Books: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The shocking lack of any achievement points in the Books category must make it look like I don’t read at all. In fact, I read quite a lot, it’s just that I don’t necessarily feel like it is worth reporting on. In recent weeks I’ve read On Writing by Stephen King (which is brilliant, actually), Can You Forgive Her, the notoriously long Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope, The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (this was amusing, he’s like Louis Theroux), Epic Win for Anonymous by Cole Stryker (a must for lovers of digital culture, concerns 4chan and everything leading up to 4chan) and most of Silent Tears by Kay Bratt, about her experiences in Chinese orphanages and about which I have mixed feelings.

While these were all enjoyable, the book I actually want to recommend to you is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday, 2007.

sal cover

It was of course made into a film in 2011.

sal poster

I haven’t seen the film and I’m not unhappy about that, I’d usually rather read the book first if I think it’s going to be a good book. And it was good. So I guess you might know the basic story, which is that a British fisheries scientist gets unexpectedly roped into a crazy and seemingly unrealistic project, funded by a wealthy Sheikh, to introduce salmon into the Yemen, despite the Yemen’s totally inappropriate environmental conditions. The project is ultimately more successful than most people involved thought it was going to be and the scientist learns things from the Sheikh about love, hope and faith.

I’m recommending the book to you, though, because despite the clearly enormous potential for cheesy feel-good emotional manipulation, it is a very British and very restrained little book in which people have petty flaws and don’t ultimately change much. Alfred is a dear man but a passive character who is thoroughly unable to stand up for himself at work, leading him to be pushed in and out of employment on other people’s whims. His wife Mary is unremittingly horrible, yet they masochistically agree to preserve their marriage and stay together, even though the end of the book finds them living in separate countries with no hope of reconciliation. In a final stroke of injustice, the Sheikh, a pacifist and a thinker as well as a religious man, is suddenly killed by the river into which he tried to introduce fish. I am not sure any of this is shown in the film, which would be a shame, because it is where the book’s literary strengths are.

Added to this, there is hilarious British political and workplace comedy, with vacuous, oily politicians, idiotically cheerful Prime Ministers and smug managers who think in Powerpoint all busily exploiting the Yemen Salmon Project for their own interests. Some of the dialogue is very funny and chapters include things like politicians being interviewed by the police, and extracts from their self-regarding autobiographies. So there you go. If you haven’t read this and perhaps especially if you haven’t seen the film and enjoy British social comedy and quiet British despair, this is recommended.

1 Books point.

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