Monday, February 8, 2010

Paul Torday's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen": Book Review

A British, totally secular fisheries expert spearheads a sheik's scheme to bring the comforts, and faith, inherent in angling to the desert. This idealism infuses a thoughtful narrative about diplomacy, hope, and fate. Mixing genres, styles, and voices, bureaucrats, lovers, soldiers, politicians, terrorists and pundits jostle in short chapters which construct a light but instructive fable.

Torday manages to capture the tone of how a yuppie banker vs. a Scottish local newspaper, an Al-Qaeda operative vs. an extract from "Hansard," a scientist's diary vs. a Prime Minister's PR man, would add to the complicated reactions to the sheik's proposal to flood a Yemeni wadi with tanks, sluices, and cooling to support fish imported from Britain. The audacious plan's unfolding leads to the main character, Dr. Alfred Jones, confronting the stagnation of his marriage, the routine of his job, and the contrast between a land where a "Sunday ritual" means shopping at Tesco's vs. an Arab culture where faith in its simplicity, apart from fanaticism, enriches life and brings solace to a country where the divine religion still allows dignity despite the absence of the fatal faith of the West, the religion of money.

I came to this out of its title, and my interest in Yemen. I recommend Tim Mackintosh-Smith's "Yemen," (reviewed by me) better called by its British title, "Dictionary Land," as a companion to this novel. I know nothing about fishing, but a glossary and a steady stream of subtle explanations allow any reader to follow easily the angling terms and biological data. The shifts between materials and speakers and writers keep the novel moving, if perhaps slightly off-kilter at times.

The success of Sheikh Muhammed's project pulls in events as disparate as the war in Iraq, a TV pilot, ecological and fishery activists, Islamic fundamentalists, and the simple, nagging question of how Western and Muslim societies struggle towards common ground in an ancient, humble hobby. The landscape of Yemen does not emerge until nearly two-thirds of the way through, but the novel deepens and widens its scope as we see through English eyes the meaning of what the sheikh has tried to show his skeptical colleagues: "Faith comes before hope, and hope before love." This lesson will change more than one life, and alter more than one course, as the novel reaches its conclusion. (Posted to Amazon US 1-29-10)

No comments: