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A Novel

Evelyn Waugh
Published by Little, Brown and Co/NY in 1999
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2007


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There are several Boots to keep track of in this novel, and you, Good Reader, will find it easier to do than most of the characters in the novel. First there is John Boot, the novelist, then there is William Boot, the horticulture writer, and then there is an Uncle Theodore Boot who figures in the mix in the ending chapters, when he is chosen to attend the banquet by Lord Copper.

John Boot is having girl troubles in London and wants to get away from her, as far as possible, and with "Ishmaelite Crisis" headlines in the papers as he lunches with Mrs. Algernon Stitch, his plaintive plea to get away, perhaps as a spy, leads her to suggest Boot to Lord Copper of "The Beast," a London newspaper, as a war correspondent. Only problem is, his remote cousin, William, who writes a bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature, called "Lush Places", is mistakenly picked instead of John.

Then the fun begins. William is less-suited than John to go overseas, much less to the dark heart of Africa. Besides that he doesn't want to go. Only when faced with losing his job as Nature columnist for the Beast does he agree to go. And go he does while his brother waits to be called into the Stitch Service, a facetious name Mrs. Stitch gives for her putting the name "Boot" in the ear of Lord Copper, publisher of the Beast.

The fun goes on throughout the novel of course because of Waugh flashes his sharp wit like a riding crop and lashes out at unsuspected moments, such as when he describes the situation at Boot Magna where all the Boots seemed to live, except John.

[page 23] Ten servants waited upon the household and upon one another, but in a desultory fashion, for they could spare very little time from the five meat meals which tradition daily allowed them. In the circumstances the Boots did not entertain and were indulgently spoken of in the district as being "poor as church mice."

When the fated telegram came to call William away from his half-column on wildflowers, birdsong, and rodents and whisk him off to poisonous vines, parrot chatter, and ravenous hyenas, the servants knew that it was likely bad news, but as the third housemaid said, "It couldn't hardly be a death. All the family's here." (Page 27) This statement is true, as the phrase is often used in this novel, "up to a point." This is the answer William gives to The Beast's representative, Mr. Salter, after being told about the war impending that he is to be covering. A mish-mash of Patriots disguised as Traitors and vice-versa. William is due to be learning about the habits of human rodents. And he'll be off just as soon as the "man with the seedy soft hat" has the "pleasure of stamping" his passport. Oops, where’s his passport? We'd better not let Lord Copper hear about this!

But William arrives in Ishmaelia with his two carriages full of himself and his gear, which includes a canoe kit, sheets of tin, rope, and cleft sticks for sending his dispatches in an emergency. Soon one of the many other correspondents, Corker, is taking him under his wing and explaining about the fabulous Wenlock Jakes, who if he arrived at a place and no war had started, seemed to be able to turn that situation around.

[page 92, 93] "Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn't know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spread-eagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know.
       "Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny — and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There's the power of the press for you.
       "They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage — but that was colour stuff."

William receives all his instructions from home by cable-telegram which is both terse and expensive, very naturally a dangerous combination, but made more dangerously so by William's naivete' about the form of telegrams. Here's a salient example of the problem where William mistakes the sentence marker "STOP" as part of the content of the sentence, and Corker, his competitor at this point, is not going to help him a bit.


       "I can't understand it," said William
       "The only thing that makes any sense is Stop Aden."
       "Yes?" Corker's face, still brightly patterned, was, metaphorically, a blank.
       "What d'you think I'd better do?"
       "Just what they tell you, old boy."

Later, after Corker is told to cooperate with the Beast, he helps William to correctly decipher cabled instructions. Meanwhile John Boot is cooling his heels in London and Mrs. Stitch hasn't a clue as to why he's not at the war front. While back in the jungle, William is still trying to find something to write about in Ishmaelia, about which we finally at the beginning of Book Two receive a description.

[page 105] Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. It lies in the northeasterly quarter of Africa, giving colour by its position and shape to the metaphor often used of it: "the Heart of the Dark Continent." Desert, forest and swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protect its approaches from those more favoured regions which the statesmen of Berlin and Geneva have put to school under European masters. An inhospitable race of squireens cultivate the highlands and pass their days in the perfect leisure which those peoples alone enjoy who are untroubled by the speculative or artistic itch.

As for the various Europeans who first came to Ishmaelia in the nineteenth century as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists, etc. our narrator tells us, "None returned."

[page 105] They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned — according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop).

Waugh is a master of description. Here is his introduction to the beginning of the rainy season in Ismaelia. It is reminiscent of the beginning of "Citizen Kane" when Orson Well's camera does a close up on the lips of Kane as he says his last word, "Rosebud."

[page 116] Fifty yards distant in the annex, secluded from the main block of the hotel by a water-logged garden, lay Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, fast asleep. The room was in half-darkness; door and windows were barred. On the table, beside his typewriter, stood a primus stove. There was a small heap of tins and bottles in the corner. On the walls hung the official, wildly deceptive map of Ishmaelia; a little flag in the centre of Jacksonburg marked Hitchcock's present position. He slept gently; his lips under the fine, white moustache curved in a barely perceptible smile of satisfaction. For reasons of his own he was in retirement.
       And the granite sky wept.

When William decides not to go on a boondoggle to Laku which appears on no maps and is probably nothing more than a long-abandoned trading post in the interior of Ishmaelia, Dr. Benito does his best to persuade him to go with the other foreign newsmen. Unexperienced in the business in which he finds himself, William makes the right choice, the one which leads to his scoop.

[page 176] "Are you sure nothing can make you alter your decision?"
       "Quite sure."
       "Very well," Dr. Benito turned to go. Then he paused. "By the way, have you communicated to any of your colleagues your uncertainty about the existence of the city of Laku?"
       "Yes, but they wouldn't listen."
       "I suppose not. Perhaps they have more experience in their business. Good night."

When William confesses his newfound love to Kätchen, Waugh's skill at description immerses us in a rich metaphor.

[page 180, 181] "Kätchen, I love you. Darling, darling Kätchen, I love you . . ."
       He meant it. He was in love. It was the first time in twenty-three years; he was suffused and inflated and tipsy with love. It was believed at Boot Magna, and jocularly commented upon from time to time, that an attachment existed between him and a neighbouring Miss Caldicote; it was not so. He was a stranger alike to the bucolic jaunts of the hayfield and the dark and costly expeditions of his Uncle Theodore. For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and heart-whole; land bound. Now for the first time he was far from shore, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently, in submarine twilight. A lush place.

After William is fired for not reporting anything, he sends his scoop to London and is quickly reinstated in his contract. When we recall that it was only because of Mrs. Algernon Stitch's request that Lord Copper hired a Boot, in fact, the wrong boot, William instead of John who actually had some foreign reporting experience, this next statement by Mr. Salter is rather droll.

[page 224] "You know," he said meditatively, "it's a great experience to work for a man like Lord Copper. Again and again I've thought he was losing grip. But always it turns out he knew best. What made him spot Boot? It's a sixth sense . . . real genius."

William returns to Boot Magna in triumph, and Lord Copper calls a friend to give Boot a knighthood, but once more fate steps in and twists wheel and changes the two Boot's course. John Boot becomes Sir John Boot, for no reason that he can think of, and Uncle Theodore gladly suffers through one of Lord Copper's ignominious banquets enjoyed mostly by the Lord himself.

William returns to the joys of writing Lush Places for the Beast, while his great love, Kätchen, accompanies her almost husband to Madagascar. John goes to Antarctica with a boatload of women. Uncle Theodore gets a pension from the Beast. That's the scoop on how Boot Magna, Boot Minima, and Boot Obscura, John, William, and Uncle Theodore figured into the Beast's plans. The two distant cousins who never knew each other, John and William, and their Uncle Theodore were maneuvered by Fate into switching places for each other by high mucky-mucks who allowed tea party friends to suggest appointments and clueless underlings to implement them. Sic transit gloria mundi — a world increasingly run by those who suggest decisions and by those who implement the decisions, while the credit goes to the one person who merely acts as the conduit for the decisions.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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