Timbuctoo, By Tahir Shah

A Regency-era romp through decadent London hides sly lessons for the present in its plot

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The Independent Culture

Robert Adams is the US seaman and protagonist of this first novel by a prolific and adventurous travel writer. Based on a true memoir the author found in the British Library, it is ostensibly a Heart of Darkness tale, full of cruelties and barbarities, about an innocent Westerner enslaved and mistreated by Muslims, who passes into slavery, owned by the pagan King of Timbuctoo.

Set in London in 1815, where Adams finds himself taken up by savants, explorers and aristocrats bent on conquering and looting the "Golden City of Timbuctoo", Shah's novel embarks on a rumbustious Regency romp which has the Prince Regent ballooning over Hyde Park – and crash-landing – Lord Byron and Alvanley wagering over trifles, and illustrious surgeons conducting public dissections on the rotten corpses of hanged criminals.

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There is a Ponzi scheme based on exploiting Timbuctoo's alleged wealth, a bank-run, and a malevolent Hell-Fire Club secret society where black magic is masterminded by a super-villain. Like the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, Shah wants to make your flesh creep: there are poisonings, stabbings, tortures, murders and gruesome dripping maladies. His Regency London is a smelly, filthy, insanitary place.

Owing more to Blackadder and Monty Python than Simon Schama, Shah's deeply researched history is deliberately fantastic and often absurd. This is by design. Montesquieu used fictional Oriental diplomats to present a satirical critique of 18th-century Paris in his Persian Letters. Shah reverses the technique – a British Asian Muslim author uses a morally upright American Johnny Appleseed , replete with all the republic's democratic virtues, to present a critique of English snobbery, royalty worship, aristocratic brainlessness, financial chicanery, and unclean living. His London of 1815, we soon realise, is also today's city, presented as a corrupt despotism, little different from that of Timbuctoo. It is all done with energy, brio and fun – but Shah's knife goes deep.

An opulent, large-format edition, printed in Hong Kong, this curious and original book has evaded the usual censorship imposed by Anglo-American publishers. Shah has organised the whole endeavour himself, following in the self-publishing footsteps of fellow British-Asian author Timothy Mo. His book manages to be politically incorrect in a subtle, decorous and wry manner. The moral is that the English were – and are – unwashed, cruel, duplicitous, imperialist barbarians. If you want an unmediated account of what some liberal, Western-educated Muslims really think of our unjust, decrepit, corrupt society, then read this amusing, entertainingly uncomfortable book.