Review-of-sorts: The Hippopotamus – Stephen Fry

The Hippopotamus - Stephen Fry. Watching Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, you do get a feeling Stephen Fry (Melchett in Blackadder, and Jeeves in J&W) has a flair for humour. And that’s what convinced me to buy this book.

I wouldn’t go to the extent some people go to, and elevate Mr. Fry to the level of Wodehouse, but I should certainly say he’s got a style of his own.

Getting to the book… I had no idea on what to expect. I hadn’t read much contemporary British fiction, save Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and Bridget Jones, and those would definitely not be anything to go by.

The blurb reads, Ted Wallace is an old, sour, womanizing, cantankerous, whisky-sodden beast of a failed poet and drama critic, but he has his faults tooThat got me right into the novel.

It opens with the aforementioned Mr. Wallace getting the sack, and not very long afterward, running into his long-lost god-daughter Jane.

It soon turns out that she’s dying of leukemia. The conversation turns to Jane’s uncle Michael, in whose mansion, miracles are whispered to be happening. And Jane engages her godfather to investigate the mysterious goings-on…

Most of the novel is told from Ted’s perspective. His cynical viewpoints, monologues full of dry sarcasm and passionate digressions are a pleasure to read. At times, you do happen to feel it’s Fry speaking, especially the cynical tirades, and the language at these points might seem showy, but it’s so engaging and entertaining, you are tempted to tolerate it. On his digressions, Ted says,

No, I fart this noxious guff in your faces not because it’s important or new, nor because I want to engage in a sterile debate about it, but because you have to understand something of my mood and disposition the day Jane found me and dragged me off to Kensington.

On looking at the interior decorator Jane’s house, he says,

“This is one of the most revolting rooms I’ve ever stood in all my life. It is exactly as hideous as I expected, and exactly as hideous as ten thousand rooms within pissing distance of here. It’s an insult to the eye and as fully degrading a cocktail of overpriced cliche as can be found outside Beverly Hills. I would no more park my arse on that sofa with its artfully clashing and vibrantly assorted cushions than I would eat a dog-turd. Congratulations on wasting an expensive education, a bankload of money and your whole sad life. Goodbye.”
That’s what I would have said with just two more fingers of whisky inside me. Instead, I managed a broken “My God.. Jane…”.

The narrative fits the story like a glove – most of the novel is told in the form of letters from Ted to Jane. There are short replies that suit to direct the reader’s attention to different aspects of the mysterious happenings. There are also letters and faxes from Jane’s other correspondent in the mansion, her friend Patricia who’s also heard of the mysterious healing powers of the place and is there to recuperate from a break-up. And a diary entry too, from the diary of a homosexual ex-padre friend of Michael’s and Ted’s who’s got “a cute lover and acute angina”, who’s also at the mansion for “some much needed R&R”, where R&R “is Eighties-speak and means Rest and Recreation, or possibly Rest and Recuperation, at a pinch, Rest and Relaxation. Not Rock and Roll, nor Rhyme and Reason, nor Rough and Ready, nor Radicals and Revolutionaries, nor Rum ‘n’ Raisin”.

There are also glimpses from the life of Michael’s son David, who seems to be at the epicenter of all the mysterious healing that has been going on. These serve to increase the suspense and shock value.

A backstory is also inserted in the form of an extract from the biography of Michael that Ted is supposed to be writing – an excuse for Ted to probe deeply about the nature of the miraculous happenings.

The story and the writing ensures there’s not a single dull moment, and the book does have its unputdownable moments, but there’s also this bit in the middle when it all but becomes apparent the nature of David’s healing powers, when you feel like having been invited to the wine cellar for ginger ale. But only for a page or two… Ted’s cynicism and sarcasm soon puts things into perspective.

All in all, a nice read, timepass, but certainly not a one-time read. It’s nothing deep, but the rich, fruity language and choice of words make for brilliant reading and re-reading. Story is straightforward, nothing complicated, but sort of can get you thinking on what social conditioning can do to an individual, if you are jobless enough. Full marks to the style of narration – the way the plot twists are unveiled to the unsuspecting reader, the way the facts are presented in the letters… all these we’ve (read I’ve) seen before only in books that took themselves too seriously, or where authors took the books too seriously for their own good, but the amazing lightness of this book along with the language and narrative are a brilliant combination.

I’d recommend it to be read. Preferably in a cynical state of mind – the empathy you’ll find in the first few pages will simply be mindblowing…. Ted says

If you’re a halfway decent human being you’ve probably been sacked from something in your time… school, seat on the board, sports team, club, satanic abuse group… something. You’ll know that feeling of elation that surges up inside you as you flounce from the headmaster’s study, clear your locker or sweep the pen-tidies from your desk. No use denying the fact, we all feel undervalued: to be told officially that we are off the case confirms our sense of not being fully appreciated by an insensitive world. This, in a curious fashion, increases what psychotherapists and assorted tripe-hounds of the media calls our self-esteem, because it proves we were right all along. It’s a rare experience in this world to be proved right on anything and it does wonders for the amour propre, even when, paradoxically, what we are proved right about is our suspicion that everyone considers us a waste of skin in the first place.

Addendum 1: Oh, and I also read Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry… good read, loved the bits about R&AW, but they turn out to be damp squibs at the end… except for the threats and allusions to possible means of eliminating Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi… but you have to remember this book was written much after both their deaths. Mr. Mistry calls his work Indo-nostalgic. Thank God it’s more Indo than Nostalgic unlike most diaspora writers we’ve found in the past couple of decades. Got a kick finding this book… I’d seen trailers of the movie version around ten years back… with a young man telling his parents, “I’ve had it with your constant IIT, IIT, IIT!”. More than anything else, that line stuck with me… and I’ve had opportunity to use it a couple of times in the past ten years, and whenever I felt irritated, I’ve taken solace in that one line…. there you go, Indo and Nostalgic.

Addendum 2: Don’t watch an Indian-made whodunit (in my case, Ramesh Arvind’s Accident, which actually is pretty well-made, though the script could have been aeons better… still beats any Bollywood “thriller” or “whodunit” hollow… except maybe gems like Manorama Six Feet Under.) after two days of continuously devouring Feluda stories. You’ll end up laughing your head off at the cinema hall and inviting stares and nasty threats.

Addendum 3: It’s amazing to find so many people riding on someone else’s popularity wave… next to this book, I find a stack of books by “Stephen Frey”… no dry British humor, just cheap American pulp-fic. You also can find books by “Dale Brown”. Barry Trotter, The Da Vinci Cod… *sigh* the very sight of these makes me want to cry.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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17 Responses to Review-of-sorts: The Hippopotamus – Stephen Fry

  1. Tuna Fish says:

    Sounds interesting, If you get your hands on the book, toss it across

  2. Tuna Fish says:

    Sounds interesting, If you get your hands on the ebook, toss it across

  3. Logik says:

    Accident was a welcome change, to the long string of B.S kannada movies..the plot, the twists, heck even the last scene is ‘inspired’ from the enemy of the state starring will smith, which happens to be one of my fav movies. I liked accident coz for once, they got it right.the songs were pretty good too. Pity the pretty heroine had to die off so soon ;-( … @tuna- shame on you… Ebook it seems… Anyways, pass it on if you get it…

  4. Tuna Fish says:

    @ logik
    dint sound very much like a collector’s item 😛 😛

  5. wanderlust says:

    ebook… im darned if there’s an ice-cube’s chance in hell of that happening… this isn’t some book that tops bestseller lists, nein? still… try looking for it on esnips or one of those places.
    and at your second comment… you make tears well up in my eyes. im sure most people don’t apply those standards when they’re buying junk jewelry or even furniture.
    and you certainly can not apply those standards to books. Can Not. Atleast not if you call yourself a booklover. I don’t see anything wrong in the electronic versions of books… but heck, buy them. maybe in the long run it’ll help prices come down.
    bitti-oota in context of books doesn’t seem right.
    unless it happens to be a kiddie book written by Madonna.

  6. wanderlust says:

    not just kannada movies… it was a welcome respite from all the movies that have come out in the past couple of months. It was as slick as could get… nice songs and okayish camerawork.. nice pace, too. just some bits appear disjointed… but those can be forgiven.
    Really gripping movie it was… the murdrous expressions on the faces of people around me as I started giggling in that scene when the heroine is murdered, and the one where the hero runs to stab the villain but the crony cuts the power… they didn’t take kindly to being disturbed.

  7. vishfulwords says:

    I have read a book of Stephen Fry’s called “Making History”. Touted as “the most controversial book he ever wrote”, the book explores an alternate set of events through history with the possibility that Hitler never came to power.

    Sounds interesting? Well, if you do read it, it will perhaps just make you sick. And that book gives him a chance to express his various gay sentiments as well (I am sure you know that about him). From then, I decided never to touch another book by him and instead watch him on screen with hugh laurie. Though not gay, the two do make for a lot more fun than his books 🙂

    Truth be told, the richness of language you speak about here is something that I really did not find in that book. The humour is there, but once again, every bit of humour in that book was gay. So, I guess my impression of Fry will not be changed for some time, no matter how many reviews you write!

    As for Trotter and Geoffrey Archer, all I can say is one man’s publicity always gives another a chance to live off it!!!

  8. wanderlust says:

    thankfully this book kept gay humour (can we call it homour?) to a minimum. those bits were a bit sick though, i must admit. thanks for warning me about “making history”… i was wondering if I should read it next. now i most certainly won’t.

    i think it would fill a whole book if I tried listing out the people basking in the reflected glory of dan brown…. simply mindblowing how many spinoffs it has generated.

  9. Logik says:

    @homour- yew and lol …. Continuing on the tendency to laugh at movies… I think We’ve seen so many horror n thriller flicks, that we tend to be amused at seemingly substandard sequences. This is usually not good in theatres with other junta around. The group i went with were laughin throughout the movie.nitk ishtyle i guess… I loved the movie though, for above mentioned reasons…. @tuna – you can find Anythin on the internet… You jus gotta look in the right places…

  10. hallidude says:

    while you r at it check out
    “Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music”

  11. the Monk says:

    a.)1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates- Sellar and Yeatman.

    b.)Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch- Pratchett and Gaiman.

    British humour at its best.

  12. wanderlust says:

    nitk ishtyle beats everything… i asked in a loud voice why ramesh arvind didn’t think of uploading the video on youtube before loading it onto the pendrive and going out. i’m surprised i didn’t get beaten up.
    @hallidude & the monk:
    thanks, will look.
    @the monk:
    wordpressing, eh? cool. though your link doesn’t seem to exist.

  13. Logik says:

    @priya:- Guess what… I made the youtube comment to my group as well..

    there is a major reason why we made the same joke… Xkcd.. the ring.. muha ha ha..

  14. Logik says:

    And There’s a reason why mr.ramesh dint think of the youtube idea.. You see, ‘enemy of the state’ – the inspiration for this movie, was released in the mid-90’s.. That time, probably animated gif’s were all the craze, not flv’s… Copied very well, i must say.. The original also had encryption, satellite imagery, and hacking scenes, which thankfully, mr.ramesh had the sense to leave out. Else the movie would have been limited to the it-savvy population, not the average kannada movie watcher… And he couldn’t afford it anyways..

  15. wanderlust says:

    yes, yes… same thought i had while i made that comment.
    and it is inspired?? oh darn… i thought it was such a stroke of brilliance in the kannada film industry.

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