The Coup
by John Updike

From John Updike's The Coup (published in 1978). The narrator, a Marxist Islamic dictator, is describing the ruler of a neighboring country:

“Wamphumel Komomo, President-for-Life.... with his picureseque regalia of catskins, ornamental welts, and medals from the lesser European armies, tirelessly flirted with the international community, inviting the Americans in to build him a desalination plant and then expelling them, inviting the Russians in to train his air force and then expelling them, milking even the Australians and the post-Sukarno Indonesians for their dollop of aid, their stretch of highway,their phosphate refinery, or mile-high broadcasting antenna. Now his pets were the Chinese, who were building him a railway from his nasty little port to the preposterous new capital he had ordained in the interior, Komomo-glorifying Zanjomo, ..... its government buildings based on photos of forgotten World Fairs, its central adornment a mock-herioc bronze stalagmite bearing Komomo's shifty features in imitation of Rodin's Balzac and likely to survive the model's death for one week, by which time the old nepotist's competing sons-in-law will have melted it down for bullets.”

From John Updike's The Coup; Sidi Mukhtar, the leader of a camel caravan, explains why his cargo includes typewriter ribbons and erasers:

“His grin displaying the rift between his front teeth, and lifting a pearl-sized wart nestled in the flange of one nostril, our leader explained the eventual destination of the office supplies: Iran. “The Shahanshah”, he said, “has much wish to modernize. In his hurry he buy typewriters from West Germans and paper from Swedes and then discover only one type spool fit typewriter, only one type eraser not smudge paper. American know-how meanwhile achieve obsolescence such that only fitting spool stockpiled in Accra as aid-in-goods when cocoa market collapse. Formula of typewriter eraser held secret and cunning capitalists double, redouble price when Shah push up oil price to finance purchase of jet fighters, computer software, and moon rocks. French however operating through puppet corporations in Dahomey have secured formula as part of multi-billion franc deferred-interest somatic-collateral package and erect eraser factory near gum arabic plantations. Much borax also in deal, smuggled by way of Ouagadougou. Now Sadat has agreed to let goods across Nile if Shahanshah agrees to make anti-Isreali statement and buy ten thousand tickets to son-et-lumière show at Sphinx.”

I recently picked up a copy of this novel, which came out almost twenty years ago, and thought it was pretty good. It takes place in the fictional land of Kush, an Ethiopian type nation, and is written from the viewpoint of its ex-dictator, who failed in his attempt to create a Marxist-Islamic state. The book combines satire with careful research and unusual character studies. How you feel about it may be reflected in how you feel about this month's Quote of the Month and Outrageous Quote of the Month, both of which are somewhat representative of Updike's prose style.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. I give it ***½ (out of ****). The Coup, by John Updike, may be at your local library.

Back to The Friends of Togo Guide to Books about Africa