The spirit of Sir Humphrey lives on …

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

(republished into its original place in the time-line from my lost post archive)

Salmon fishingThis was our Book Group choice to read in May, and all those who made it, enjoyed this book. There were different degrees of love ranging from a good read to fantastic, but no-one really had a bad word to say about it.  Shame, as one of our cadre who couldn’t make it that evening, didn’t get on with it at all and that would have made for more exciting discussion. I was in the camp who loved it.

This is the story of Alfred (Fred) Jones, a middle-aged scientist working for the government fisheries agency, and his experiences in a project to bring – yes – salmon fishing to the Yemen. An idealist Sheikh wants to do the best kind of fishing there is in the mountain wadis of his home country. He has the money to make it happen, the UK government is initially happy to supply expertise to see if the project is feasible.  Fred is assigned, thinks the whole idea is absurd, and ends up being sacked, whereupon he gets employed by the Sheikh’s agents and begins to see the light – mainly thanks to his new colleague, the lovely Harriet Chetwode-Talbot.  Meanwhile, Fred’s home life is not good.  His wife Mary works for an international bank, and is going places – without Fred, but he’s seemingly stuck in this sterile marriage…

The rest of the evening was a bit of a frost, but when we went to bed, I think Mary must have felt a little guilty about the way she had changed her plans. Suffice to say, my new Marks & Spencer pyjamas were not required for the early part of the night! A relatively rare event in our marriage of late.

Afterwards Mary said, ‘There now, darling, that should keep you going for a bit,’ and turned on her side and seemed to go to sleep. For a moment I felt a bit like a dog that has just been given a biscuit, but then drowsiness swept across me and I began to doze.

You can understand why when offered a bit of adventure, that Fred will take it. The whole scheme escalates, as they begin to work out how to make it work – will it ultimately be a triumph or a disaster?

This novel worked for us on several levels. Firstly, there was the satire on bureaucracy – with the civil servants all toadying up, and passing the blame down, the governmental food chain of which Fred is near the bottom. This immediately reminds one of the wonderful TV comedy, Yes Minister with the sublimely manipulative Sir Humphrey Appleby completely controlling his Minister; but also to the antics of real spin doctors in recent times.

Then on another level, it’s about following your dream. The Sheikh has a simple one: he wants his people to be able to fish salmon. He realises that his ‘grand projet’ is idealist, but he has faith, he believes it can happen -even if it puts his life in danger from opposing factions within his region.  But dreams can also be shattered. Harriet’s fiance is a soldier, fighting in Iraq, and here the story veers away from comedy into something quite dark.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the format of the novel. It combines two similar but differing forms into one seamless whole.  The main body of the text, certainly during the first half of the novel is written in letters – varying from e-mails to interdepartmental memos, and including the occasional press release or bit of reportage. Then Fred’s diaries are introduced, and these gradually overtake the comedy of the epistles, with their more meditative and serious tone, which makes the farce of the inevitable ending a real shock.

The characters are great.  Fred starts off as a typical boffin, but grows in stature throughout the book; Harriet begins as an immensely capable young woman who gets to reveal her vulnerable side; the Sheikh is lovely and mysterious; and Mary – she sacrifices life for work, but she is so unsympathetic, so you can’t feel sorry for her for long.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, loving both the format and characters giving it 9/10, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Torday’s novels. Hopefully we’ll catch up with the opinions of those who weren’t quite so sure about it next month, when we’ll also be discussing The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

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Source: Own copy

Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (W&N, 2007) paperback, 352 pages.

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