Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh

Bit of an odd one, this. One of Waugh’s relatively early novels, you can see the similarities with the excellent Scoop. To the reader today, however, the racism jars. And of course one hopes it is ironic and that the writer is mocking it but, actually, he isn’t, I am afraid. There are many things he is mocking and he does so brilliantly, especially the insouciant complacency of the British upper class. But imperial prejudice against other races is not his target, sadly.

The story is essentially about a rich and idle young man who is looking for some purpose in life and ends up on a whim going to a small African country, called Azania, because someone he knew slightly at Oxford – a caricature of the African coming to the centre of civilisation and returning home with patronisingly comical ideas about bringing it to his homeland – has become ruler there.

There are some funny bits, when he is talking about the stupidity and empty-headedness of the expats. But lots of bits that might have been funny at one time but now seem offensively racist. The ‘darkies’ (his word, not as far as I can tell used with irony) and the stereotypically devious Arabs in the book are two dimensional and, I suppose, fitted with the prejudices of the 1930s. But I expected more from Waugh and was disappointed.

Maybe it has just not aged well. The style is still lovely and smooth but, all in all, I wouldn’t recommend this slight novel.


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