Let’s be honest – this novel would be out of print and gathering dust if it wasn’t for it being the winner of the inaugural Booker prize in 1969. That’s really its only point of interest. Otherwise the plot is banal to the extent that it exists at all, the characterisation outside the handful of central characters is slim, and the commentary on the Suez Crisis (as it is euphemistically known in the UK) is worthy but dated.
Set in 1956 at the time of said ‘crisis’, the unappealing central character, Townrow has returned to Port Said in Egypt, a place he first visited when in the army in the Second World War. He now works for a charitable trust which he finds it much easier to embezzle than to administer. He has returned to Egypt at the request of Mrs Khoury, the widow of an Egyptian friend Townrow had made during the war. Mrs Khoury believes her husband was murdered and wants Townrow to investigate. Townrow has no intention of doing any investigating – instead he is interested in drinking, womanising (in a very disinterested, lazy way) and looking for opportunities to con Mrs Khoury out of her estate. On his first night back in Egypt he gets drunk, is attacked and suffers a head injury which leaves him dazed and disorientated for the remainder of the novel.
In parallel, Egypt nationalises the Suez Canal precipitating said crisis, which unfolds around Townrow as he stumbles through the various staged incidents which pass for a plot. Townrow is confused about his nationality, underlining the ambiguity of his status as a representative in the novel of the occupying powers. He recalls a conversation he had with a passenger he met on route to Egypt who accuses Britain of having been aware of the holocaust but doing nothing to warn European Jews of the threat to their lives, a claim he rejects forthrightly. It is not clear if we are intended to take this claim seriously – is British guilt by association for the holocaust linked with the creation of Israel? Decoding the politics of this novel is difficult given the distance of the decades, even if Newby’s overall point is relatively clear.
The humour of the novel, which relies mainly on farce, has faded badly since the late 1960’s. The imperial mindset in which one waved a British passport and shouted loudly at foreigners in obviously not completely a thing of the past, but it is no longer much of a target for satirists either. to the extent of incomprehensibility. Newby’s satirising of the British imperial mindset is simply ineffective – the fact that the Suez crisis marked the end of Empire was hardly much of an insight, even in 1969. The farcical elements of the novel are clumsy and unconvincing confusion, ostensibly the result of his knock on the head, muddles the narrative to the extent that not only can the reader not work out what is happening, whether what we are being told is one of his dreams, memories or ‘real’ events, to the extent that one quickly stops caring.
There probably is a novel to be written about the Suez Crisis and its impact on British attitudes to its colonial past. There are many examples of ‘an Englishman Abroad’ novels, the confused, well-meaning and mild-mannered ex-pat trying his best not to be racist (for example, this example from the inevitable Kingsley Amis) and inevitably being successful in his seduction efforts simply on the strength of his Englishness. But Newby’s decision to write a psychedelic novel in which the reader is constantly disorientated, however modern and experimental it may have been in the 1960’s, now falls flat. Yes, I get it that Townrow’s head injury, the resulting confusion and his loss of faith in British decency is an effective symbol of the changing nature of the national psyche following the post-war loss of Empire – but it doesn’t make it a good novel.
As a central character, Townrow is pretty unappealing. He’s a crook, has very dated views towards women, Jews and Egyptians, and has few redeeming features. Some novels with anti-hero’s at their centre are successful because the protagonist is charming, a rogue, etc – we like them despite their failings. But I’m afraid I can’t say the same of Townrow – there’s simply not enough substance to the character to like.
There are a lot of bloggers out there who start out with the intention of reading all of the Booker prize winners, but who don’t make it. Part of the reason for this might be because some of the early winners are duds, which haven’t stood the test of time. Something to Answer for falls into that category I’m afraid – I can imagine a lot of readers thinking “sixty more novels like that – no thanks!”. The good news is there are a lot more strong novels in the list of winners than duds, so the reward is there for the persistent. But outside the ranks of Booker completists or would-be completists I can’t imagine this novel will have retained much of a wider audience at all.