Christopher Hope’s Jimfish is a ‘fairytale for adults’

TheLuvvie.com’s ESTELLE SINKINS speaks to author, Christopher Hope, about his novel, Jimfish. This interview first appeared in The Witness (www.witness.co.za)

CHRISTOPHER Hope describes his new novel, Jimfish, as a ‘kind of fairytale for grown-ups’.

Set in the 1980s, the book’s title ‘Jim Fish’ is a reminder of a derogatory term for a black man in South Africa, and shows how the eponymous hero, who fits no racial category, is placed into this mad system of classification.

After being pulled up out of the Indian Ocean in Port Pallid, South Africa, Jimfish is reluctantly classified as white by local the sergeant, whose job it is to sort the local people by colour and thereby determine their fate. To do this he peers at the boy, sticks a pencil into his hair, as one did in those days, and waits to see if it stays there, or falls out.

It is the start of a decade-long odyssey for Jimfish, a South African everyman, who will end up being an unlikely witness to the defining moments of the dying days of the twentieth century.

“I’ve based the form on Voltaire’s Candide, who goes out into the world and believes everything is alright, but of course it’s not really,” says Hope, the author of nine novels and one collection of short stories, including Kruger’s Alp, which won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, and Serenity House, which was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize.

“The events are based on the things that I have covered and experienced in my life – some of the things are so extraordinary that even if you put them down on paper, people don’t always believe you.”

As to why he chose to create the Jimfish character, he says it was important to have someone who is able to swim through life and have adventures and yet remain ‘curiously cheerful’ right to the very end.

“Life begins in a small seaside port but then becomes a wild adventure which takes in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Chernobyl, Siberia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last days of Ceausescu, Mobutu’s Zaire, the Liberian civil war and Somalia. He has a knack for arriving in a place just at the moment things start going to hell – but none of this would work if he weren’t so naive. It would in fact destroy him.”

The use of satire is something Hope has used all his life. “The old regime was used to being criticised but they really hated being laughed at or being made to look ridiculous,” he said.

“Laughter is one of the few weapons that people without power can use to great effect. And in many instances, in this country, what happens in politics out writes writers. You couldn’t make some of that stuff up.”

Hope – who is also a poet and playwright and author of the celebrated memoir White Boy Running – left his home country in 1975 after his work drew fire from the country’s Apartheid regime.

His debut novel, A Separate Development, published in 1981, was banned by the then South African government for satirising the Apartheid system, but then went on to receive the David Higham Memorial Prize.

Now living in London, he returns home for long periods and has strong views on the country’s governments past and present. The apartheid regime he describes as narrow, cramped and stupid, while he thinks the present ANC administration has lost its way and its authority.

“The situation is very confused and events seem to have a momentum of their own,” he says. “Statues from Oliver Schreiner to Oliver Tambo have been defaced and schools are being burnt. There is a great deal of anger.”

As for the antics of those in Parliament, Hope reckons that the powers that be should set every session to music and sell tickets. “It is organised comedy and tragedy on a monumental scale,” he says, adding that the Economic Freedom Front’s leader, Julius Malema, is one of the best actors on the political stage.

“He is the latest manifestation of the red beret… that’s the thing about tyrants; they all wear a hat and borrow each other’s way of dressing, whether it’s a beret, a military uniform or a moustache. I always think it’s worrying when grown men start dressing up and wearing uniforms, shout a lot or wear a hat.”

That said, Hope admits he still suffers from terrible homesickness. “I have a very passionate, but deeply unhappy, love affair with this country. I don’t know whether to marry her or push her over a cliff, but at the end of the day neither will help. It’s a very strange place.”

  • Jimfish by Christopher Hope is published by Atlantic Books.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Christopher Hope was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1990.
  • He was educated at the universities of Witwatersrand and Natal and worked as a journalist before moving to London in 1975.
  • A regular broadcaster, he contributes articles and reviews to newspapers, magazines and journals; and has written plays for both radio and television.
  • His poems were first published in Whitewashes (1971), but Hope’s first significant publication was Cape Drives (1974), which won the Thomas Pringle Prize and a Cholmondeley Award. His published poetry also includes In the Country of the Black Pig (1981) and Englishmen (1985).
  • His travel book, Moscow! Moscow! won the 1990 PEN Award.
  • Aside from Jimfish, his most recent novels are The Garden of Bad Dreams (2008) and Shooting Angels (2011).
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