Rewriting the white man’s burden

Patrick Neate describes his latest novel, which concludes the loose trilogy that began with Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and Twelve Bar Blues, as “a far-flung tale of three generations of a family rooted in the English establishment” as well as “a broad satire of colonialism, postcolonialism and neocolonialism”.

While those who have read the prequels will enjoy the return of familiar characters, Jerusalem stands on its own feet, offering timely insights into issues such as international economic crisis, corrupt elections, asylum-seekers and AIDS, with a wry execution that prevents it from collapsing under the weight of its ideas.

Jerusalem opens with a 1900 diary entry by a “local *English* gentleman”, reflecting on his traumatic Boer war experience and colonial disillusionment, fearing that “in this place we have become less than human, less even than the Negro”. It then switches to 2008, in the fictional, Zimbabwe-like Republic of Zambawi, where a rookie prison guard is meeting a philosophical prisoner. The next switch is to contemporary London, where a jaded entrepreneur watches his father, a junior foreign minister, criticize the Zambawian arrest of a “prominent UK businessman”.

Such traversing across time, space and culture characterizes Jerusalem, in which the story is told using several perspectives, and a tapestry of Zambawian folk tales, news articles, transcripts, memos, diary entries and letters.

This varied narrative technique creates a sense of mystery that propels the reader on, as well as effectively fleshing out the range of settings, from the slums of Zambawi’s capital to the initially idyllic English countryside. As you might expect, all the threads are eventually woven together, and in a way that subtly surprises, calling for an immediate reread.

That the narrative pieces come together so well is mainly due to the deft characterization. Neate has a knack of creating characters that are somewhat stereotypical and humorous (in that we’re mainly laughing at them than with them), but reveal depths and nuances that really lift them off the page. You can’t help but feel sorry for the dying man who is resigned to his fate, but also can’t help snickering when another character describes him a “polished peanut”.

The protagonists are an anonymous early twentieth century Englishman; Musa Musa, a Zambawian zakulu (witchdoctor) and political prisoner; Preston Pinner aka 2P aka Tuppence, a successful, but increasingly dissatisfied entrepreneur who excels at marketing “cool”; and his father David Pinner, a “dashing” junior foreign minister who hopes his diplomatic mission to Zambawi to retrieve an alleged coup plotter will improve his chances of becoming Prime Minister.

Other notable characters include Zambawian President Enoch Adini, a charismatic mix of Robert Mugabe and Barack Obama, variously regarded as a “staunch nationalist” and would-be dictator”; Jim Tulloh, an AIDS-ravaged English expatriate who runs a Zambawian orphanage; and Nobody, an enigmatic rapper, whose hit song “Jerusalem” “serves up a story of immigration and frustration in *the* skittish British nation”.

Neate captures this array of voices with comic precision, whether Preston’s “distinct, cultivated London twang”, the booming, eloquent pronouncements of a wealthy Zambawian businessman who views England both as a “colonial evil stepmother” and a great place to shop, or the seductive rhetoric of President Adini as he benevolently addresses his nation via frequent telecasts.

Zambawi itself, as much a character as a setting, feels familiar and real, particularly for those who have never visited “Africa”. It fits in well with the Africa of the average outsider’s collective imagination, a point that Neate acknowledges and exploits, using Zambawi as a mirror to unflatteringly reflect back on its colonial stepmothers’ own inadequacies and uncomfortable truths, such as the vapid, sheep-like pursuit of cool and continuing Western hypocrisy, i.e. the US pressuring for “free and fair elections”, when their own was “ultimately awarded to the loser”, as President Adini slyly points out.

Furthering the typical “Africa-ness” of Zambawi, a sequence where a Zambawian bus breaks down offers a microcosm of the way things tend to go wrong in African countries. The bus runs out of fuel; the usually well-connected gas-station owner is unexpectedly out of supplies; no one on the bus can call for help as the phone network is down as a result of foreign staff being withdrawn; when eventually found fuel cannot be legally bought due to restrictions on bank transfers meant to prevent corruption; the fuel has to be bought on the black market at eight times its market value.

Thus one of the passengers loses out on foreign funding for a local women’s initiative, as the Swedish NGO director she was inevitably late to meet is fed up with the “wanton irresponsibility” of “Africans” epitomized by her no-show and lack of warning phone call.

This cultural clashing and intermingling is also well exemplified by the title Jerusalem, which as well as being the name of Nobody’s hit, refers to the hymn “Jerusalem” written by Sir Hubert Parry, an English composer, who in turn based it on William Blake’s poem “And did those feet in ancient time”.

The hymn, which is sung before every FA cup final and regarded as England’s most popular patriotic song, evokes the idealized English countryside, and a call back to the ostensibly simpler, more “pleasant” time before England’s post-industrial revolution.

With this twin titular reference, Neate blends English nostalgic idealism with modern post-culturalism, skewering one character’s desire to find the essence of Englishness with another’s astute summary of Englishness as it is today.

You can actually watch Nobody’s “Jerusalem” on YouTube, and hear for yourself what caught the ear of hard-to-impress Preston. The video isn’t as subversive at the one described in the novel (where the Queen of England gets “happy slapped”) but offers a similarly tongue-in-cheek dig at modern-day Englishness (“Britain, where nobody votes for the election, but everybody votes for Big Brother eviction”). Nobody is performed by Sway, the UK’s number one rapper, tying into Neate’s documented interest in the hip-hop genre.

This interlinking of the printed word, the worldwide web and music, further elevates Jerusalem’s timely appeal, enriching the literary experience for those who appreciate interactivity, without being distracting for those with more traditional tastes.

Furthermore, despite the various criticisms of individuals and nations, Jerusalem ends on a largely hopeful, redemptive note, appropriately concluding a series that has been unfailing hilarious and perceptive, as well as occasionally poignant.

Jerusalem is thick with ideas and biting commentary, but executed with a light touch that allows for effortless absorption. It can be devoured in one go, providing much food for thought and definitely warrants a second helping. The fitting end to a far-reaching trilogy.

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