Waugh In Abyssinia

Book Review by Willard Manus

Many consider Evelyn Waugh to be the greatest comic novelist of the twentieth century. Despite being a bigoted, drunken, loathesome human being he did write such classic novels as A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall and Scoop, which satirizes the life of foreign correspondents in Africa.

Now LSU Press has reprinted a little-known book by Waugh which paved the way for Scoop. WAUGH IN ABYSSINIA was first published in 1936, when Waugh was a young, impoverished writer who, badly needing work, talked London's Daily Mail into sending him to Ethiopia to cover that tiny country's war with Italy. Waugh flopped as a foreign correspondent; during his five-month stay in Ethopia he never managed to see a single shot fired, spending most of his time in Addis Ababa drinking and playing bridge.

He also came to despise Ethiopia and its vain, posturing emperor, Haile Selassie. "It's absurd to pretend that Ethiopia is a civilized nation in any Western sense of the word," he wrote in a newspaper dispatch.

This did not exactly endear him to the emperor, who soon started a rumor that Waugh was an Italian spy. Waugh didn't help his own cause by constantly favoring the Italian invaders over the natives. "The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race," he writes. "It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African gold-fields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place; but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities."

Later, when fascism took over in Italy, Waugh disavowed these ill-conceived sentiments. "It was fun being pro-Italian when it was an unpopular and (I thought) losing cause. I have little sympathy with these exultant fascists now," he said. "I am not a fascist nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism."

WAUGH IN ABYSSINIA's pro-Italian bias aside, the book deals mostly with the highjinks of the foreign correspondents. Because there wasn't much actual fighting, the correspondents had little to write about. They mostly made up stories to satisfy their voracious editors (and to justify their huge expense accounts), and spent their time drinking, gambling, whoring and quarreling. Dodging the emperor's secret police was also a common occupation. Occasionally they got permission to visit the provinces, where shots were being fired and bombs dropped.

Almost always Waugh and his colleagues got there too late to catch any of the action. Missing the big stories was the order of the day; misadventure was the rule of thumb.

Waugh was the wrong man in the wrong place. He flunked miserably his foreign correspondent test. But it's out of disaster and disgrace that comic novels are born. Waugh, after being booted out of Ethiopia, sat down and wrote Scoop. Within a year of the book's publication, he was rich and famous.