Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday's comic novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007) derives from a premise that is altogether absurd:  simply, that given unlimited funds supplied by a sheik and the very best of British hydraulic engineering, Atlantic salmon could be induced to migrate into a river in the Yemen, a river that is dry most of the year.  The absurdity is the point:  even to imagine it, let alone to try and make it happen, requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

The sheik is serenely confident that salmon can be made to flourish in the Yemen, and that fishing for these salmon will alter humans for the better (most anglers of course will readily agree with this premise).  He is a man of faith, and that faith engages and inspires a comically diverse cast of characters to bring this project to fruition.  There is even a hint of Tertullian's "I believe because it is impossible."

The government fisheries expert who is dragooned into making this miracle happen is about as unimaginative as it's humanly possible to be.  Having just published a scholarly study of the caddis fly, or, rather more precisely, the female caddis fly, he begins to work on this project only because he is threatened by instant dismissal if he doesn't.  (He thinks briefly about resigning in protest, but his bossy wife promptly tells him not to be a prat:  they can't afford to lose his salary, even if it is much smaller than hers.)  What gives this novel much of its verve is the completely credible and altogether inane positioning of the bureaucrats involved with this project, all the way up to the Prime Minister, wonderfully manipulated by his PR man, someone who imagines himself to be heroically at the helm of the ship of state, keeping to the course despite the high winds and violent seas.

If the novel is farcical, not all of its characters are static:  the two central ones develop in interesting and humane ways.  Loss is also present in this novel, and Torday handles that topic poignantly.  He is too skilled a novelist merely to have the good characters end happily and the bad ones unhappily, and it's an indication of his skill that at the close of the novel the good ones are somehow managing to cope in altogether changed circumstances.  More I can't say without spoiling the novel for you.  I will say this, though:  My friend Kathleen gave this novel to me several years ago, but I didn't read it until recently because it simply sounded too absurd.  Don't repeat my mistake:  Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is worth reading because it is absurd.  Read it:  you'll be glad you did.

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