Howard Olsen's Reviews > Black Mischief

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh
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's review
Jul 13, 2008

really liked it


Waugh’s third novel is a departure from his first two classic satires of British society. For one thing, Black Mischief is largely set on the fictional East African island nation of Azania, although most of the characters are Brits. Second, Waugh actually has a plot that can be neatly summarized; namely that Basil Seal is a bit of a wastrel MP who travels to Azania where he hooks up with the Oxford educated Azanian Emperor Seth, who wants to bring Progressive Soviet-style government to his tribal subjects.

In his earlier and later works, Waugh tends to mock the social mores of the British upper crust. Here, the focus of Waugh’s satire is different; he is mostly pricking at the liberal pieties of his day: animal rights, centralized planning, birth control, and the overall goal of Progress and Modernity. Waugh doesn’t really criticize these ideas, so much as he searches out the wide gap between ideals and practice. In Waugh’s view, progressive ideals are little more than abstract playthings of the rich, which fundamentally uninteresting to those on whose behalf the activists claim to be acting. Waugh also makes sure to have a couple of mercenary characters that are frankly interested in Progress because they can make a buck off of it.

What really makes this a departure for Waugh is the richness in the storytelling. His previous books had largely been dialogue driven. “Black Mischief” shows him to be much more adept at creating a fictional universe. His descriptions of Azanian history and society are remarkably detailed. Events in the book such as native feasts, tribal wars, and an aborted coup are vividly rendered, demonstrating that one ofWaugh’s other career was as a travel writer. In many ways this is a good old fashioned travelogue of Europeans travelling through the Dark Continent.

Despite all of this, some of the old Waugh humor still shines through. One of the many subplots involve the back and forth between the French and English ambassadors to Azania. The place is a backwater, and the British ambassador is an appropriately querulous fuddy-duddy. The French ambassador, however, carries on as if he were engaged in an East African version of the Great Game. A lot of the book’s humor comes through in these sections.

As in Waugh’s other books, there is a dark edge among all of the humor. There is a revolution, and most of the main characters either flee or are killed. A young proto-feminist with Joycean literary pretensions comes to an especially horrifying end, supporting Waugh’s thesis that England’s leading modernists were fatally ignorant of the savagery that often lurks at the edges of the world. Azania finally becomes a League of Nations protectorate, and the last word is given to a pair of British diplomats strolling through the now-quiet streets of Azania, firmly but foolishly convinced that they have brought order to chaos.
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Hirondelle I very much liked your review of this. Just to add that, if you do not know it, Waugh´s travel writing is also indeed fascinating and very bright, one of my favorite travel writers ever.

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