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Page against the machine!

Set in a ficticious corrupt country on the edge of chaos, Simon Wroe’s latest book examines press freedom, along with its decline

20 April, 2017 — By Piers Plowright

Simon Wroe

SIMON Wroe has been – still is – a chef and a journalist, writing for this paper among others. A surreal restaurant kitchen was the setting for his first novel, the darkly funny Chop Chop, and a newspaper is an important ingredient in his second. But a newspaper with a difference.

We’re in Kyrzbekistan, “a distant country” on the edge of chaos, a Russian billionaire buying up half of it, a group of right-wing nasties called “The 44 Horsemen” whipping up nationalist fervour, and The Chronicle, almost the last purveyor of anything approaching the truth. Its editor is Cornelius Dau, a stubborn, grumpy man who still believes journalists should have principles, and the tragi-comic story of what goes on in a country voted “The World’s Most Corrupt Country 2011-12” is told through the eyes of his 17-year-old son, Ellis.

Ellis, recently expelled from school for arson, is a confused but extremely bright teenager, doing semi-penal work experience for his father and his eccentric staff: Miss Armitage (politics, education, health etc); Mr Jonquil (news); Mr Geffen (sports and gossip); Mr Urvin (shouting assistant-editor); and Mr Kozlov (technical boffin) who has a thick black typed notice pinned up in his back room: “No values left in this office overnight.”

A chaotic, argumentative, head-splitting place. “How anyone could work in this commotion Ellis did not know. He couldn’t even do nothing properly in it.”

The Chronicle, though, has plenty to write about: “The place was a ball of wool between many sets of claws. The Turks raised skyscrapers of their own, the Chinese loaned vast sums. The Americans had a university and a nearby military base, European NGOs offered training and jobs and the whole grain diet of democratic values. Every visiting foreign charity seemed an occupying army, every grassroots movement a direct challenge to the suspicious, every street ranter a potential crown prince.”

Sound familiar?

Gradually, Ellis, sometimes accompanied by his unsuccessfully randy friend Vincent, travels through this labyrinth, often dangerously caught up in it, while a gloomy but sinister policeman called Fedor begins trying to pressure Cornelius and The Chronicle into being a little more economic with the truth. More like its rival, the deadly dull National whose front page during the latest political uprising was devoted to an account of soil types.

“Thirty-three policemen killed, parliament stormed, and they lead with peat levels in the provinces.”

Young Ellis Dau, almost in spite of himself, learns a kind of wisdom and a set of values as he navigates the treacheries, hypocrisies and man-traps of his crumbling country. And discovering in himself a strength he’d never have believed a few months earlier when, angry and nihilistic, he’d set his school – the only good teacher had just been sacked, after all – alight.

Simon said in a recent interview that he wrote Here Comes Trouble to explore the issue of newspaper freedom and to challenge the narrative of an industry in terminal decline.

This he does with gusto, using the extreme conditions of Kyrzbekistan, to send up wider absurdities.

He’d finished the novel, of course, before the political upheavals of Brexit and Trumpland, journalistic smears, and “false facts”, elevated farce into national policy.

But these events only make the novel more timely. We may not live in Kyrzbekistan now, but you never know.

This sometimes bleak novel sets out comically and satirically what can happen when the rules break down.

And there’s a new “heart” to the writing.

It’s worth quoting from the last paragraph, where Ellis considers the value of standing up to “the rest”.

“Bunk and slander, rumour and conjecture, error and misinformation, unknowns and unmentionables… the dance, the endless dance which in its glee and mayhem trampled all else underfoot… the wild revellers who turned and turned, and the others with their eyes glued to the ground as if nothing could hurt them so long as they did not look up… the grey, grey sky, the watchful soldiers beneath, and always waiting, always present, the blank page.”

Here Comes Trouble. By Simon Wroe, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £12.99

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