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The Dangerous Power of Stories

April 11, 2012

Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 2007. The film based on the novel, directed by Lasse Hallström, is currently in cinemas.

I was hooked by the first chapter of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I felt an immediate affection for Fred, a fisheries scientist who is portrayed with gentle humour, and I laughed at the satire aimed at the politicians and bureaucrats who are about to liven up Fred’s dull life. The humour and satire is cleverly conveyed using only emails between the main characters.

But as I read on the hook worked loose. The novel consists solely of documents, collected as part of an investigation: emails, reports, Fred’s diary, transcripts of interrogations, extracts from Hansard, even old-fashioned letters. This sometimes works well, as in the emails, but in order to tell the story Torday includes information in other documents in such a contrived way that it was impossible to suspend my disbelief.

But that’s a minor problem. What I found most disturbing were the premises underlying the book. It’s a comic novel, goodies versus baddies. The goodies are Sheikh Muhammad, a wealthy Yemeni who has a vision of bringing salmon fishing to his country; Harriet, the Sheikh’s London agent; and Fred. The baddies are the politicians, bureaucrats, and al-Qaeda operatives, with the main villain being the PM’s press secretary, male in the book, but female in the film, brilliantly portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas.

The baddies are figures of fun (incompetent or cynical members of a Tony Blair style government, or bumbling terrorists), but the three goodies are likeable, well drawn characters whom we are expected to take seriously. The Sheikh is a charismatic wise man from the East, who tells Fred: “You need to learn to have faith, Dr Alfred. We believe that faith is the cure that heals all troubles … Faith comes before hope, and before love.”

Later, as the project approaches its conclusion, Fred has a key epiphany, and understands that the Sheikh was telling him to believe in belief itself. “I did not know, or for the moment care, what exactly it was I had to believe in. I only knew that belief in something was the first step away from believing in nothing.”

One might expect such inane clichés to be as much subject to satire as are the spin doctor and the Blairite government, but not at all – Paul Torday means it. He makes the need for belief the “message” of the book, by portraying it as the force that transforms Fred. Yet it is also a force that can transform people into fundamentalists and terrorists.

The old city district of Sana'a (capital of Yemen) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo via Flickr.

More disturbing still is the way the country of Yemen has been used – reduced to the figure of a lovable Sheikh of such enormous wealth that he can spend untold millions remodelling the landscape to achieve a dream everyone agrees is impossible. In one of the poorest countries of the world, how did the Sheikh come by his wealth? In creating this character so that we love him, the novelist makes us accessories to injustice.

For all that, it’s a good story, told better in the film than in the book. The screenwriter did not need to jump the hurdle the novelist erected for himself by solely using documents to tell the tale. The film is also more satisfying because of several major changes to the story. But the Sheikh remains a charismatic wise man talking about faith, and there is still the sense that the people of Yemen have been shabbily used.

It is not that writers should ethics check their work. Literature cannot be used to promote a moral purpose. But good stories told well can be so powerful that we may not notice when they excuse injustice, peddle shallow sentiment and glib platitudes, or even caricature a whole country.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 7:27 pm

    I have to agree with you Bryce. I found the book extremely disturbing, especially in the light of events there over the past decade and longer. It’s lovely to be able to say this openly now I’m back in Oz.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    May 3, 2012 10:46 am

    I’m glad you agree, Claire. The other reviews I’ve seen were quite uncritical.

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