Paul Torday’s book provides an insightful perspective on Yemen – and British politicians – at a time when British holidaymakers have been advised against travelling to the region in pursuit of fishing opportunities
A few years ago, Paul Torday wrote a book called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. A few months ago, the book was adapted into a film, and a few weeks ago, a Yemeni tourist board was forced to warn would-be British holiday makers that there was no salmon in Yemen. It fell on spokesman Benjamin Carey to reveal to The Telegraph that: “One negative is that salmon fishing isn’t actually that popular in Yemen, but there are excellent sea fishing opportunities in the country. Also, unfortunately the EU is currently advising against travel to Yemen, which we think is excessive.”
Carey was compelled to make this statement after visits to his website had increased significantly due to the film, which portrayed Yemen in a refreshingly different light. Holidaymakers were eager to find out about the country’s fishing opportunities. And consequently, the Foreign Commonwealth Office had to issue red warnings, reminding the British public to avoid travel to the country completely. They repeated that it was not safe, and that “attacks against western and British interests could be indiscriminate, including targets such as residential compounds, military and oil facilities, and transport and aviation interests.”
I have not watched the film, but Carey’s statement and the events following the release of the film have certainly evoked much of the irony of the book. Salmon may be the central topic of the story, but the satire of British politicians is undoubtedly what makes the book so good. Torday shows how the views of those in Parliament on the Middle East are excessively one dimensional. The fictitious Prime Minister’s communications officer, Peter Maxwell, is keen to get involved in the Yemen Salmon project. ‘You will really like this,’ he tells Prime Minister Jay Vent. ‘It pushes a lot of buttons: positive and innovative environmental messages, secular Western technology bringing improvements to an Islamic state and a positive news story that will take front page space away from less constructive news items coming out of Iran and Saudi.’
The satire may be a bit too blatant for some, but it dampens the frustrations of those who see through the transparency of real news headlines, which with less obvious words, say pretty much the same thing.
Torday’s approach to satire has received mixed reviews. Some have called the book ‘screamingly funny,’ others call it ‘eccentric’ and ‘one dimensional.’ In my opinion, to call the novel one dimensional is not to insult it. His characters speak exactly how they see things. And because the British politicians of the story cannot see very far, their perceptions are excessively rudimental. Yet Torday also combines satire with traditional Western perceptions of the Middle East. His main character, Dr Alfred Jones, views Yemen as place of mysticism and magic.
Initially Alfred is a mundane character with a terrible marriage and a routine life. As a fishery scientist, he cannot imagine anything as absurd as introducing salmon into the wadis of the Yemen. But he is forced to undergo the project anyway, and meets Muhammad Zaidi, a mystical sheikh. Zaidi begins to open his mind to the possibility of the impossible. Before long, Alfred is won over by the project, and by the spiritual man pioneering it. Although the subject of salmon fishing may seem boring, the story itself is far from this. At the heart of the novel is a contrast between the faith-based societies of the Middle East and the secular world of the West. What the book seems to ask is: which world comes out better?
It is a question that is never directly answered. But Torday has achieved something that very few writers can, by combining the unlikely mixture of salmon fishing, Yemen, the British Parliament, Al Qaeda, the art of public relations, a sad love story, and a journey of self-discovery. It is a refreshingly honest story of Britain, the Middle East, and the ever growing void of understanding between the two worlds. He fills the void with salmon and satire, and the resulting novel is the unique expression of a genuine talent.
Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/salmon_fishing_in_the_yemen
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.