Book Review: Jimfish by Christopher Hope
Location: Green line – Gamsam-dong to Sinnam; Monorail – Sinnam to Suseong Lake in Daegu, South Korea
In an interview with Sue Grant-Marshall in April last year, Christopher Hope said that older South Africans would remember the greeting, “How are you doing Jim Fish?”
The dictionary defines it as an insulting term, “but it was not meant unkindly. It was a generic term used back then for a black man whose name South Africans didn’t know. They didn’t think it was abnormal but of course it was deeply abnormal.”
I suppose it speaks of my age that I’d never heard this word until reading Hope’s satirical novel/travelogue, Jimfish.
Set in 1984 (a homage to Orwell?), Jimfish tells the story of a young man who one day washes up on the shores of Port Pallid, South Africa. The town sergeant executes a pencil test on the young man, yet Jimfish remains impossible to classify with his white, pink, tanned and honey-coloured skin (that sometimes appears to be blue).
The sergeant orders the skipper who hauled him in to find him some work until they are able to decide which race he belongs to. It’s in the skipper’s garden where Jimfish meets his friend and mentor, Soviet Malala, and his political education begin. A roll in the hay with the sergeant’s daughter leads to an expedition around the world that allows Jimfish (and the reader) to witness the major global political events from the 1980s to 1994.
What makes Jimfish such a spectacular read is the fact that Hope himself witnessed many of the event he describes in the novel. In the Forward, Hope writes:
Like much else in Jimfish, not only are many events all-too real – the collapse of ex-Yugoslavia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the red berets of the Fifth Commando in Zimbabwe with their zeal for massacres, Mobutu’s many palaces – but also, more by luck than judgement, I was there for a lot of them. And made notes. Because what I saw of the facts easily outstripped fiction.
Despite his best efforts, Jimfish repeatedly finds himself on the wrong side of history and struggles to feel the revolutionary fire that’s supposed to course through his veins. Throughout the novel, Jimfish struggles with the question: “How will I know when I’m on the right side of history? Who will I ask?” to which Soviet Malala replies: “There is no need to ask, no room for doubt, no chance of error. Just remember the central rule of Soviet socialism: everything not expressly permitted is always forbidden.” At the end of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers) the revolutionaries have become the establishment, yet Jimfish feels a keen sense of discomfort at their rhetoric, so similar to the speeches he heard in the 1980s.
Jimfish in a sense reminds me of Antjie Krog’s anthology Gedigte 1989-1995, in which she writes: “Ek sê dit vooruit/ hard/ ek staan vir niks/ ek skaar my by nêrens” and all politicians are the same: “almal is mans almal/ is nekke almal/ peule van mag”. Both Krog and Hope are disillusioned and angry with the way things turned out.
I think most people who are not assholes can identify with Jimfish. He just wants to get on with life, settle down with someone he loves (no matter the colour of her skin), yet he’s constantly being pushed around by political agendas. Hope so brilliantly captures the small-mindedness of small town South Africa; the hypocrisy in all of us when it comes to where we stood when the tides changed.
In less than 200 pages Hope is able to convey a decade of history, symbolism, politics and philosophy. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a bit unsure whether I liked it or not. I don’t have a clever, literary reason for feeling this way, and I’m possibly the only person in the world who felt this way. It’s just that, while I was reading Jimfish I was also following the #RUReferenceList protest on social media and I couldn’t help feeling that as a (now almost 30-year-old) woman there are other issues, different issues affecting me and my daily life that need to be written about. Yet, at the same time, I enjoyed reading about the different political events and I get Hope’s message that people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Jimfish definitely made me feel uncomfortable, which, in my opinion, is a higher ideal to strive for than being liked.
This review’s turned into a bit of a ramble. I apologise.
I’ll keep it on my shelf and read it again in another 10 years’ time.