of work – but less coherent as a result.
There is a lot to like in this expansive novel, in which Patrick Neate effectively and skilfully tells three stories at once. In present- day London, ultra-hip and hyper-jaded spin merchant Preston Pinner runs Authenticity™, a nationwide taste-making company. When Preston discovers the promising young rapper Nobody, who does a genre-busting version of "Jerusalem", he sees an opportunity for mass exposure and exploitation, but also, ultimately, the chance to cleanse his post-everything, saturated soul.
Preston's father, meanwhile, is a junior government minister who has been sent to the fictional African state of Zambawi to negotiate the release of a multi-millionaire businessman recently arrested for gunrunning.
Neate's third narrative takes place around the turn of the 20th century, and is delivered in the form of diary entries by a disabled and disillusioned soldier recently returned from the horrors of the Boer War, embarking on a journey to discover the essence of Englishness. In between these stories we get other snippets such as newspaper articles, letters and memos, as well as a few Zambawian myths and folk tales. Running through the whole novel are ideas about identity, both personal and national, as well as an overarching narrative regarding colonial and native attitudes to the fraught relationship between England and Africa.
Neate is always an engaging and sharp writer, and the best stuff here is when he casts his satirical eye over modern London, the terrifying culture of celebrity and a world in which the concept of authenticity has lost all meaning. Preston Pinner is a wonderful creation, continually conflicted, simultaneously loving and hating the vacuous world he has created for himself; always struggling to find connections between what he says and what he really means. As we discover that Nobody is an illegal immigrant from Zambawi, the satire escalates, and Neate expertly exposes hypocrisy in the media and the country as a whole with regards to ideas of integration and multiculturalism.
By comparison, the other narrative strands are less successful. The story of Preston's father in Zambawi, in which this bumbling, posh buffoon gradually becomes aware of the massive cultural chasm between himself and the Africans, is fun but rather predictable. And the Boer War strand is the least engaging of the three. Necessarily delivered more soberly than the rest of the book, it never really takes off. Although it is neatly dovetailed into the other stories by the end, for most of the book these sections stick out like a sore thumb, and you have the distinct impression that the author can't wait to get back to the acerbic observation of the present-day action.
But despite such minor flaws, this is an impressive book, and Neate is trying to address some big questions. What do we mean by national identity in the 21st century? How can we find meaning in a modern world where everything is jaded and cynical? How can we break out of the cycle of abuse that blights personal, political and national relationships between the West and Africa? Neate might not have all the answers, but his examination of the questions is still fascinating.Reuse content