Ishmaelia: From Evelyn Waugh`s “Scoop”
Perhaps my favorite novel is Evelyn Waugh`s 1938 journalism satire Scoop, and my favorite stretch of prose might be Scoop`s serene and cheerful description of the Republic of Ishmaelia (mostly Ethiopia, with a dash of Liberia):
Ishmaelia, that hitherto happy commonwealth, cannot conveniently be approached from any part of the world. … Desert, forest, and swamp, frequented by furious nomads, protect its approaches from those more favored regions which the statesmen of Berlin and Geneva have put to school under European masters. An inhospitable race of squireens cultivate the highlands and pass their days in the perfect leisure which those peoples alone enjoy who are untroubled by the speculative or artistic itch.
Various courageous Europeans, in the seventies of the last century, came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. … None returned. They were eaten, every one of them; some raw, others stewed and seasoned — according to local usage and the calendar (for the better sort of Ishmaelites have been Christian for many centuries and will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop). Punitive expeditions suffered more harm than they inflicted, and in the nineties humane counsels prevailed. The European powers independently decided that they did not want the profitless piece of territory; that the one thing less desirable than seeing a neighbour established there was the trouble of taking it themselves. … A committee of jurists, drawn from the Universities, composed a constitution, providing a bicameral legislature, proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote, an executive removable by the President on the recommendation of both houses, an independent judicature, religious liberty, secular education, habeas corpus, free trade, joint stock banking, chartered corporations, and numerous other agreeable features. … Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson from Alabama was put in as the first President; a choice whose wisdom seemed to be confirmed by history, for, forty years later, a Mr. Rathbone Jackson held his grandfather`s office in succession to his father Pankhurst, while the chief posts of the state were held by Messrs Garnett Jackson, Mander Jackson, Huxley Jackson, his uncle and brothers, and by Mrs Athol (nee Jackson) his aunt. So strong was the love which the Republic bore the family that General Elections were known as `Jackson Ngomas` wherever and whenever they were held. These, by the constitution, should have been quinquennial, but since it was found in practice that difficulty of communication rendered it impossible for the constituencies to vote simultaneously, the custom had grown up for the receiving officer and the Jackson candidate to visit in turn such parts of the Republic as were open to travel, and entertain the neighbouring chiefs to a six days` banquet at their camp, after which the stupefied aborigines recorded their votes in the secret and solemn manner prescribed by the constitution.
It had been found expedient to merge the functions of national defence and inland revenue in an office then held in the capable hands of General Gollancz Jackson: his forces were in two main companies, the Ishmaelite Mule Taxgathering Force and the Rifle Excisemen with a small Artillery Death Duties Corps for use against the heirs of powerful noblemen. … Towards the end of each financial year the General`s flying columns would lumber out into the surrounding country on the heels of the fugitive population and returned in time for budget day laden with the spoils of the less nimble …
Under this liberal and progressive regime, the Republic may be said, in some way, to have prospered. It is true that the capital city of Jacksonburg became unduly large, its alleys and cabins thronged with landless men of native and alien blood, while the country immediately surrounding it became depopulated, so that General Gollancz Jackson was obliged to start earlier and march further in search of the taxes; … there was, moreover, a railway to the Red Sea coast, bringing a steady stream of manufactured imports which relieved the Ishmaelites of the need to practice their few clumsy crafts, while the adverse trade balance was rectified by an elastic system of bankruptcy law. In the remote provinces, beyond the reach of General Gollancz, the Ishmaelites followed their traditional callings of bandit, slave, or gentleman of leisure, happily ignorant of their connexion with the town which a few of them, perhaps, had vaguely and incredulously heard.
A few notes:
- -“Inland revenue” is the British equivalent of “internal revenue,” the IRS.
- – “Death duties” are taxes on inheritance.
- – The first names of the Jacksons are drawn from progressive British celebrities, such as Victor Gollancz, fellow-traveling head of the Left Book Club; Samuel Smiles, Victorian reformist and author of the bestseller Self-Help; the suffragette Mrs. Pankhurst; and the numerous Darwinian Huxleys. The Manders were a family of industrialists and reformers, a sort of Wolverhampton version of the Wedgwoods. The Rathbones were a family of Liverpudlian ship owners, reformers, feminists, and movie stars. Bunny Garnett was a bisexual conscientious objector prominent in the Bloomsbury literary circle. I`m not sure who Athol was.
The opening chapter of John Updike`s 1978 novel The Coup describes the fictional African People`s Republic of Kush in comparably dazzling prose. The Coup`s one-paragraph acknowledgment note lists Waugh as a source, so I imagine Updike was directly inspired by this passage from Scoop.