Waugh Novels in a New “Trilogy”

In a paper posted on the website culturedvultures.com (described as “a community dedicated to helping writers of all experiences and backgrounds to have their work seen and read”), Huw Saunders proposes a new “trilogy” of books about Africa. Two of the books are Waugh’s novels Black Mischief and Scoop. The third is The Dogs of War  by Frederick Forsyth (b. 1938–the year Scoop was published). Forsyth’s career in Africa (as described in Wikipedia) began much like Waugh’s. He was the BBC correspondent in Nigeria during the early stages of the civil war involving Biafra. When his 6-month term was up, the BBC refused to extend it because it was “no longer covering the war.” But the war continued, and Forsyth returned as a freelance, moonlighting as an MI6 agent (for which he says he received no pay). He then wrote a 1969 nonfiction book about the war (The Biafra Story) and followed with The Dogs of War (1974), his third novel, which takes place in Africa and may reflect elements of his experience.

Saunders makes a case for treating Waugh’s African novels and this one of Forsyth’s as a trilogy:

Black Mischief, Scoop, and The Dogs Of War all fit quite neatly into their respective authors’ modus operandi. Black Mischief and Scoop see posh boys ending up in tinpot African dictatorships and screwing with affairs of state almost by accident. The Dogs Of War, meanwhile, has an ultra-rich London financier discover that an African nation is harbouring an untapped mountain of platinum, and setting up a friendly coup so his firm can best take advantage of this. (This plot may sound familiar, since it inspired Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister, to have a go at arranging a friendly coup himself.)

The common thread is probably already becoming clear – these are stories of Europeans going to Africa, and doing what Europeans tend to do to Africa (while it’s a fanciful description, it rhymes with ‘cape’). Waugh’s entries take place during the waning days of full-on colonialism, while Forsyth’s takes place after colonialism was ostensibly over, but really, little enough has changed. As such, both have moments of racism we simply can’t recreate with modern technology, and Waugh is clearly the greater offender in this category. Forsyth makes some fairly unpleasant generalisations about European and African soldiers, noting that only the Europeans tend to keep their eyes open while firing, but would never have a sympathetic character employ the phrase ‘you black booby’ – certainly not with the relish Waugh uses it. Indeed, Forsyth is the only one of the two authors to depict black people as anything other than unsympathetic, dim, or both.

The paper continues by combing through all three books, finding elements that connect them as well as distinguish them from each other. He never gets to the point of comparing Forsyth’s writing style with that of Waugh (except to comment that Waugh’s books were comedies and Forsyth’s a thriller). Rather he connects them through characters and story lines. And he shows how history and the end of empire is reflected in Forsyth’s book, illustrating both how some things have changed while others remain much the same. Saunder’s case is well presented but might be more interesting if one has already read The Dogs of War. And a comment on Waugh’s views of Africa in his postwar travel book, A Tourist in Africa (1960), might have contributed some interesting insights. The paper concludes with this (Manson and Cat are characters from Dogs):

…After years (or, in this trilogy setup, two books’ worth) of colonialism, of coups that are proxy power struggles between European interests, of the Basils and Mansons of the world wandering up and pillaging African nations, finally the world’s power-brokers are rudely reminded that the Africans are there too, that they have agency of their own, and aren’t best pleased by the rubber plantations and unequal treaties. Perhaps it’s iffy that they only become capable of it with help from Cat and crew, but it’s a marked improvement on how Waugh treated them.

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