My very first memories of encountering Tom Sharpe’s books were the copies that aligned the bookshelves in my grandparent’s bedroom when I was a youngster. They were firm favourites with Granny Savidge and Bongy and yet to me they were objects of wide eyed bewilderment bordering on terror. You see when the 7/8/9 year old me saw these books all I could see was that they tended to be covered in boobs and guns, both of which worried me. As you can imagine when they bought me a lovely second hand hardback copy of a Wilt omnibus when I was 15 I was again more worried than grateful and hid it, who knows where it is now. So when Chris chose it for Novembers book group (which was a few weeks ago) I was intrigued and also, with those feelings from way back when, worried about it. Did I really want to spend my time reading a smutty book about boobies and bullets?
Riotous Assembly was Tom Sharpe’s very first published book back in 1971 and tells of a fictitious town, Piemburg, in South Africa and its police force during the apartheid. However this is not the sort of apartheid based story you might be suspecting as Tom Sharpe uses his wit, and some of the ‘naughty shenanigans’ I was expecting, to lampoon what was going on in South Africa at the time, especially those who enforced it.
Kommandant van Heerden, Piemburg’s Chief of Police, is called out to the house of Miss Hazelstone when she phones to tell him that she has killed her Zulu cook. This initially isn’t a worry for the Kommandant as white people (especially the English who he wishes he was and subsequently fawns over) are allowed to kill their black cooks as long as they do it indoors. However Miss Hazelstone killed him in the garden and will not move him, or what is left of him, nor will she have another member of her staff do it. Once at the house himself to try and smooth things over he discovers the unthinkable, Miss Hazelstone has been having relations with her cook since she was widowed and this was a crime passionel! As the Kommandent sees it, this could bring down the whole of society and cause disgrace for the city and so it must be covered up, at any cost.
At this moment he visualized the scene in court which would follow the disclosure that Miss Hazelstone had made it a habit to inject her black cook’s penis with a hypodermic syringe filled with novocaine before allowing him to have sexual intercourse with her. He visualized it and vowed it would never happen, even if it meant he had to kill her to prevent it.
With the help (though that a very ironic word considering what follows) of his number two (more appropriate a term for him by far) Konstabel Els the Kommandant calls a state of emergency over Miss Hazelstone’s property Jacaranda Park while he covers things up. Only in actual fact as the novel goes on we see the police bungle matters completely and make everything much, much worse.
As the book goes on it gets more and more farcical. Els is a psychopath in policeman’s clothing, there are drunken hidden priests, rubber fetishes and rumours of rabies become rife to keep people away. Much to laugh a long with all in all – quite possibly very loudly on public transport! What Tom Sharpe does masterfully here is that as you read on and belly laugh at events as they unfold you suddenly become aware that there is a lot of truth hidden in what you are laughing at. For example, you might be laughing at the outrageous notion that its fine to kill your cook in the house but not out of it, until you realise its true. You might be laughing as Konstabel Els finds even more ridiculous ways to torture someone, then you check yourself as you know that this did happen, and was happening when the book was published. It makes you think.
‘Madness is so monotonous,’ she told the doctor. ‘You would think that fantasies would be more interesting, but really one has to conclude that insanity is a poor substitute for reality.’
Then again, when she looked around her, there didn’t seem to be any significant difference between life in the mental hospital and life in South Africa as a whole. Black madmen did all the work, while white lunatics lounged about imagining they were God.
Yet also, strangely – in a good way, once you are aware of the serious nature deep set in the book Sharpe doesn’t make you feel bad for laughing. He has proved a very valuable point and highlighted some shocking truths but he keeps the laughter coming as he makes more and more preposterous things happen. It is a very, very clever way of writing something that really hits home, after all none of the events that go on to happen would have if Kommandant van Heerden has just arrested Miss Hazelstone as she wanted, but of course the true nature of her crime was unthinkable.
The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest (which nicely links in with what I discussed yesterday in terms of comforting vs. confronting reading) palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking. If you have pondered reading Tom Sharpe, or maybe if you hadn’t or had written him off a little as I had, you need to start reading his work as soon as you can.
A big huge thanks to Chris for choosing this for book group, and also for making the discussion all the more interesting by sharing his childhood in Zimbabwe and being so open to talking about that and how important the book was to him. I am now desperate to get my mitts on Indecent Exposure, as it were!