Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Now, if I was the same Brit that I am a Canadian, I wouldn't have picked up Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen the other week at Munro's Books: the little "Richard & Judy's Summer Read" sticker would likely have put me off, the same way that the Oprah sticker gives me pause, but more so. (And it only gives me pause: I've read Oprah books before and enjoyed them!)

But honestly, who wouldn't want to read an inside-the-bureaucracy faux-documentary novel about the mad project of reengineering a Yemeni wadi to support salmon transplanted from Great Britain, so that Yemenis could fish for them there as Scots might in a loch?

Plenty of people, you say? Hmm. I don't think I know them.

This was a fast read and a pleasant one. Blurbed by Marina Lewycka, author of the equally improbably titled A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (reviewed ungently here), Torday's novel won't attract the same attention Lewycka's did, but was a better book regardless.

Middle-aged fisheries scientist Dr. Alfred Jones, married though not quite happily so, and settled in a competent but to him vaguely unsatisfying career, finds himself dragooned into supporting the above-described quixotic project, entirely funded by a wealthy Yemeni, to shift UK salmon into a river on the Arabian Peninsula. Featuring odd characters who interestingly blend the stereotypical with the unexpected, the novel doesn't follow the traditional faux-realist path of a seamless retrospective narrative; instead it takes a faux-documentary approach, telling its story through emails, journal entries, newspaper stories, etc. You don't ever know everything about any one event or character, but you've got several perspectives on everything, and for me the approach worked swimmingly.

Torday's Jones reminds one of numerous other British not-quite-heroes, who reached a recent pinnacle (nadir?) in Julian Barnes' decent but enthusiastically received A Sense of an Ending (also reviewed here a little ungently). Rather than a weakness, though, as I said it was for Barnes, this predictability seemed to me a strength for Torday. (Hear me out, Fraser!) In brief, the novel's fragmentary approach - emails, interviews, etc. - meant that I wasn't trapped in Dr. Jones' head, and so he exists in a comparatively rich contextual environment: I know Barnes' Tony ridiculously well, including how he fears/thinks others see him, but I don't know how he's understood by others, and Torday's Dr. Jones has some extra dimensionality.

Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is wiser and sweeter and deeper than Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but I enjoyed Torday's novel more, and it's closer to my heart than Barnes'. Still, I won't be teaching it, even if it's a declaredly environmental novel, both in form and in content, because in the end it's all too predictable (except for the ending, which I really did NOT expect to turn out that way). If you like David Lodge, or Stephen Fry for that matter, or if you've got an interest in environmental fiction, then this book should work well for you.

But I'm still not going to trust Richard & Judy next time I see one of their labels.


dhMuse said…
Hm. This novel seems a strange and serendipitous conjunction of the two non-work-related books I'm currently reading: the Scottish Charles and Patricia Aithie's richly detailed and photographed but somewhat colonialist Yemen: Jewel of Arabia, and Mark Hume and Harvey Thommasen's River of the Angry Moon: Seasons on the Bella Coola, which deals principally with salmon and sport fishing. Trying to imagine these books combined—nope, mind blown; imaginative failure.
Fraser said…
Pinnacle, I tell you, pinnacle.

Let's stipulate for a moment that the main characters are essentially the same and equally-well presented. Or, if you prefer, equally well-presented. Nothing to choose between them, I mean.

So in this novel, the quiet, invisible, vaguely unsatisfied man is presented through a fragmentary faux-documentary approach that presents him in a rich context.

In the Barnes novel, the quiet, invisible, vaguely unsatisfied man is presented in a quiet, invisible, vaguely unsatisfying way. Which is nevertheless somehow fascinating.

Which seems a more impressive accomplishment? And, perhaps more important, which approach has more integrity with the character?

How odd though that both of them have a twist ending. Coincidence?
richard said…
Let me be clear: in The Sense of an Ending, Barnes does an amazing job of everything he sets out to do. I reject your stipulation, because Barnes does a better job of presenting his main character than Torday does, even though they are substantially the same, versions of the same Brit character type.

No question at all that the Barnes novel is - as I said in the review - "wiser and sweeter and deeper" than Torday's. Torday's is more imaginative, with elements of farce in and around the fisheries science and collapsing relationships of various sorts, but Barnes' is a seriously effective realist novel.

And in suggesting the word "nadir," I meant to emphasize what we all felt as a pain of recognition, that it hurts a little to see this character as someone like us. As Pink Floyd said it long ago in speaking of the same sort of character (who'd be roughly the same age now, incidentally!), "the time is gone, the song is over: I thought I'd something more to say...."

Probably not a coincidence that there's a twist ending in both. Otherwise it ends in the same quiet desperation (cf Floyd) that characterizes so much of these men's lives, and there's hardly much fun in that!
richard said…
And also, how on earth did I not know that a Ewan McGregor movie had already been made of this novel, which has now gone into limited release? I just have to pay more attention to things. Christ.

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