Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One of the basic tenets of literary theory holds that satire must juxtapose specific positive qualities with those characteristics it attacks. For Waugh, however, it seems to be too late everywhere; “he would have to go back to the Creation itself to find an unsullied place.” It is not surprising, then, that his standard for comparison with what he satirizes is an implicit picture of a Utopia formed by suggestion and inference. Consequently, the most memorable aspect of his work in Black Mischief is his now classic picture of the most bizarre manifestations of colonialism, wrought in a prose of remarkable clarity, felicity, balance, and smoothness. The “country” of Azania is drawn from his own travels, particularly in Ethiopia, and its description ranks as one of the finest examples of the journal of exploration of the twentieth century.

While many other writers have attempted to develop a tone of corresponding authority, Waugh’s remarkably unforced delivery evokes an ethos of placid confidence that lends an air of authenticity to even his most inventive episodes. His address is to a reader of similar sophistication, and while he has been justifiably criticized for cruelty and for seeming to relish violence, he is capable of a kind of rueful sympathy that rebukes the frequent charges of callousness, which misses the complexity of his work.