Owen Stanley’s The Missionaries is a welcome addition to the genre of ‘savagely funny novel’, the zenith of which is bracketed by Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Amis and Bradbury targeted academic lunacy, and Stanley does likewise, except that unlike the 50s and 70s, the scholar-prat has reached well beyond, like a noxious virus, the confines of the ivory tower. If you ever wondered where people with postgraduate degrees in the social sciences go, besides reabsorption into the belly of the beast that gave birth to them, then wonder no more; they end up like Dr. Sydney Prout, head of the United Nations mission to fictitious Elephant Island (located somewhere in Melanesia).
What a marvelous creation he is. And pitch perfect. An army of Sydney Prouts tramp this earth like wildebeest on the plains of Africa, kicking up dust and not much else. Educated beyond their capacity, unemployable in shrinking departments of anthropology, political science, and gay fetish studies, they drift about in non-government organisations (some of which have bigger budgets than governments of mid-sized countries) seeking to fix the world by remaking it in their own image. The main aspiration of this new breed of development aid warrior (a close cousin to the social justice warrior) is an executive role at an international NGO with a salary that would make a marketing manager blush followed, in the fullness of time, with a sinecure at the World Bank or one of the UN agencies. Here, buried away in the hallways of justice and business class cabins, our overeducated betters can interfere in people's lives at leisure on tax free salaries and under the imprimatur of a ‘multilateral agency’.
It is a testament to Mr. Stanley’s ability to craft a character of such verisimilitude that I found myself on more than one occasion putting the book down and shuddering in recognition, enveloped by a sense of horror at the meetings, conferences, projects and other assorted events involving idiots like Dr. Prout that he must have endured. A book like this does not arise from thin air; the author, I assure you, has been through the gates of hell and back to craft such a tale. Your average development aid warrior is a pestilential blight, and any man who has lived among them deserves all the accolades and wealth we are in a position to bestow upon him.
Funny, well written, a rip-roaring plot, wonderful characterisation, and a more than satisfying ending make this one of the best savagely funny novels of the last half century. Kudos to Castalia House for publishing it (it’s unlikely to have found another – most sensitivity editors in run-of-the-mill publishers would have had been inhaling smelling salts by the end of Chapter One), and kudos to Mr. Stanley for writing what I am sure will decades from now still be regarded as one of those quiet little gems with a bloody great mob of righteous devotees. I dips me lid.