Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe
Published in 1971, this is Sharpe’s first novel in which he takes up, aims and fires a large elephant gun at the apartheid system that blighted South Africa at the time. His bullets are his excoriating wit, a far more effective weapon than a dry treatise on the evils that were bedevilling the country. As a Brit, he gives an outsider’s perspective.
The action is based in a sleepy South African town called Piemburg which Sharpe describes as “half the size of New York Cemetery and twice as dead.” But scratch beneath the surface and it is a microcosm of the pre-Mandela South Africa. The police, bumbling and inefficient, have developed a nice line of torture techniques which they are more than willing to try out, perfect and extend on any person of colour who is unfortunate enough to get in their way.
The action starts when a respected member of the community, of British stock, Miss Hazelstone rings the police station to demand that someone comes around to arrest her as she has just shot and killed her Zulu cook. It transpires that she shot him out in the garden. The Chief of Police, Kommandant van Heerden, vainly tries to persuade her to move the body indoors but she will have none of it. This simple exchange kickstarts a series of events which soon spiral out of control into a series of mind-bogglingly ridiculous and funny set pieces.
The fall guy in the whole shebang is Miss Hazelstone’s brother, Jonathan, the Bishop of Barotseland. Through a series of twists and turns in the plotting, he is marched out to the gallows to be hung, simply so that van Heerden get his hands on his heart which he wants to transplant for his own. Things don’t quite go to plan and the Bishop, who is the only sympathetic character in the book, lives to tell another tale.
As investigations into the murder progress, it becomes obvious that the cook and Miss Hazelstone were having intimate relations, miscegenation being illegal at the time, and their perversions included rubber wear and an innovative use of novocaine.
Had van Heerden just done what Miss Hazelstone had requested, arrested her for killing the cook, then the peace and quiet of Piemburg would not have been disturbed. But Hazelstone’s actions and attitudes were an affront to any right-thinking Boer.
It was perfectly acceptable, as the laws stood, for her to kill her cook indoors but not outside, hence the request that the body be removed from the garden. Her sexual perversions and passion for her Zulu cook were not only illegal but so shocking to van Heerden that he could envisage that were they to come out into the open, the fabric of South African society would be irreparably damage and a cloud of shame would descend on Piemburg. The South African police and secret service, BOSS, were notorious for their indiscriminate use of violence and torture against the people. By focusing on and magnifying these stupidities Sharpe, as well as creating an entertaining and comic read, makes his points with deadly precision.
As a book, though, I found it a little patchy. The first half was well plotted, gripping and funny but by the second half the plotting got more laboured and it seemed to wheeze and pant as it struggled to get to the finishing line. Perhaps it is difficult to maintain something where the dial is set perpetually at eleven. However, if you are looking for an absurd, bawdy, comedic novel, this is as good as any you will find.