Monday, September 10, 2007

Fish over troubled waters: salmon in the Yemen

Just finished two books that had a couple of things in common – they were both very quick reads (thank FSM for small mercies etc) and, in different ways, slightly naïve. But while David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors is didactic and often tiresome to read (more on that book later) despite the cleanness of its prose, Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of the more enjoyable things I’ve read recently. I picked it up as a break from some of the stuff I’m saddled with for reviewing, and finished it in just 2-3 hours. It’s a nice example of how an occasionally simple-minded book can be redeemed by a sharp sense of humour.

Torday is, at age 61, a first-time novelist and his book doesn’t waste much time on preliminaries. First, it announces itself with one of the most eye-catching titles of any recent work of fiction – right up there with last year’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (whose author Marina Lewycka, in what has to be a clever marketing move, supplied a blurb for this book). Then, as if to disabuse the reader of any idea that “salmon fishing in the Yemen” might be an obscure, allusive reference that has nothing to do with the story, it quickly casts the line: on the very first page, we learn of a project that does in fact seek to introduce salmon, and salmon fishing, into the wadis of the Yemen.

This project is the brainchild of His Excellency Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama, a man with a vision (or so he thinks). The sheikh’s intentions are splendidly noble: bringing the sport of angling to his people, he believes, will enable them to transcend class distinctions and the many other divisive forces in their lives; it will help them find inner tranquility and acquire the virtues of patience, solitude and tolerance that set salmon-fishers apart from the rest of mankind**. “They will feel the enchantment of this silver fish and the river it swims in… And then, when talk turns to what this tribe said or that tribe did, or what to do with the Israelis or the Americans, and voices grow heated, then someone will say, ‘Let us arise, and go fishing’.”

Thus we learn that the salmon are, in a manner of speaking, red herrings. For all the piscatorial information Torday’s book throws up at regular intervals (on spawning conditions, fishing techniques, the painstaking construction of holding basins for the displaced salmon), what it’s really about is the Power of Belief. Not belief in a particular religion, as its atheist protagonist Dr Alfred Jones (a bemused fisheries scientist who has been recruited to the daunting cause) comes to realise, but belief in belief itself; the idea that something that seems impossible can be achieved.

This is a slight idea in itself, and at times it threatens to take the tone of Torday’s novel close to that of the average self-help book. But what saves Salmon Fishing in the Yemen from the “If You are Sinking, Become a Submarine” variety of dreariness is its sense of humour – often deadpan, sometimes hysterical – along with its recognition that for every idealist with a grand vision for the world, there are dozens of self-serving cretins in high places, doing everything to screw that vision up. The most memorable character in this book is the unctuous Peter Maxwell, the director of communications (and spin-doctor) for the British Prime Minister, who realises that “the Salmon-Yemen project” is the perfect image-building exercise for the government after its many misadventures in the Middle East. Maxwell may at first appear to be a caricature, but for anyone with even a passing knowledge of the workings of contemporary politics, his sycophancy, single-minded obtuseness and determination to extract maximum mileage out of any situation are entirely believable. He’s so good at his job that soon he has the PM all but believing that the whole thing was his own idea.
Andrew Marr: Why is your government supporting such an apparently bizarre project?
Prime Minister Jay Vent: Andy, I don’t think that’s the question you should be asking.
AM: [inaudible]
JV: I think the question you should be asking is, what can we do to improve the lives of those troubled people who live in the Middle East__
AM: [interrupts] Well, perhaps, Prime Minister, but that was not the question that I just asked. The question I___
JV: [interrupts] ...and you know, Andy, isn’t it just a little bit special that we’re sitting here talking about changing a Middle Eastern country, and the lives of its people, so much for the better without talking about sending out British troops and helicopters and fighter aircraft. Yes, we’ve done that in the past, because we’ve had to. But now it is different. This time we’re going to send out fish.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is written in the form of interviews like the above, as well as journal entries, press comments and correspondence (email and postal) between characters, and this makes it a very fast read. The story moves chronologically to begin with, but one-third of the way through we have the first of a series of “interrogations” of various characters, including Dr Jones and Maxwell, by a House of Commons committee; it’s easy to guess that these take place sometime in the future, after the completion of the salmon-Yemen project, and the stern tone of the interrogations makes it obvious that something has gone very wrong. That we don’t yet know what this is makes the whole thing darkly funny and heightens the reader’s anticipation of what is to come.

Torday has a good feel for workplace hegemonies, bureaucratic goof-ups and musical-chair games, strained personal relationships and faux-polite conversations that can quickly become menacing. I also enjoyed his knack for conveying little things about his characters through the tone of their correspondence. For instance, the first time we encounter Peter Maxwell is in an email that he sends to a scientist whom he’s never corresponded with before. It’s written in an ultra-informal style, as if they are on back-slapping terms, and this prompts the startled recipient to mail back “Have we met?” To which Peter, cheerful and clueless as ever, replies in classic PR style, “No, we haven’t met, but I look forward to it some day soon!”

On occasion, Torday secures easy laughs (e.g., in the chapters titled “Intercepts of al-Qaeda email traffic” and in a section, reminiscent of Yossarian's letter-censoring adventures in Catch-22, where a soldier’s mail is rendered incomprehensible by the Army), but the overall effect is so brisk and cheerful that it’s hard to be critical. There are more pronounced faults – a couple of characters are underdeveloped, at least one subplot is superfluous and the book skirts dangerously close to making pat observations about the Clash of Civilisations – but nothing that can be considered a crippling misstep. On the whole, there’s little to (sorry, can’t resist) carp about in this very entertaining read.

** Coincidentally, Davidar's novel also involves great visionaries linked by solitude, by the ability to look inward and rise above petty distinctions. But The Solitude of Emperors could have done with less sermon and more salmon.


  1. “If You are Sinking, Become a Submarine” variety of dreariness is its sense of humour – often deadpan, sometimes hysterical – along with its recognition that for every idealist with a grand vision for the world, there are dozens of self-serving cretins in high places, doing everything to screw that vision up."


    thanx for the review

  2. Hey could you tell us about davidar's
    book. good , bad , ugly?

  3. I absolutely loved this book. Thank you for reviewing it!

  4. Anon: I don't do the "good, bad or ugly?" types of reviews, but will post something about the book soon - have to first do a 1600-word review for a magazine (which should provide ample space to discuss the good AND bad AND ugly).

  5. This reminds me (if only by its topic) of that book Reeling in Russia by Fen Montaigne, Washington Post correspondent there, who when his posting was coming to an end, decided to check out the northern reaches of Russia, and its supposedly unspoiled rivers for a spot of fly fishing. He was not disappointed with the fishing. On the other hand, what he found, was desolation, ruined communities, sylvan country, and broken Russians reeling with alcoholism, the collapse of communism leaving them defenceless and unemployed, and environmental burdens on a colossal scale. Plus he earned their disdain by often tossing back the fish he caught. Rip-roaring stuff!