Every so often I pick up a novel, or get sent one, and read it, and then I find that it's part of a sort of movement. Thus it was that I came to hear about the Underground Literary Alliance, for instance (through reading, as I recall, Noah Cicero's Burning Babies -- though Noah, I think, has since parted from the ULA).
And now it's happened again. I have been reading Richard Rathwell's Red the Nile, Blue the Hills -- fairly painlessly, on the whole -- and now that I come to look him up, I find that he's part of a considerable gang of like thinkers. (Although, in the course of time, like thinkers tend to discover a few differences in their thinking, fall out, and go their separate ways. E.g. Noah, mentioned above. And see, for instance, this account of a little ding-dong at the Friday Project; found for me by a commenter on the Scott Pack relocation story.)
Richard Rathwell is a Canadian novelist and poet. He has been around for some time and has usually been involved in controversy. His high school teachers found him 'oppositional', and he was named in the Canadian Parliament as a dangerous person in relation to the Gastown riots of 1971. He has taught literature in various countries and has worked as a consultant/adviser to the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the British Foreign Office. He has had lots of experience in aid organisations and has worked in many African countries; and this latter experience is, I think, the key to his novel Red the Nile, Blue the Hills.
Richard has written four novels and various chapbooks, all of which are published by Blue Orange Publishing. This is a small firm which has also been around for some time and seems to have very definite views on how things should be done.
All of that I discovered after reading Red the Nile, Blue the Hills. So, what do we have?
Well, I find myself stumped for a quick summary of this novel, though I found it interesting enough to read. The principal character is Hank Rousseau, who works for a large international children's charity. As the title suggests, most of the action takes place in Egypt, though there are excursions to Albania and Ireland.
The plot? Hmm. Well, Hank becomes involved in troubleshooting, in particular investigating the death/disappearance of various of his organisation's staff. There's a lot of organisational infighting; huge amounts of local colour. And some violence. A lot of travel. And confusion. And if that all sounds a bit vague and confused, then that's because that's the way the novel left me. And maybe that's the point, because Blue Orange evolved from the Blue Apple Group of international surrealists, which operated in Ireland in the late 1970s and 1980s. So perhaps total clarity is not the desired end.
The author's brother, acting as publicist, described the book, in an email to me, as an adventure story set in an exotic land, and as a comic book. Well, I wouldn't disagree with that; though it's not a traditional sort of Wilbur Smith adventure story; and it is perhaps not so much comic, in the ho ho ho sense, as satirical. I take it to be an expose and critique, if you will, of the mysterious and largely self-serving ways in which large multi-national aid agencies actually work.
Hank, the leading character, is also confused in places. At one point he finds himself in Ireland, without quite knowing how he got there. In that respect, this book reminds me of Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare. And believe me, it took some delving into the old memory to remember the correct title and author of that one. But the Nightmare itself I remember all right, because it was quite a frightening account of a man trapped in his dreams: unable to tell the difference between reality and nightmare. That book was also set in Egypt.
One thing I can tell you about Red the Nile, Blue the Hills is that it is exceptionally well written in places. Chapter one, after a prologue, offers a description of the North African wind which contrives to tell you an extraordinary amount about Egypt, its people, customs, and tastes, and also introduces Hank Rousseau of the World Relief Agency. It is the kind of prose which I can only describe as information-dense. Impressive, if not altogether reader-friendly. But then you'll surely have gathered by now that Richard Rathwell is an unusual kind of writer.
To whom would this book appeal? Well, it would, I suspect, appeal to any westerner who has lived and worked in Egypt. Anyone who has worked in a big, bureaucratic, international aid agency. Expats generally. And anyone with a taste for eccentric fiction: this is a strange, complex, deep novel.
And how, you must be wondering, can you buy a copy? Answer, go to Amazon.co.uk.
If you would like to get a taster of Richard Rathwell's work, try Almost Every Time I was Detained: it's on his blog, 21 February 2006. But you'll have to go into the archives and scroll down, because I can't get a direct link to work.