Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
Dr Alfred Jones is a fish out of water. Extracted from a humdrum home life and a comfortable career at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence, he is cast into a foolhardy government-backed project designed to introduce salmon fishing to the parched Yemen. It’s East-meets-West time, kids.
Rather than being a straight novel, Paul Torday’s debut title is a fragmented collection of documents, amongst which are soulless governmental emails, sardonic newspaper items and touching excerpts from Dr. Fred’s diary. The diary entries are musical and warm while the contrasting officious language of government reports is fertile ground for wry, well judged satirical humour.
A problem, however, is that the story hinges on the absurdity of Dr. Fred’s situation and the apparent impossibility of his project. The reader is frequently reminded of the unsuitability of the sandy, politically-charged country as an environment for the cultivation of freshwater fish. But while salmon in the Yemen is certainly an odd prospect, it does not defy imagination and does not require the constant playing of the ‘wacky situation’ card. It’s the Middle East, not the rings of Saturn. Because of this, the novel is undeniably guilty of Orientalism. Yet it is done in a positive fashion and asks more questions of Western attitudes than those of Islam or the East. It is always refreshing to reopen a taboo discourse even if in a marginally parochial fashion. Mostly though, Salmon Fishing is a fun story with likable characters, a fine first novel.