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Black Mischief Paperback – August 15, 2002

4 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), whom Time called "one of the century's great masters of English prose," wrote several widely acclaimed novels as well as volumes of biography, memoir, travel writing, and journalism. Three of his novels, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, and Brideshead Revisited, were selected by the Modern Library as among the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st edition (August 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316917338
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316917339
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #970,902 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bill Slocum VINE VOICE on June 4, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Black Mischief" is not a safe book; it delves into racial and political divides as wide now as then and lets you know its author isn't aboard for any of that 21st-century sensitivity rot. Despite or perhaps because of this it is a good book, perhaps a great book, and worthy of your time.

In the island nation of Azania, just off the coast of East Africa, Oxford-educated Emperor Seth attempts to force his backward, war-torn nation to emulate the West. Help arrives in the form of a British ne'er-do-well, Basil Seal, "a man of progress and culture" as Seth styles him. This of course means Seal is trouble as well.

As I read deeper into "Black Mischief", I was struck by two things. One was how easily it flowed, not only with Waugh's always elegant prose but the plot itself. Waugh isn't ordinarily so clean a scenarist. The other was how like Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo" this is, making the same points about First World meeting Third World. Except where "Nostromo" was clumsy and dry, Waugh sells his message with wit and surreal humor.

He even goes to the trouble of mapping out Azania, which helps a lot given it is a nation entirely of Waugh's own imagining. As the characters cross its expanse, I found myself referring back to the map in front and enjoying how well it matched up with the narrative.

When I picked up "Black Mischief", I was concerned about the obvious racial aspects. Waugh was capable of writing hurtful things about blacks as well as other groups Waugh experienced from a distance. "Remote People," published in 1931 just one year before "Black Mischief", presents Africans in the role of bloody-minded savages.

Well, there are plenty of savages in "Black Mischief", too, only most of the ones we get to know best and like least are European.
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It would be so easy to knock this novel, originally published in 1932, as a product of its time that holds little appeal for modern readers. And, truthfully, there is a lot that is very un-PC here. Taking place in an east-African island nation between two revolutions, it traces the quick rise and fall of the Emperor Seth, an African of some Western education. Many would find his depiction of the natives reason enough to condemn the novel. However, Waugh's brutal treatment of everyone--British, French, Indians, Arabs, and more--makes it ridiculous to hold anything against him. He is an equal opportunity satirist.

In fact, this is a very funny novel that lets loose with some barbs that can still find their way home in the twenty-first century. His portrayal of the useless English envoy and his family is right on target as an example of the reward-over-substance political appointment, played alongside the classic scheming French envoy. Even more humorous is the portrayal of Dame Mildred and Miss Tin as the "PETA"-types among the cannibals. But the novel really moves with Basil Seal, whose self-serving attempts to help Emperor Seth Westernize Azania seem like the right thing to do but lead to disaster after disaster. Seal is great as the truly intelligent guy who can't help but do stupid things.

And these are just a few examples on top of a host of funny minor characters--a gone-native English general with his native wife, native royalty, ridiculous prelates and abbots, and an Indian who always manages to survive and make a profit. They deal with such issues as daily executions, making the single train line run, family planning among the natives, and managing to survive the revolts and revolutions. If taken in the right spirit, this is an enjoyable Waugh classic.
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I clicked the boxes on the new, dumbed down Amazon review writing page, but I must say it doesn't admit any nuance. Five stars, they say means "I Love It", which is not what I mean at all when I give something five stars. So why did I now? Because I'm reading Evelyn Waugh's Letters, and I'm at the part where a Roman Catholic paper publishes diatribes against this novel. All I can say is they don't get it. This novel, like all of his novels (or all I'm familiar with) is satire, and not meant to be advice for good living, correct doctrine, or any sort of propaganda. You can't have read one novel by Waugh and think that's what he writes. However, I can imagine that the paper could not do him any greater service than lambast his novel, since, then as now, readers would flock to it were it forbidden.
I found it endlessly witty, and if asked what it satirizes, I'd say it's the idea of British Imperialism, of which many earnest novels were being written in his day. At the same time he wrote fiction, he was writing travel books. I've just finished "Labels" (the British title), which is one, but there was another, called "Remote People" which he wrote around the same time, and which I've not read. but which, I think, provides some of the regional background or local color for this novel. Also, there are bits in the Letters I recognize as turning up in this novel.
There is a corollary to the incredibly idiotic post-modern attempt to read everything backwards so as to deconstruct it in the fact that when Waugh's most famous novel, "Brideshead Revisited" was published, it was dismissed as religious propaganda, which shows how virulently anti-Catholic England in many ways still was. No one reads it that way now.
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