On the eve of his twentieth wedding anniversary, Dr. Alfred Jones decides it is time to begin reflecting on his marriage and his life, capturing in his diary “the increasing sense of intellectual and emotional restlessness which has grown in me as I approach middle age.” His life has been directed by his managing wife, Mary, and his greatest achievement at the National Centre for Fisheries Excellence (NCFE) is his study on the “effects of increased water acidity on the caddis fly larva.” His life takes a sudden turn when he is approached the representative of a mysterious sheikh with a plan to introduce salmon into the rivers of Yemen, he dismisses the proposal out of hand as a scientific impossibility.
Unfortunately, the project has captured the imagination of some senior British politicians (or perhaps it is the millions of pounds that the sheikh is willing to pour into the project), and Fred is forced to either resign immediately or begin work on a project sure to destroy his career. Finding no support from his career-focused wife (who is on an extended assignment in Geneva), Fred buckles under to the pressure from the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications and embarks on transplanting 10,000 cold-water fish into the desert conditions of Yemen and the Wadi Aleyn. What he hadn’t expected was to find was himself in the process.
Paul Torday’s debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the absurdist tale of a downtrodden Everyman finding his voice. Using Dr. Jones’ diaries as the framework, Torday has created a novel from memos, letters, emails, press releases, Parliamentary interview transcripts, newspaper articles, extracts from an unpublished novel and questions asked on the floor of the British House of Parliament. Together these pieces slowly coalesce into a picture of bureaucratic incompetence and political maneuvering, a farce worthy of Monty Python.
Through deft handling and shifting viewpoints, Torday’s characters are well-rounded and almost leap off the page. By their words and actions, as well as some well-placed barbs, Torday shares his views of politics without appearing to preach. His attention to detail ensures that, with time, even characters who initially appear wooden exhibit unexpected depths and demand the reader’s empathy.
It is in Fred’s development that the underlying message of hope is found. Fred is in a passionless marriage, under the thumb of a domineering wife and pompously stuffy when it comes to science. Slowly through his work, he comes to understand the meaning behind the sheikh’s words at their first meeting and why he so passionately believes that salmon fishing can bring peace to his country: “Without faith, there is no hope. Without faith, there is no love.”
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen quietly adds to understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Its message of the “importance of innocent belief: not the angry denial of other people’s belief,” wrapped as it is in farcical comedy, is sure to go down for many without them ever understanding the significance. Hopefully a seed will take root, and perhaps someday flower.