… should you ever find yourself in a South African jail, from Tom Sharpe:
“In prison they told me: ‘Make friends with the murderers,’” he told Britain’s Sunday Express. “‘Everybody else is afraid of them so if you’re with them the others leave you alone.’ That’s what I did. Good tip.”
Tom Sharpe, one of the funniest writers of the 20th century, died last month.
Born in 1928, he was the son of a British Nazi:
Years later, when Tom was a famous writer, he was invited to address a Jewish women’s group and began his talk with the memorable line, “You have probably not often been addressed by someone whose chief ambition, at age 15, was to be an SS officer.” Tom’s dad was the Ealing and Acton member of The Link (a pro-Nazi organisation) and also a member of the Nordic League. A loyal Nazi, he said he hated Jews “in the sense that I hate all corruption”. When the war began the family was on the run from the Special Branch, moving house time after time, always haunted by the fear that the minister would be consigned to the Isle of Man along with other Mosleyites. Tom’s father died in 1944, just too soon to see the film of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen which utterly devastated Tom; he realised that everything he had been brought up to believe had been wrong and that Nazism was pure evil.
Sharpe spent the 1950’s in South Africa, from which he was deported in 1961. Given his background, it’s no surprise that his writing is savagely satirical. In Riotous Assembly, his first novel, Miss Hazelstone calls the South African police to report that she had shot her black cook with a four-barreled elephant gun:
“Kommandant van Heerden here,” he said. “I understand that there has been a slight accident with your cook.”
Miss Hazelstone was adamant.. “I have just murdered my Zulu cook.”
Kommandant van Heerden ignored the self-accusation. “The body is in the house?” he enquired.
“The body is on the lawn,” said Miss Hazelstone. The Kommandant sighed. It was always the same. Why couldn’t people shoot blacks inside their houses where they were supposed to shoot them?
“I will be up at Jacaranda House in forty minutes,” he said, “and when I arrive I will find the body in the house.”
“You won’t,” Miss Hazelstone insisted, “you’ll find it on the back lawn.”
Kommandant van Heerden tried again.
“When I arrive the body will be in the house.” He said it very slowly this time.
Miss Hazelstone was not impressed. “Are you suggesting that I move the body?” she asked angrily.
The Kommandant was appalled at the suggestion. “Certainly not,” he said. “I have no wish to put you to any inconvenience and besides there might be fingerprints. You can get the servants to move it for you.”
What follows is bizarre, gross, ridiculous, frequently obscene, bitter and venomous. It’s also very funny.
Sharpe’s equally scathing second novel, Indecent Exposure, relates the further adventures of Kommandant van Heerden and the Piemburg police. His subsequent novels are set in Great Britain. They lack the sheer viciousness of the first two, but otherwise are just as bawdy, over-the-top and funny. My favorites are The Great Pursuit ((An account of the publication of a prurient bestseller, The Great Pursuit is Sharpe’s commentary on the dichotomy of high and low art and on critics who “… praised the obviously great and cursed the rest….”)) and Blott on the Landscape, but any of his earlier books can be recommended. Note well: Sharpe’s humor is frequently ribald and occasionally obscene. If you prefer your literature decorous, he’s not your writer. If you’re interested but hesitant, The Great Pursuit is the least tasteless of his novels that I’ve read.