GOOD satire doesn't always leave you feeling comfortable. Ideally it should make you laugh and sometimes squirm, just enough to remind you that the issues being parodied are true.
Getting the balance right can be tricky, and initially The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma felt out of kilter. I actively disliked it for the first few chapters, because Chris Wadman's account of everything falling to pieces in Zimbabwe is too close to the truth to be comfortable. It's hard to laugh when the criminal greed, corruption and lack of morality so evident in reality make this plot plausible enough to be a tragic commentary rather than a comedy. Yet, at some stage, that changed and I ultimately enjoyed the book.
I even grew to care about his characters. Well, only a few of them, since The Unlikely Genius is stuffed with characters designed to be disliked.
We initially meet Teddington, a discontented bus driver - and as Zimbabwe-born Wadman makes clear, there is little for anyone to be content with. Teddington abandons his passengers to pick up a better paying party of opposition MPs. But he drops them off at a mental home, where they are put in straitjackets.
When a newspaper runs a story about their incarceration, written by a government spin-doctor, I had to read it twice. Was this satire, I wondered, or had Wadman reprinted a real report about a real incident? The line between truth and fiction in Zimbabwe has been crossed so many times that nothing seems unlikely. The mental hospital is run by a woman whose only qualification is being related to a government minister. Don't tell me that one isn't true.
Taking opposition MPs out of circulation is a coup for Teddington, who is taken under the wing of the feared war veteran, Hitler Jesus. His name is justified, he boasts, as in his dealings with the common people he's often a dictator, sometimes the saviour.
Although some parts of the novel may provoke a wry smile, Wadman is trying to make us think, rather than laugh. Sadly, it's a book you may try to forget.
This clever novel isn't one to devour quickly, but to read slowly and thoughtfully, if only to spare you from too many distressing incidents too often, since this isn't really fiction, but unpleasant, enduring facts.
Wadman writes with a clear love for ordinary people who somehow survive, despite the inhumane assaults their corrupt leaders throw at them. There is tenderness in his words as his characters support each other, even when they have nothing left to give.
He obviously empathises with underdogs such as Thomas, who grows in stature as the book unfolds. Thomas is a deaf, meek and insular young man on a path to nowhere, protected by his adoptive mother Marie and his workmates at a children's home.
There's a moving chapter in which Marie faces death from cancer and stoically accepts that the under staffed hospital no longer has functioning equipment. This is not the stuff of humour; often there is no attempt at wit or irony and that is when the tale is at its poignant best.
Wadman weaves a moral undercurrent that emphasises how hardship can bring out the best in people, while luxury and privilege unleash the worst. Teddington, rewarded with a land-grab farm for eliminating the opposition MPs, finds life is lonely once he is estranged from his family by his elevated status.
Meanwhile, Thomas is growing his backbone. He emerges from a dark period determined to stop existing on the fringes of his own life and becomes a quiet yet unflinching hero, anxious to protect others. The climax is an enthralling battle in which the children's home where he works makes a stand against the war veterans. But it's a hollow and temporary victory. Then it's back to disturbing reality as Wadman cites the sources for his stories. As I feared, many episodes are based on genuine newspaper clippings or research reports. This story of Zimbabwe has no happy ending.
TITLE: The Unlikely Genius of Dr Cuthbert Kambazuma
AUTHOR: Chris Wadman
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Ball