One could easily get lost in Jerusalem’s myriad compartments. To begin with there is Preston Pinner, CEO of ‘AuthencityTM’, otherwise known as the ‘hip hub’, a ‘contemporary cultural consulting and production house’ deviously at work to manipulate consumer tastes. Then there is Preston’s father, David, a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing junior minister about to depart to ‘Zambabwia’, an African republic deep in post-colonial meltdown. In Zambabwia itself, a variety of characters — from Adini the venal president to Musa Musa the charismatic musungu and Tranter the imprisoned British businessman — compete for our attention. Finally, and most whimsically, there is the ‘diary of a local gentleman’, the record of a mutilated survivor of the Boer War’s Frazer-fuelled journey around South-West England in search of its ancient folklore.
All this comes interspersed with spoof record reviews, leading articles from the Zambabwian press and lavish extracts from The Book of Zamba Mythology (OUP, 2005, in case you wanted to order it from Amazon.) But from the moment in which Pinner junior hears a folk-rap version of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ recorded by a singer called ‘Nobody’, it becomes clear that some greater quarry is being pursued. Is it the vacancy of the contemporary style guru (‘We’re an aggregator but, unlike most of out rivals, we have sufficient attitude to act as a taste arbitrator too’)? Or the rather similar emptiness that Neate locates at the heart of Pinner senior’s New Labour posturings? The plight of corrupt black Africa is naturally a contender — Adini’s speeches have a Mugabean stridency — with the proviso that it was always the colonial oppressor’s fault. It is left to the local gentleman’s diary, with its remarks about ‘an essential, historic Englishness’ to offer the sharpest clue.
Densely populated, transcontinental satires, where half a dozen balls have simultaneously to be kept in the air, require a firm hand, and Patrick Neate’s grasp on his characters is sometimes a bit too relaxed for comfort. Glib, media-savvy Preston, of whom it is suggested that he doesn’t really believe in anything ‘except possibly ‘trends’ — the moral equivalent of believing in the weather’ — probably deserved a novel to himself, but the ersatz diary from 1901 overdoes the pomposity. Back in Zambabwia, the tone ranges from the aggrieved to the exhortatory, the digressive (a three-page ramble on why the petrol has run out) and the explanatory. Thus, when Pinner senior gets annoyed with the African waiters, Neate has an instant mitigating gloss: ‘Of course, had Pinner had the time to think about it, he might have grasped that no attitude of submission or superiority would have worked without his own attitude of superiority or submission in return.’
Where Neate excels is in his talent for the incongruously horrible — a police attack on Zambabwian demonstrators, for example, on a street full of cherry trees (‘the sickening sound of baton on body somehow muted in the sea of pink.’) After Pinner senior’s implication in a post-colonial plot, most of the strands are brought together in an ‘Africa Unite’ concert, artfully stage-managed by Pinner junior. The ‘local gentleman’ is, not unexpectedly, identified as his ancestor. In the end Jerusalem is too chaotic and too tonally at odds with itself to wholly succeed, but there are some excellent jokes along the way.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 4, 2009