I broke my resolution to read only contemporary writers in Auguast. Don’t get me wrong: I have spent hours in the world of Haruki Murukami’s bizarre philosophical science fiction novel, 1Q84; I have enjoyed the musings of the solitary writer heroine of Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down; have gotten to know the colorful residents of an assisted living facility in McCorkle’s Life After Life; and enjoyed a wild Latin teacher’s confessions in Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin.
All of these novels are excellent. But an out-of-print twentieth century novel, Jill Tweedie’s Internal Affairs (1986), is one of the bolder, funnier books I’ve read this summer, perfect for a day when it’s 100 in the shade. (We’ve had a few of these.)
Tweedie, a novelist and a columnist for The Guardian, died in 1993. Her books are out of print. I picked up a copy of this in London at Skoob.
Internal Affairs is a very funny satire about Western intervention in birth control in a Third World Country dictatorship.
My politics as a pro-Choice activist don’t quite match Tweedy’s heroine’s, and yet this book is so funny and well-crafted that I loved it.
Charlotte, the heroine, is an overweight, divorced, depressed abortion counselor. She longs for a child, and let’s just say an abortion clinic is the wrong place for her to work. When she was pregnant, her husband insisted that she have an abortion, and afterwards they got divorced. Charlotte has a drab life, and she does not enjoy the talk around the Water Cooler about their clients’ sexual antics, though the story of an addled woman who put her Dutch cap up her anus makes her wonder whether her ex could perform in that position..
Charlotte briefly dissuades one of her clients, Mrs. Waterman, from having an abortion. When Mrs. Waterman returns with a black eye and a changed mind, Charlotte tries to suggest alternatives.
“Couldn’t you manage by yourself?”
“No, I bleeding well couldn’t.” Mrs. Waterman’s voice rose. “I’ve got no training and there’s no jobs. Tell you what, though. I could do yours. How much do they pay you?”
Soon we are out of the dreary clinic. Charlotte has an assignment to travel to tropical Sulanasia, a Third World dictatorship, in order to evaluate a birth control programme sponsored by the World Campaign for Small, Healthy, and Wealthy Families. Sulanasia is so tropically hot that Charlotte fears shey’ll get “third-degree burns” from the car seat. Miss Millichip, a translator, takes her to meet various bureaucrats who lecture straight from their brochures. People even sing folk songs about birth control.
Oddly, it is not women, but men, who save Charlotte from Miss Millichip and help her see the real Sulanasia. Kelly, an Australian photographer, takes her under his wing and tells her that she needs salt tablets when her fingers and ankles swell. He also introduces her to local restaurants and hotels.
Tweedie provides the sensory details that make us feel that we’re in the fictitious Sulanasia.
They caught one of the bedizened buses and rattled at breakneck speed through the neon lights of the town, Kelly bent nearly double under the hot tin roof, Charlotte squashed against a band of piratical Sulunasian youths, their foreheads brilliantly banded, their denims steel-studded. She breathed in lungfuls of toxic fumes that magically cleared her muzzy head. The pot-holes bashed at the floor of the bus, sending her reeling between warm body walls and unhitching her hair so that it fell down her back. When she got out, running with sweat and half-crushed, she was laughing.
Now if only there were chickens on the bus, I’d have had the exact same experience as Charlotte (only in another Third World country).
But can Charlotte really see what’s going on in this foreign country? Everyone in Sulanasia seems to be in the government’s pay. Gradually her translator, Harry, becomes a close friend, and Kelly helps her understand that the birth control program is all about the money.
This is an upbeat comedy, reminiscent of Waugh’s Scoop. Very, very funny and well-written.