Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

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Amr Wakid and Ewan McGregor in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

“Without faith there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love”.

“I’m not very religious, I’m afraid,” I said.

“You cannot know,” said the sheikh. “You have not really looked inside yourself, and you have never asked yourself the question. One day, perhaps, something will happen that will cause you to ask yourself that question. I think you will be surprised at the answer that comes back.”

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,  p137.

(NOTE: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE FILM AND THE BOOK)

I’ve just had the great pleasure of reading Salmon Fishing In the Yemen by Paul Torday. It’s an interesting mix. First, it’s a great comic novel, both in the satirical sense and by virtue of offering the reader one of the great Holy Fool type characters in literature, in the person of the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama, a man both powerful and deeply visionary, who manages to combine immense wealth, violence and guile with a strange and rather beautiful innocence that points to a genuine purity of heart

The Sheikh has the uncanny ability to influence those around him, though some of the characters are too mired in political compromise and hypocrisy to respond to his particular qualities. He has the simplicity and acceptance that is born of an immersion in faith, a refreshingly positive depiction of an Islamic character, yet his world-view extends beyond the simply religious. His is the faith born of love, of hope and of vision, that can enable human beings to achieve the impossible. It is a transformative quality that completely alters the values of at least two of the main characters of in the story, particularly the marine scientist Dr Alfred Jones.

Dr Jones is also a deeply sympathetic, if somewhat flawed or at least limited character. At the beginning of the story he is spiritually stunted by a career and a marriage based entirely on pragmatic, sensible and soulless decision making. He has forgotten what happiness feels like, misplaced his ability to dream and to see anything other than the minutiae of his life. A major theme of the narrative is his liberation from these constraints, and its consequences, not all of them pleasant. One is the collapse of his marriage, and his journey brings him intense pain as well as deep fulfilment.

Another strand of the narrative is sharp satire of the Blairite model of government, which sought, at least superficially, to export Western values to the Middle East, generally under the catch-all term of “democracy”, an act of extreme hypocrisy as it went hand-in-hand with military intervention, both covert and overt. “Spin” and the mechanisms of official deniability feature both in the main plot and in the subplot, concerning Harriet’s fiancée who dies in Iraq when the Government cynically abandons him to his fate. The Prime Minister’s desire to pose for the press in the feigned act of catching a salmon from the newly-opened Yemeni project, a photo-opportunity that has to be discreetly faked since he has only 20 minutes to spare, is as symbolic in its own way as the raging natural tide of water that sweeps both him and the Sheikh away. The difference is that the Sheikh, having already survived one assassination attempt, is sanguine about his survival, whereas the PM and his Alastair Campbell-like fixer seek to preserve the illusion of control.

The book is worth reading for the politics alone – sharp, funny and angry, all at the same time. But it works best as an account of Dr Jones’s spiritual journey and leaves him in a place where, tragedy notwithstanding, he has learned what it is to truly live and would never return to his earlier blinkered state. The book’s ending, though far from hopeless, was too bleak (or at least too unresolved) for the movie, which has been marketed as a romcom. I don’t, personally, have a problem with this – I think both the film and the book work brilliantly in their different ways. Ewen McGregor brings two significant things to his reading of Fred Jones’s character – Asperger’s syndrome and a very distinctive buttoned-up Edinburgh Scottishness, both of which work perfectly. The script and the performance are both excellent and I was utterly captivated by Fred as a character. In fact, I don’t think I’ve responded so powerfully and positively to any character since David Tennant brought the Tenth Doctor to life for me (what is it with me and Scottish men?)

I’m so very glad that the movie encouraged me to read this lovely novel, which now joins the shelf of my all-time favourites, along with the Dark Materials trilogy and The Time Traveller’s Wife. All, in different ways, concern values, ideals and the transformative power of love. To this I’d add, particularly in the novel (though reinforced in the film) a powerful sense of the influence of culture and place, and the ability of an unfamiliar location to turn our perceptions on their head. The movie has much in common with Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, and for me there’s no higher praise than that.

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