Jerusalem by Patrick Neate
05/07/09, Sunday Telegraph
With Jerusalem, Patrick Neate completes the ‘Zambawi’ trilogy that began with Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko and continued with the best-known, Twelve Bar Blues. While it is desirable that a reader comes to Jerusalem with the knowledge of the previous two books – the crosshatching between them and the elaborately created contexts lend greater depth of field and meaning to Neate’s project – it is not strictly necessary as this final instalment can be read as a stand-alone piece.
Jerusalem weaves together a dizzying number of strands, some of them alluding to the first two books, some altogether new, all of them twisting and untwisting together in an impressive design of connections and collisions, past, present, translocational. A historical narrative, set in 1900-1, purports to be the diary of a Boer War-returned Englishman, Henry Morton Stanley, who is chasing the Holy Grail of the quintessence of Englishness. In the (fictional) republic of Zambawi, Africa, in the present day, all is not well with the dictatorship of President Enoch Adini (surely modelled on Rober Mugabe?), who has imprisoned the country’s much-loved zakulu (spirit medium), Musa Musa, for speaking truth to power. In London, polished, empty, self-regarding professional politician, David Pinner (surely modelled on any of the dangerously vapid NuLab ministerial class?), tries to repackage himself as a ‘conviction politician’; he is sent off to Zambawi to deal with the case of a British businessman Gordon Tranter, who has been arrested for allegedly fomenting a coup against Adini. Pinner’s son, Preston Pinner, a fabulously successful entrepreneur, runs a company called Authenticity™, which is in the business of advising corporate outfits how to rebrand themselves and their products as ‘cool’. Interspersed with these are also a plethora of paratexts and hypertexts, for example, chapters from The Book of Zamba Mythology, internal memos of Authenticity™, transcripts of interviews; to Neate’s enormous credit, all rigorously germane to the narrative.
How all these bind to deliver a corrosive and blistering satire on colonialism, on the baneful enmeshment of the First and the Third Worlds, on the professional political classes of the 21st century, on the contemporary culture of consumerism and branding, on ‘well-intentioned’ intervention in the developing world, on moral impoverishment and on a host of other things is for the reader to discover. While some strands work better than others, Jerusalem is an eloquent, angry, imaginatively fluent and relevant novel that speaks its own truth to power.