by Will Self
355 pages, Bloomsbury
Review by Paul Fenton
Tom Brodzinski stands on the balcony of his holiday apartment, smoking what he has decided will be his last cigarette, and he flicks the smouldering butt into the oppressive midday heat of a quasi-Aussie hell. Because I'd paid attention to the title of the book, even I realised this was a mistake on Brodzinski's part.
So begins The Butt, Will Self's Kafkaesque story about the absurdly dire consequences of a seemingly innocent act. (Look, I used "Kafkaesque" in a sentence, and I think it might even be contextually accurate!)
The freefalling butt lands on the sunbathing head of Lincoln, who receives some nasty burns which subsequently turn septic, but who is otherwise understanding and conciliatory; his wife, not so much. His wife, you see, is Tayswengo, and Tayswengo tribal law isn't always in line with the white man's rule.
Before you rush off to Wikipedia to look up Tayswengo, don't. I already tried that. Ditto for Google. Tayswengo is a pure Self invention, a fictional tribe in a fictional country. Imagine Australia (easy for me, I'm from there - if you're not from there, or you've never been there, rent "Crocodile Dundee" and "The Castle" and watch them both back-to-back, that'll give you a flavour), heavily populate it with Maori/Aborigine hybrids, and tie it all together with a "Mad Max" attitude to conflict resolution. The indigenous tribes have their own brand of pidgin, their own mythology and customs, and the way it is all so impossibly integrated into the colonial culture tags it as unmistakably fictional. True, the Australian Aborigine do maintain their own tribal law, but it is kept at a long distance from the legislature. Not so in The Butt.
As Brodzinski prepares to return home with his family, he is abruptly arrested and charged with attempted murder. The cigarette butt, or "the projectile" as the prosecution refers to it, was launched into the open air by Brodzinski when he flicked it away, which might only have exposed him to a charge of littering had it not described a parabola which crossed into public airspace (proven by forensic analysts), thereby violating the country's very, very strict anti-smoking laws. If that weren't bad enough, because Lincoln is married to a Tayswengo, he is considered to be a member of their tribe, and a crime committed against the tribe must be tried under tribal law, and Tayswengo tribal law says: there are no such things as accidents. The discarded butt was a weapon, Lincoln was the victim, and Brodzinski was the aggressor, whether he realised it or not. Brodzinski's defence is taken up by the charismatic and possibly mad Jethro Swai-Phillips, who manages to haggle Brodzinski's's sentence down to a journey of reparation into the lawless colon of the country.
I enjoyed much of this book, perhaps more than I should have. If I were more blindly patriotic I might have taken offence to Self's repeated pot-shots the locals' persistent interrogative speech patterns. But I didn't? Because, you know, I kind of agreed with it? And it bugs me too, especially when I do it? Like I'm inviting someone to disagree with me?
The superstitious notions of astande (dominant) and inquivoo (passive) sounded uncannily authentic, and managed to burrow their way into my inner ear where they whispered to me for two weeks after I finished the book. It took a Hopi ear candle to get them out. What I was waiting for, though, was for the mystery to unravel, for motivations to crystallise, and in all likelihood that's exactly what happened but I was just too stupid to see it. I'm sure there were all kind of allegories and themes and other fancy ideas in the mix, but I just wanted to read about the guy who got harshly nicked for flicking away an old cigarette butt. Subconsciously I'm sure I'm all the richer for the experience, somehow, but if anyone does have a clear synopsis of the plot, please email it to me. Because I'm not sure if I'm being thick, or if Self's being too clever?
Or if I'm assuming the book is cleverer than it is?
Or if I was too distracted by the Aussie stereotype-bashing to pick up on the big themes?
Or if it was all a dream?
(Don't worry, that wasn't a spoiler.)