Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko by Patrick Neate centres on the events of a fictional country, Zambawi, ruled by President Adini. He had declared himself as the President, after his own successful coup launched with his Commander, Indigo Bulimi.
Now another revolution is brewing and at its helm is the rebel Black Boot Gang, headed by Adini’s own bodyguard, Isaiah. Caught between all of the politics of the country are a great many characters from Musa, the witch doctor to Adini’s own son, Enoch; to Rujeko Tula, daughter of the exiled Presiden Tula of Zambawi’s neigbouring country, Mozola; and the titular Mr. Jim Tulloh who comes to teach in a school in Zambawi.
Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko‘s strongest point is its tongue in cheek and straightforward humour that clinically satirises the wrongs of the imaginary country. All is met with a questioning and humourous eye: be it Adini’s success and his continued President ship or the entitlement of the white people residing in Zambawi or worse, the blatant and biased involvement of the British forces in the country’s politics.
The imagination put into creating Zambawi’s history, language, flag, its culture (such as the flatulence inducing drug, gar!) and folklore is commendable.
Along with humour, the use of folklore to carry the plot forward gives the novel a blend of modernity and superstition which itself speaks of how people operate and navigate between the two. The myth of the Great Chief Tuloko pervades the story and even their language (particularly its metaphors). It is this folklore that had attracted General Bulimi from a very young age. His character development is explored in great detail. Bulimi as a child had discovered his talent for narrating stories, for holding the audience’s attention, enthralling them and most importantly, uniting them. He had discovered his poetic bend but a twist of fate, led him in the opposite direction. Needless, to say, his character development makes him my favourite character. His sensitiveness and his belief in storytelling is mesmerising.
Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko is bracketed by scholarly writing. The novel begins with a preface taken from another imaginary work, The Zamba, by Edison Burrows III. It outlines the myth of the Great Chief Tuloko and how the country came into existence. The novel ends with a map (who does not love a map?) and Translation Notes (translating the Latin proverbs that Adini and Bulimi share as part of their unique hobby!) and a very helpful glossary of the Zamba (the language spoken in Zambawi) words used in the story. This bracketing of scholarly writing is perhaps Neate’s way to mock the often colonial and derogatory anthropological studies conducted in Africa that stereotyped the landscape and the people.
While wit is what drives the novel forward, the crass humour can sometimes be at odds with the very serious events that occur in the story. The use of humour alongside the blood, gore and violence of events can feel as if the former is dismissing the latter and trivialising it.
While Neate does skillfully satirise relevant issues that have ravaged the continent, particularly a prevalent neocolonial outlook, there are still certain prejudices that shape a few of the story lines in the novel. The most prominent being the white man (musugu in Zamba), Jim Tulloh being advised to go to Africa by his career master at his school in Dorset. The career master believed that teaching in Zambawi could help Jim to use is lost year (he had failed his exams and could not go to university that year) productively and that would give him a boost, a motivation and a direction.
I want to strongly assert the fact that the East or the Oriental (which is another word that makes me gag!) and places in Africa and Asia do not exist simply to make the white people feel better about themselves!
Further, the idea of how Jim is possessed by Chief Tuloko’s spirit is a typical white man as a saviour narrative.
One can argue that these narratives are used precisely so that we can mock them and see the hollowness of such outdated concepts. I, however, was unable to dismiss them as only satirical but rather saw it as a prejudiced, blanket commentary on Africa as a continent, which adds to the already toxic existence of viewing Africa as one big problem continent.
Should you pick up Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko by Patrick Neate then?
Absolutely, because it presents a roller coaster of a witty ride through the myriad facets that make Zambawi what it is. I did roll my eyes often because of the trivialising tendency of the novel and a few faulty narratives, but I found I could move on and appreciate a few characters, the wit and the spot on caricatures.
This was part of my October Yellow Book Cover Month. Read more about it here!