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Fish out of water

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

Paul Torday's debut novel doesn't waste time on preliminaries. First, it announces itself with one of the most eye-catching titles of any recent work of fiction "" right up there with last year's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (whose author Marina Lewycka, in what has to be a clever marketing move, supplied a blurb for this book!).
Then, disabusing the reader of any notion that "salmon fishing in the Yemen" might be an obscure reference that has nothing to do with the story, it casts the line: on the very first page, we learn of a project that does in fact seek to introduce salmon, and salmon fishing, into the wadis of the Yemen.
This project is the brainchild of His Excellency Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama, a man with a vision (or so he thinks). The sheikh's intentions are splendidly noble: introducing the sport of angling to his people, he believes, will enable them to transcend class distinctions and the many other other divisive forces in their lives; it will help them find inner tranquillity and appreciate the virtues of patience, solitude and tolerance that separate salmon-fishers from the rest of mankind.
"They will feel the enchantment of this silver fish and the river it swims in... And then, when talk turns to what this tribe said or that tribe did, or what to do with the Israelis or the Americans, and voices grow heated, then someone will say, 'Let us arise, and go fishing'."
Thus we learn that the salmon are, in a manner of speaking, red herrings. For all the piscatorial information Torday's book throws up at regular intervals (spawning conditions, fishing techniques, the painstaking construction of "holding basins" for the displaced salmon), what it's really about is the Power of Belief.
Not belief in a particular religion, as its atheist protagonist Dr Alfred Jones (a bemused fisheries scientist who has been recruited to the daunting cause) comes to realise, but belief in belief itself; the idea that something that seems impossible can be achieved.
This is a slight idea in itself, and at times it takes the tone of Torday's novel uncomfortably close to that of the average self-help book. But what saves Salmon Fishing in the Yemen from the "If You are Sinking, become a Submarine" variety of dreariness is its sharp sense of humour "" often deadpan, sometimes hysterical "" along with its recognition that for every idealist with a grand vision for the world, there are dozens of self-serving cretins in high places, doing everything to screw that vision up.
The most memorable character in this book is the unctuous Peter Maxwell, the director of communications (and spin-doctor) for the British Prime Minister, who realises that "the Salmon-Yemen project" is the perfect image-building exercise for the government after its many misadventures in the Middle East.
Maxwell may at first appear to be a caricature, but for anyone with even a passing knowledge of the workings of contemporary politics, his sycophancy, single-minded obtuseness and determination to extract maimum mileage out of any situation are entirely believable.
Torday's book is written in the form of journal entries, correspondence (email and postal) between characters, press comments and interviews, and this makes it very reader-friendly. He has a good feel for workplace hegemonies, strained personal relationships and faux-polite conversations that can quickly get menacing, but all this is handled with a lightness of touch.
Even when, on occasion, he secures easy laughs (e.g., in the chapters titled "Intercepts of al-Qaeda email traffic" and in a soldier's letters being rendered incomprehensible by the army's postal censors), the overall effect is so brisk and cheerful that it's hard to be very critical.
There are other slip-ups "" a couple of characters are underdeveloped and at least one subplot superfluous "" but these are minor faults in a very entertaining first book, and nothing to really carp about.

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First Published: Sun, September 16 2007. 00:00 IST