Devil of a State - Anthony Burgess (1961)

Anthony Burgess is probably most famous for his novel, A Clockwork Orange, but he is a man of wide-ranging interests having written over thirty novels, as well as poetry, sub-titles and scholarly works. Devil of a State is an early novel dealing with the situation in the African caliphate of Dunia, where uranium has been discovered and wealth is pouring in. Sort of.

The setting is almost irrelevant, actually, since the important bit is the decline of British Empire in the post-war (World War II, naturally) world. This is a common theme in much of the literature coming out of Britain in the 50s and early 60s. (It runs very strongly through Travels With My Aunt for instance and reading the two fairly close together was an interesting exercise.)

Our protagonist is Francis Lydgate, a man who has spent his life in service abroad and who has very little to show for it as country after country ejects their "colonial oppressors" - for some values of "ejects," since Europeans are all over Dunia building infrastructure and, of course, monuments to the whims of the sheik.

This is social satire at its most pointed. The British and all the other Europeans are mercilessly skewered, as are the natives and the new rulers who are woefully unprepared to rule a modern country but have exploitable wealth that gives them some leverage in the modern world. No one comes out looking very good.

The book is advertised as a comedy, and while it has some very funny moments, overall I'm not sure it succeeds as a comedy. I'm very much afraid that Devil of a State feels a little dated - the perennial danger of satire.

That said, there is certainly merit in the book. Burgess is an excellent writer and the linguistic bent that is so apparent in A Clockwork Orange manifests itself here in a variety of dialects and snippets from a variety of languages including the "National Language" of Dunia. The funny bits are very funny, but they are fairly few and far between, resulting in an uneven read in this day and age.

Overall Grade: C+

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