When I lived in Uganda there was an old joke that would routinely do the rounds:
“In Africa, what’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?”
Answer: “Two weeks.”
Occasionally I would recount this joke to a particularly inane group of Swedes who were about to depart for a gorilla trekking excursion into the remote Bwindi forest. They would get all self-righteous and mutter at my blatant prejudice and soon after they would depart. It was not uncommon to bump into them again after they had returned from their excursion.
“Ya, now your joke, we understands.”
Like all good jokes its premise is founded in truth and also of shared experience.
“The Missionaries,” by Owen Stanley, depicts a fictitious land known as Elephant Island, located somewhere in the confines of the Bismarck Sea, its people closely resembling the ways and mannerisms of Papua New Guinea. As colonialism no longer allows the natives to practice their favorite pastime of headhunting, the burden of keeping law and order falls to a small group of misfit expats, who despite their individual shortcomings, keenly understand the idiosyncrasies of the local population.
Into this crucible comes the vortex that is Dr Stanley Prout, the newly appointed head of the United Nations mission to Elephant Island. Secure in his own intellectual superiority, (he is after all the proud author of a paper on the racist implications of air conditioning in the tropics), this graduate of the university of Manchester immediately sets about to bring much needed change and modern development to the island inhabitants. Convinced of the natives’ inherent goodness that has only been corrupted by the barbarity of unjust colonial rule, Prout gathers a crack team of fawning bureaucratic underlings to carry out his mission to grant the islanders their independence.
Standing in his way is Fletcher, the resident island regional magistrate. Worshiped by the natives as a reincarnation of their god, Fletcher has crossed the boundary of expat observer to one of lonely participant in the great and savage land which has captured his heart and imagination. He has come to appreciate that the natives possess a quiet dignity and purpose that is in direct contradiction to the insipid Westerners who mow their quarter acre blocks in the faceless suburbs. And he has seen off more than one Prout in his time.
As Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour was a satire on the wasteful nature of the bureaucratic military, The Missionaries skewers the world of interfering progressive NGOs and their ingrained belief that they know what is best for the world. Convinced of the ridiculous concept of the noble savage, all manner of materiel goods and high-minded executives flush with haughty platitudes descend on the island in yet another feverish attempt to turn academic hypothesis into glorious reality.
Fletcher is the Guy Crouchback in this drama, terminally weary yet possessed of greater fortitude and rat cunning than Waugh’s hero. He handles Prout with deft fingers; in fact we are never really in doubt as to his eventual triumph, but the journey towards this ending and the skill with which he manipulates his adversaries serve as a lesson as to how to handle the progressives that surround us today.
In this I was reminded of Fowler manipulating and defeating Pyle in Greene’s The Quiet American. But whereas Pyle had a few strategic moves of his own, Prout is so blind to his adversary’s malicious skills that he mounts no serious counter-attacks. Witness a courtroom scene where Fletcher adroitly outmaneuvers an attempted charge of murder by using a combination of legal expertise and a most unusual tactic usually reserved for the practitioners of the island’s more dark arts. Yet this defeat does not give Prout pause, and he has no other option but to continue on in the hope that things will turn out well for him. In this manner, Prout echoes the bumbling ineptitude and ridiculousness of professor Welch in Lucky Jim, and while The Missionaries does not quite reach the humor of that work, it comes very close indeed.
I have not enjoyed a novel as much as this in a very long time. In fact, this novel could not have been published by the regular publishing industry as it skewers the type of people who haunt that industry as much as NGOs in misbegotten locales in the far corners of the globe. It is a credit to Castalia House that the author has sought them out and I sense that this will be a breakthrough work not just for Stanley but for this small publishing house as well.
The Missionaries works because it is founded in truth. That it is beautifully written is simply a bonus. I highly recommend it.