Black Mischief in Sri Lanka

In this week’s “Midweek Review” column in the daily Sri Lankan English-language newspaper The Island, columnist Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe compares what he describes as the neocolonialist policies of the current government of Sri Lanka with the comic plot of Waugh’s 1932 novel Black Mischief. In introducing Waugh to his readers, the columnist reminds them of an earlier, largely foregotten connection Waugh had with Sri Lankan (then Ceylonese) politics:

A brief digression to an encounter with our own S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike is further suggestive of Waugh’s early mediocrity: Waugh was one of the contestants Bandaranaike defeated at the Oxford Union elections in 1923. Bandaranaike later described their acquaintance in 1930: “I remember Evelyn Waugh as an undersized, red-faced, rather irresponsible youth. I would never have suspected that he had it in him to write the charming books he has produced”; Waugh’s own references to Bandaranaike in his autobiography, In A Little Learning (1964) suggests that the feelings of disdain have been mutual. Waugh wrote: “There were very few, if any, Negro undergraduates [at Oxford], but Asiatics abounded, and these were usually referred to as ‘black men’ whether they were pale Egyptians or dusky Tamils; […] certainly the only oriental whom I met, the Cingalese [sic] Bandaranaike, returned to Colombo fiercely anti-British. This sentiment did not save him from assassination by his fellow countrymen when he lost the protection of the British Crown.”

The columnist deletes several lines from Waugh’s statement in which he explained, inter alia, that there was “no rancour in the appellation” and no personal contempt or hostility were intended, although he conceded, “We may have caused offense.” (A Little Learning, London, 1964, p. 184). The article goes on to explain how Waugh used his writing skills to rise out of his undergraduate mediocrity to become one of the most successful writers of his generation. A plot summary of Black Mischief is then provided, leaving it to the paper’s readers to make the relevant connections to today’s political situation with which they would be intimately familiar. The column concludes:

Seth’s approach of never paying attention to detail and dealing only with the larger issues is dangerously ill-equipped to administer a land rife with corruption and torn by tribal feuds, conspiring colonial powers, and a polyglot population proves his undoing as the coup d’état attests.

The most interesting part of Waugh’s novel is the relationship between Emperor Seth and Basil Seal. Basil, who only came out to Azania because he had no means to make a living in London is enthusiastically embraced by Seth who was pining for a man of progress and culture he can trust. Seth’s modernisation efforts in the hands of a man like Basil Seal, a financially impoverished member of the British aristocracy never had any chance of success…

Waugh’s contempt is reserved for African leaders who slavishly imitate and often misinterpret European virtues at their peril. The situation is too close to home!…[Waugh’s] words: “For in that city [New York] there is neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy” need to be quoted for the benefit of our political leaders.

No mention is made of Waugh’s 1962 preface to a new edition of Black Mischief

Thirty years ago it seemed an anachronism that any part of Africa should be independent of European administration. History has not followed what then seemed its natural course. 

This entry was posted in A Little Learning, Articles, Black Mischief and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Black Mischief in Sri Lanka

Comments are closed.