Warning: a certain amount of vulgarity, or plain speaking, may be encountered in the course of this review.
The reason for that is as follows: Hugh Paxton’s Homunculus is a book with balls. In fact it’s got the other piece of equipment too; and if you don’t watch out it may sneak around behind you and fuck you up the arse. Which is, as I forewarned, a vulgar way of saying that this book will take you by surprise and shock you. Quite often. Not least because, since the author tells it like it is, the novel is wildly politically incorrect.
Let no one say that I don’t have catholic taste. Hugh Paxton’s first novel is about as different from Michelle Lovric’s The Remedy (discussed last week) as it is possible to imagine, but, like The Remedy, this is also a book that I enjoyed enormously. More to the point, perhaps, I think it could sell very well.
Hugh Paxton is another of the first-time novelists to emerge from the Macmillan New Writing stable. Now in his forties, he is a highly experienced British journalist. He formerly worked out of Tokyo and is now based in Windhoek, Namibia. He is the author of seven non-fiction books and has covered assignments in 70 countries. He has won several BBC awards for his writing. So, Paxton is no beginner or amateur in the business of putting words on paper; and it shows.
At first sight, Homunculus is a fairly typical science fiction/fantasy book, involving a mixture of alchemy, modern technology, and African voodoo. In practice it is far more than that: it is a black comedy which is very funny in places, an extremely violent techno-thriller, and an expose, should you still need one, of the true nature of Africa today.
In the course of a plot which involves the creation of a small army of bio-robots, i.e. homunculi, Homunculus also provides a brutally frank picture of the incompetence and corruption of almost everyone and anyone who operates in Africa, from the politicians to the foreign mercenaries, the UN aid agencies, and the ordinary soldier. Also involved are the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, the members of which turn out to be even more clueless than everybody else.
The time is the present (more or less) and the setting is the civil war in Sierra Leone. As the author explains in an epilogue, many of the characters are either real people or are based on real people. General Butt Naked, for instance, whom you might imagine to be one of Paxton’s wilder feats of imagination, really exists. At least he does, says the author, ‘unless someone has shot him or his overtaxed liver has exploded’.
The plot involves a modern-day alchemist who poses as a Roman Catholic priest (Father Jack), takes over a village in a remote part of Sierra Leone, and proceeds to manufacture homunculi. This, apparently, has been an ambition of alchemists for many centuries. These particular homunculi are manufactured from spare body parts (no shortage of those during a violent civil war), modern technology, and witchcraft (Father Jack has Papa Det lodged in a freezer, which keeps him quiet for most of the time).
Having cracked the business of manufacturing totally obedient automatons, who can be used for any kind of wickedness, Father Jack decides to sell them to the highest bidder. And we go on from there. Naturally, this being Africa, absolutely nothing goes according to plan.
About thirty years ago, I did some research into African civil wars, particularly the chaos in the Congo after independence, for a novel which was later published under the title Counter-Coup (Muller UK and Lorevan USA). What I learnt was that African wars are fought by soldiers who are severely deficient in terms of IQ and education, to the extent that even shooting people with a rifle is often beyond them. It is easier for them to grab the weapon by the barrel and use it as a club. Better still, use a panga, or chopping weapon, and remove your enemies’ hands, feet, head.
Thirty or forty years ago, the average African soldier believed passionately in witchcraft. If the witch doctor cast the right spell, the soldier would be immune to bullets. (Holding a sea shell was believed to have the same effect.) Furthermore, a battle (and more or less any other activity) was believed to be best conducted when totally stoned through the use of various drugs, or when drunk, or both.
Homunculus, which I am quite sure is based on Hugh Paxton’s first-hand journalistic experience, reveals that absolutely nothing has changed. The facts relating to African civil wars are so tragi-comic, and the violence so incredibly bloody, that no work of fiction can out-perform reality. Rape, mutilation and murder are carried out by and on children without anyone thinking it out of the ordinary. Despite all that being documented fact, the author may well be right when he claims that ‘Homunculus is probably the most bizarre work of fiction ever to emerge from the African continent (African presidents’ memoirs and autobiographies excepted).’
What this means is that the book is pretty damn good. Brilliant, in fact.
Homunculus certainly isn’t going to appeal to everybody. But I have a strong suspicion that, if the Macmillan publicists can draw this to the attention of the right audience, the paperback version could really take off. That audience is, I further suspect, likely to be young, male, hip (or whatever the current term is), intelligent, familiar with science fiction and techo-thrillers (everybody is these days), and also inclined to watch Little Britain and the like. The audience is there all right. And it’s big enough to turn Homunculus into MNW’s first big hit. Which it deserves to be.
Stylistically, the book reads as if it was thrown together in a casual sort of way, as if the author was talking to his friends over a few drinks. So after I'd read it once I went back and started it again. As I had guessed, a second reading revealed that the book is put together with a great deal of care and thought (much of which, I dare say, comes as second nature to an experienced journalist). The writing is economical but full of significant detail. It just feels spontaneous.
Of course, Homunculus ain’t perfect. Few first novels are. There are too many viewpoint characters for my taste, which makes the story just a tad difficult to follow at times. And the book could definitely have done with another proof-reader. On the whole though, it's terrific.
Not sure about the cover illustration. It looks like a human sperm that's been subjected to some kind of genetic damage through radiation. Although, come to think of it...
While I was reading this book, the Times carried an article about Zimbabwe, by Jan Raath. Zimbabwe -- as you surely must know if you give even passing attention to the news -- is descending further and further into chaos under the mouth-frothing Mugabe. Inflation is totally out of control, and a loaf of bread currently costs 90,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
And you know what occurs to me? It seems to me that before long, a well-mannered deputation of educated Africans may well descend on Downing Street, knock on the door, and say: ‘Please sir, Mr Blair sir, will you take us back as a colony?’
Because God knows, reverting to colonial status would be a far better option than what many of them have currently got: namely corrupt and brutal incompetence.
Now there’s a politically incorrect thought for you. Bloody true though.