The Tragi-comic Line: On Paul Torday’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”.

Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2007) was recently made into a movie by Lasse Halstorm, starring Ewen McGregor and Emily Blunt. The novel is woven around a multimillionaire sheikh’s vision to introduce angling into the wadi reserves of his Yemeni homeland. The story is part set in England, where the sheikh’s interests are directed to a proxy of the English Fisheries Ministry; who, predictably, takes much interest in the project as consultants owing to the monetary incentive they are set to earn. The protagonist – through whose diary entries the plot is partially developed – is a Dr. Alfred Jones; a fisheries expert who lacks the Machiavellian tact of the bureaucracy and whose good sense sees the visionary project as utter rubbish.

The plot develops through diary entries, letters and interviews of sorts – enhancing the storyline through the views of all characters involved.  The grand project of the Yemeni salmon is complemented with sub-plots involving Dr. Jones’ dead in the water marriage to an ambitious corporate banker / economist; as well as the letters written by Ms. Harriet Chetwode-Talbot – Jones’ attractive co-project worker and the sheikh’s agent in England – who “writes to herself”: as her letters, originally addressed to her in service boyfriend stationed in Iraq gets returned, undelivered. Not that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a maverick, for – at one level being a self-conscious delivery of irony – Torday deals with many predictable scenarios and plot situations: one being the inevitable intra-project romance of Dr. Jones (in midlife crisis) and Harriet with the missing boyfriend.

However, the novel offers much to Halstorm’s movie, which comes across as a romance comedy. Indeed, the scriptwriters (Simon Beaufoy and Torday) have understandably adopted the novel to fit the system requirements of digital cinema. But, the novel itself has a haunting strain of irony and mild humour which is loyally metamorphosed into the cinemascope. Familiar motifs such as the East-West divide, the lack of sentiment and moral emptiness of modern day, professional middle class wedded lives, the exoticization of the non-European locales etc are tested clichés. But, Torday’s use of these same flogged patterns, but with appreciable injection of humour and irony enriches the text as an interesting read.

The humour and irony is often concurrent with the finer as well as insignificant details of the mould. For instance, the fiercely ambitious, “plain” career woman in Jones’ wife is named “Mary”. Harriet’s letters to her estranged boyfriend, too, satirize the failure and futility of their relationship: for, in this ritualistic communication, what Harriet writes of is more to do with the Yemeni salmon project. But, what begins and is sustained as humour / irony, at a point, becomes poignant and disillusioning; for, Harriet herself realizes that for months she had merely been writing to herself.

The “Western interest” in the salmon project is to make a cut – and the materialistic utilitarianism with which its bureaucracy operates is by itself a faded premise. But, Dr. Jones, who at the opening of the novel is merely a passive cog of this mechanism, hemmed with work and pegged by his dominating, target-driven wife begins, in the process of the salmon project, to blossom and to re-assert his identity and agency as a an “individual”. What he first sees as a virtual impossibility, with courage and optimism, takes shape as the Yemeni project succeeds. The Yemeni Salmon project (often referred to in the numerous e.mails exchanged among the characters as “Yemen/Salmon”) is a larger metaphor for courage and for daring to envision reality. The sheikh, in that sense, is a “messiah” for both Dr. Jones and Harriet – in whose company the latter resolve from their competitive routines, to enter a world of calm, tranquility; and of a deep inner peace.

The second half of the novel is structured as a series of interviews given by the characters – now, interviewed as witnesses – to the Police or some such agency; for, by then, we learn that the Yemeni project had “succeeded, but to fail”: as, on the day of the opening of the grand scheme, an unexpected accident occurs. A sudden rush of water caused by a rupture in a higher water basin sweeps the sheikh and the British Prime Minister – who, for financial and publicity reasons, is the prime guest of the event – down river, to be lost forever. This injection of dark irony, however, changes the tone and momentum of the narrative; even as it shocks the reader, for the sheikh has throughout developed as a memorable and haunting presence: the kind of character you feel should “be there” till the end.

Emily Blunt and Ewen McGregor in the movie as Harriet and Fred

Post-9/11 literature – specially, those oriented in the West – is privy to insertions of the “terrorist motif”. The non-European “terrorism” is represented / caricatured at two instances: primarily, in relation to Harriet’s boyfriend Robert Matthews, who is abruptly stationed to Iraq; and where he is declared “missing” after a mission (which the authorities disclaim took place) in Iran. The duplicity of the censoring machine which fabricates and misinforms in the name of “national security”, again, is initially set out as a caricature. The heavily censored letters that are trafficked between Harriet and Robert are at times reduced to mere random words and prepositions, leaving no space for meaningful exchange. Yet, the humour turns dark and becomes replaced by growing tension and apathy as Harriet, in the process, becomes more and more anxious of the lover’s safety. The letters stop getting delivered and after months of uncertainty, the news of his death is confirmed by the Ministry of Defense and Harriet is directed to the official “family support” programme. The extension directed to, in turn, has the following to report:

“Owing to the volume of enquiries and current MoD budgetary constrains, this operation has recently been offshored to Hyderabad, India. Please call us on 0800 400 8000 and you will be answered by one of our highly trained staff… As this operation has only recently been transferred, you may experience some linguistic difficulties with some of our newer staff. Please be patient, they are seeking to do their best to help you… The counseling service is entirely free, but calls cost 50p per minute”.

“Terrorism” is also seen in a repeated attempt by an Al Qaeda offshoot to take the life of the Yemeni sheikh who is accused of trying to westernize the Yemen with his angling project. Both attempts miserably fail, as the first would-be assassin is neutralized; and as the giant wave bungles the consequent attempt. These “terrorist” referents, I felt, were mere caricatures and trivializations of the foolproof terrorist scripts written by Western military / financial interests and its proxy arms. It is intriguing that though both the sheikh and the British PM were – on record – prime targets of “terrorist” hit men, both perish to the natural tide of a single wave.

[Initially written for the Lakbima News]

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