Westerners Behaving Badly In 'Good Man In Africa'

'A Good Man in Africa' book cover
A Good Man in Africa
By William Boyd
Paperback, 352 pages
Vintage
List price: $15.95
Read An Excerpt

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first read A Good Man in Africa. I lived in India at the time, and aspired to write sweeping literary fiction of the sort that featured memsahibs sipping sweet lime sodas against the backdrop of heat and dust.

The writing wasn't going so well, but there were many things to blame, apart from my own bad prose — the frequent power outages, the dry heat that seemed to bifurcate my brain, the travails, sometimes screwball in nature, of life abroad. Like the time our driveway was transformed into a funeral home, a body lying in the sun, in state, for days.

It's a long, twisting story — the stuff of dark, comic novels set in hot, distant lands. It's the stuff of William Boyd, as it happens, and from the moment I encountered his hapless protagonist — a misogynistic, misanthropic, overweight, oversexed first secretary of the British High Commission in the fictitious West African country Kinjanja — I knew I had discovered one of my favorite books, and one that would help me shape my voice.

Morgan Leafy is his name — the mere cadence of which makes me laugh — and he has logged three years in this corrupt, oil-rich country, the world's seventh-largest importer of champagne. It's the eve of elections, and the British are meddling, badly. Everyone is gearing up for an Independence Day visit by the Duchess of Ripon, the queen's third cousin twice removed, and there's a dead body on the High Commission grounds that no one dares to move.

By novel's end, the madcap plot has Leafy dressed as Father Christmas, his singed hair resembling an atrocious candyfloss perm, his missing eyebrow covered in an oblong Elastoplast, the result of an unfortunate petrol incident that involves the problematic corpse. Leafy's personal life is as complicated as Kinjanjan politics; among other problems, he's being manipulated — deservedly and hilariously so — by his Kinjanjan girlfriend, whom he treats with the same oblivious, imperious condescension that marks British behavior in this country generally.

Susan Coll

hide captionSusan Coll is a fiction editor at Bethesda Magazine and the author of four novels. Her most recent novel is Beach Week.

Lauren Shay Lavin

It's comic fiction, yes, but Boyd, who spent his childhood in Ghana and Nigeria, is unflinching in his critique of British attitudes during early post-Colonial years. In one scene, the Kinjanjan elite are invited to view a film about the royal family meant to remind them, as non-British, "precisely just what it is they didn't possess and why, therefore, they just weren't quite such special people." Such observations place this book in the tradition of sharp social satires penned by earlier writers like Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and George Orwell — books that drew humor from deriding Western, and chiefly British, behavior abroad.

Arguably Westerners are still behaving badly abroad — it's just that the accents have changed. What's missing is the next generation of satirists to help make the world, if not a better, then at least a funnier place.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'A Good Man in Africa'

'A Good Mani n Africa'
A Good Man in Africa
By William Boyd
Paperback, 352 pages
Vintage
List price: $15.95
.

"Good man," said Dalmire, gratefully accepting the gin Morgan Leafy offered him, "Oh, good man." He presents his eager male friendship like a gift, thought Morgan; he's like a dog who wants me to throw a stick for him to chase. If he had a tail he'd be wagging it.

Morgan smiled and raised his own glass. I hate you, you smug bastard! he screamed inwardly. You shit, you little turd, you've ruined my life! But all he said was, "Congratulations. She's a fabulous girl. Lovely. Lucky chap."

Dalmire rose to his feet and went to the window that looked over the Deputy High Commission's front drive. Heat vibrated up from the parked cars, and a dusty even light lay over the view. It was late afternoon, the temperature was in the low nineties, Christmas was less than a week away.

Morgan watched in disgust as Dalmire tugged and eased his sweaty trouser seat. Oh Priscilla, Priscilla, he asked himself, why him? Why Dalmire? Why not me?

"When's the great day then?" he asked, his face all polite curiosity.

"Not for a while," Dalmire replied. "Old Ma Fanshawe seems set on a spring wedding. So's Pris. But I'm easy." He gestured at the sombre bank of clouds which loomed over the rusty sprawling mass that was the town of Nkongsamba, state capital of the Mid-Western region, Kinjanja, West Africa. "Looks like we're in for a shower."

Morgan thought about replacing the gin in his filing cabinet, decided against it and poured himself another stiff three-fingers. He waved the green bottle at Dalmire who threw up his hands in mock horror.

"Lord no, Morgan, couldn't take another. Better let the sun hit the yard-arm."

Morgan shouted for Kojo, his secretary. The man promptly emerged from the outer office. He was small, neat and dapper with a starched white shirt, tie, blue flannels and black shoes loose on his feet. Every time he was in Kojo's presence Morgan felt like a slob.

"Ah, Kojo. Tonic, tonic. More tonic," he said, trying to keep himself in check.

"Comin', sah." Kojo turned to go.

"Hold on. What's that you've got?" Kojo held several looping strands of paper-chain.

"Christmas dec'rations, sah. For your office. I thought maybe this year. . . ."

Morgan rolled his eyes heavenwards. "No," he shouted. "Never, none of it in here." A merry bloody Christmas I'm having, he thought bitterly. Then, aware of the startled look on Dalmire's face, he said more reasonably, "Nevah bring 'im for here—you sabi dis ting. I nevah like 'im for dis place."

Kojo smiled, ignoring the pidgin English. Morgan scrutinised the little man's features for signs of resentment or contempt but found no trace. He felt ashamed of his boorishness; it wasn't Kojo's fault that Dalmire and Priscilla were engaged.

"Of course not, sah," Kojo said politely. "It will be as usual. Tonic comin' up." He left.

"Good man?" Dalmire asked, eyebrows raised.

"Yes, he is actually," Morgan said, as though surprised by the thought. "You know: bloody efficient." He wished Dalmire would go. The news was too depressing for him to maintain his conviviality for much longer. He cursed himself futilely for not paying more attention to Priscilla these last weeks, but they had been impossible, amongst the worst he had ever experienced in his generally fraught existence in this stinking hot frustrating shit-hole of a country. Don't think about it, he told himself, it'll only seem worse. Think about Hazel instead—the new flat. Go to the barbecue at the club tonight. Do anything other than dwell on golden opportunities missed.

He looked at Dalmire, his subordinate, Second Secretary. He thought now that, in fact, he had really disliked him all along. From the day of his arrival. Something about his unreflecting Oxbridge assuredness; something about the way Fanshawe had instantly taken to him. Fanshawe was the Deputy High Commissioner in Nkongsamba; Priscilla was his daughter.

"Glad you had a chance to have a chat with Morgan, Dickie," Fanshawe had said to Dalmire. "Old Nkongsamba hand is Morgan. Been here, oh, getting on for three years now, isn't that right, Morgan? Part of the furniture almost, eh? Ha-ha. Good man though, Dickie. Finger on the pulse. Got great things planned, haven't we, Morgan, eh?"

Morgan had smiled broadly throughout the whole harangue, a brief but foul chant of rage running through his brain.

He looked at Dalmire now as he stood by the window. He was wearing a white shirt, white shorts, beige knee socks and well-polished, brown brogue shoes. That, Morgan decided, was another thing he despised about him: his affected old-colonial attire. Ghastly wide shorts, billowing Aertex shirts and his college tie, thin and discreetly banded. Morgan himself sported flared, light-coloured flannels, bright shirts and these new wide ties with fist-sized Windsor knots which, so his sister assured him, were the latest fashion back home. But when he met with Fanshawe, Dalmire, and Jones, the Commission's accountant, they made him feel cheap and flashy, like some travelling salesman. Even Jones had taken up shorts since Dalmire's arrival. Morgan detested the sight of his fat little Welsh knees peeking out between the hem of his shorts and the top of his socks like two bald, wrinkled babies' heads.

Morgan wearily dragged his attention back to Dalmire who was saying something while still dreamily staring out of the window.

Excerpted from A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd Copyright 2003 by William Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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