Thursday, November 01, 2007

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday’s debut novel makes me intensely jealous. There is no way I could ever get a first novel off the ground with such wit and humour, such intelligence and satire. But then I’m not Torday, and I’m not writing a first novel about a most odd subject.
I just finished this book today. It’s had some mixed reviews around the globe, but I found it perfectly charming. It doesn’t go far in any direction: the aspects of faith aren’t pushed so far that they become unbelievable (although obviously some grumpy secularist reviewers thought they were); the romance aspect is quietly handled, and there’s no shattering of marriages or sudden changes of direction for the characters; the use of various official papers and private notes and letters is hardly a new approach, but Torday handles it pretty well (except when he decided to put some sections out of sequence, something that didn’t strike me as necessary); the characters are more sharply drawn than some reviewers believed (probably the same secularists again); and though we don’t have dramatic scenes in the sense of characters playing off against each other (well, pretty rarely) because everything is told somewhat at one remove, we do have a competent approach to the action that does happen.
And then there’s all the stuff about salmon fishing. I don’t know that this book will convert a whole pile of readers into salmon fishers, but it won’t put them off either. The fishing side of things is interesting, and there’s just enough of it at any time. This avoids making the reader think: this isn’t a novel, it’s a fishing manual.
I found this book in a Valencia bookshop: I was desperate for something to read because my wife was taking so long to finish the fifth Ian Rankin, and Torday’s book was the only thing that looked worth a try. It was worth a try, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, reading it in two days - unfortunately. And my wife still hasn’t finished with Inspector Rebus.

Here are some short extracts from the book:
In the first, the main character, Fred has had a bit of an argument with his so-superior wife, who always expects everything to be on her terms.
“The rest of the evening was a bit of a frost, but when we went to bed, I think Mary must have felt a little guilty about the way she had changed her plans. Suffice to say, my new Marks & Spencer pyjamas were not required for the early part of the night. A relatively rare event in our marriage of late.
Afterwards Mary said, ‘There now, darling, that should keep you going for a bit.’” (Page 30)

Later Fred is having a meal with the Sheikh whose idea it is to enable his people to fish for salmon in the Yemen, and he tells Fred:
“’I regret to see your sadness, Dr Alfred. I would rather see you with an untroubled spirit and with your whole heart and mind bent upon our project. You need to learn to have faith, Dr Alfred. We believe that faith is the cure that heals all troubles. Without faith there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love.”’ (Page 139)

Much later, Fred reflects on this:
“I thought about the sheikh saying, although I could not remember his exact words, ‘Without faith, there is no hope. Without faith, there is no love.’
Then in a moment, in that vast space of rocks and sky and scorching sun, I understood that he had not meant religious faith, not exactly. He was not urging me to become a Muslim or to believe in one interpretation of God rather than another. He knew me for what I was, an old, cold, cautious scientist. That was what I was then. And he was simply pointing out to me the first step to take. The word he had used was faith, but what he meant was belief. The first step was simple: it was to believe in belief itself. I had just taken that step. At long last I understood.
I had belief. I did not know, or for the moment care, what exactly it was I had to believe in. I only knew that belief in something was the first step away from believing in nothing, the first step away from a world which only recognised what it could count, measure, sell or buy. The people here [in the Yemen] still had that innocent power of belief: not the angry denial of other people’s belief of religious fanatics, but a quiet affirmation. That was what I sensed here, in this land and in this place, which made it so different from home. It was not the clothes, not the language, not the customs, not the sense of being in another century. It was none of these. It was the pervading sense of belief. “ (Page 281)
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