The Butt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am


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The Butt

by Will Self

Bloomsbury, HK$210

Will Self travels to the heart of darkness along a road that stretches like 'a dirty tongue' from a gaudy tourist trap to a brutal lesson in the passive conformity of westerners.

Tom Brodzinski is on holiday with his family in or on a land that might be Africa, Australia, a Pacific island or, if you take a wrong turn at the Hilton, Iraq. Tourists can keep their minds open and enjoy the cultural quirks of their exotic getaway or they can admit that they have blown their annual leave on a violent, corrupt state thriving like a wart in the crevice of an old colonial power.

Irritated by the intrusive, nannying anti-smoking measures across his holiday destination, Tom thinks he is recalibrating his concerns and taking responsibility for himself when he does what he is told and quits smoking. He flicks his last butt from the hotel balcony 'in a moment of utter unthinking' and turns away to hear screams from below as an elderly man douses his smoking scalp.

The western victim is married to a tribeswoman. Her culture refuses to accept the concept of an accident and smoking within 15 metres of public buildings is outlawed, thrusting Tom into a legal system that mashes native and colonial justice.

Tom's punishment is to traverse the state with a possible paedophile until he reaches 'over there' and delivers two rifles, a set of cooking pots and US$10,000 to the Tayswengo tribal heartland. The butt has made Tom the butt of a belief system that changes direction with every corner he and his fellow accused turn in the remote territories of violent and freakish societies such as the Ibbolit, the Tugganarong, the Handrey, Tayswengo, the bing bongs, the Anglos and an isolated couple whose sex life involves a baby fetish.

From the tropical coast of the unnamed state Tom crosses into its arid heartland, where the life and colour have been sucked out by colonial greed, then guilt and moral relativism.

Tom's macabre pilgrimage ends without answers, Self resisting the completion of his narrative. Sorting through the possible meanings of The Butt's end requires trawling back through Tom's convoluted trail. We become Tom as we look for meaning in a thoughtless life and a shapeless character.

'Like a child who has fallen asleep during a long car journey, Tom woke to find a strange new world stocked with the same old things.'

The trouble is, as readers we don't have the luxury of falling asleep. We have to sit through Tom's bizarrely turgid journey. Self's cartoonish way with language is as entertaining as ever, but it isn't enough to keep The Butt alight.