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State of Play

By Fredric Smoler

In 2008 J.M. Shaw published a well-reviewed first novel, The Illumination of Merton Browne, an enthralling and at times harrowing story narrated by a whilom middle class fifteen year old boy. Merton, Shaw’s narrator, was on the eve of either catastrophe or liberation, either of which could be achieved in his extremely bleak British comprehensive school. The first fate seemed much more probable, and the occasional brutality and near-hopelessness of Merton’s world were a bit startling in conjunction with both his engaging voice and Shaw’s peculiarly satisfying and very traditional plot, but in that context they really were startling, so the pairing made for an eerie and effective combination. It was also impossible to pin down Shaw’s politics, which is rarely the case with what used to be called Condition of England novels, and Shaw’s originality provoked understandable admiration in the critics.

If you read Shaw’s first novel carefully, you soon realized that his apparently old-fashioned page-turner was also a quiet but deadly satire: the only schoolbooks with any chance of engaging an intelligent child’s attention were the ones Merton’s school had recently purged from its classrooms and library as hopelessly obsolete, so that Merton encountered them purely by chance, on a rubbish heap in his school’s basement. Similarly, Merton’s social success derives in some part from his family’s occupational status, just as it might have in a school story written a century ago, but in Merton’s case his great chance comes from the fact that his mother’s newest boyfriend is a coke dealer, whose filched product provides the first step on the hazardous road to adolescent celebrity. While Shaw’s subtlety and tact can strategically obscure the fact, The Illumination of Merton Browne is not only a school story and a bildungsroman, but a political novel: it is a teacher who educates Merton. Although this man is paid with tax money to do such a job, in Merton’s case the job is necessarily done informally, irregularly and despite the best efforts of the school Merton attends, which to a grimly plausible degree barely remembers what it means to educate anyone. In our age, which often overtly and almost always tacitly deprecates the potency of governments, what the state does, or fails to do, matters infinitely to someone like Merton Browne.

Shaw has now published a second novel, Ten Weeks in Africa. It feels significantly bleaker and also more intricate than his first, but it is also an often-satirical novel of politics. Ten Weeks In Africa is set in an imagined and renamed version of Kenya with a bit of Uganda added to the mix, and its non-African characters are mostly British or Pakistani, but the kind of pseudo-politics Shaw is satirizing have an unhappy relevance for Americans. Professed and even sincere good intentions mean much less than we hope they do, a point Shaw makes repeatedly in Ten Weeks In Africa: his novel’s most effective hero is a businessman who, among his other enterprises, bribes police officials to allow his employees to steal tourists’ luggage from an international airport. This businessman’s newest employee, a small boy unhappily resolved to help notorious thieves in order to buy medicine for his dying mother, seems on first encounter to have fallen into an African Fagan’s hands, but we slowly realize that the boy is now working for a man who is in effect an unsentimental, wholly modernized and absolutely plausible version of one of the Cheerybles, the benevolent merchants from Nicholas Nickleby.

Shaw recounts the lives of his African characters with almost no comic effects, reserving his satirical energies for his British NGO workers, some of whom are as decent as they are deluded about the nature of logic of the system within which they work, while others recall the Jellybys and for that matter the Pardiggles of Bleak House. None of them are remotely as intelligent, or as sinister, as is an African cabinet minister, a woman who has published now-canonical feminist scholarship on the role of women in Africa while helping loot her country for herself, her tribe and her family, speaking (when she chooses) Western Left academic idiom with a fluency and rhetorical effectiveness that leaves my colleagues in the dust. This suggests that to have learned about contemporary Africa in a Western university may mean having been steeped in either irrelevancies or deadly absurdities about the places one aspires to improve, which is only one of Shaw’s points, but one that informs some brilliant and chilling scenes.

There are also plenty of non-Dickensian characters in Ten Weeks In Africa. At a crucial juncture the truly entrepreneurial businessman/thief/hero is motivated by the lowest of motives, lust provoked by pique over the standoffishness of a beautiful young woman of superior status, while the higher motives of Shaw’s European characters can be masks for the most deadly kind of self-seeking, the sort that disguises itself as selfless virtue to those caught hopelessly in its grasp. So far, so good, indeed so wise, bitterly funny and instructive, but why might Ten Weeks In Africa be peculiarly instructive for Americans, at least ones who work in universities?

In part because of what Shaw demolishes: the notion that the most virtuous among us work for NGOs seeking to salve the wounds of what used to be called the Third World, and that Development Studies is the science of virtue. As it happens, these notions take in a extraordinary number of my otherwise corrosively skeptical students, and for that matter my friends’ children. Something about the education they have received makes them oddly credulous about NGOs, and my guess is that this credulity has something to do with the intellectual trajectory of the generation that has educated them. A lot of American academics fell out of love with the state just around the time I began teaching, and while we still officially urged its expansion—most of us still called ourselves socialists—we didn’t write about it much, and to a remarkable degree we ceased to teach its histories. It bored us, and to our students the state also seems rather boring, in part because it was deemed wicked in an oddly dreary way. I have the impression that nowadays a person deemed “political” may well be someone almost perfectly inattentive to (and deeply bored by) politics as the word was once understood.

This has not improved our ability to comprehend or improve the politics of either our own societies or of any others. As Shaw’s novel dramatizes, while NGOs may be assumed to be free of self-interest, ugly compromises and almost all the amoral realities of power, they are of course steeped in such things. They necessarily have their own institutional and sectional interests, and they often pursue their interests in durable coalitions with those government to which they are so misleadingly (because so heroically) contrasted. This does not mean that NGOs are likely to be worse than governments, but since they are widely taken to be so much better than governments, they are surely fit subjects for satire, or in this case for tragicomedy. One point Mr. Shaw does not bother to make—he may think it too obvious—is that NGOs are in one striking respect very different from the Western governments to which their moral superiority is so persistently assumed: they lack the democratic legitimacy of the governments to which they so often condescend, for no-one has ever voted for an NGO. So Shaw has written a deeply affecting and instructive novel showing just how deranged an assumption my students have been encouraged to make about NGOs. Like the school teacher in The Illumination of Merton Browne, Mr. Shaw is attempting to teach something that is desperately important, and doing it very much against the odds. We should all wish him the best of luck.

From February, 2013

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