What makes for a good book group read? Plot, character, literariness, something that allows for off-book discussion?  In that case Poor Mercy ticks the boxes.

In 1991 Jonathan Falla was employed by a British charitable agency in Darfur.  It was not a satisfying experience.  Good intentions are not enough.  After leaving charitable work, Falla spent the next decade distilling his experience into Poor Mercy.  It was published in 2005, one year after Darfur erupted into crisis once more.  The mistakes of the past had been repeated.

In charting the experiences of an aid agency team in Darfur, Falla exposes those mistakes,  the madness of the Western approach, the preconception that because they do not live and eat as we do, African quality of life is unbearable.  The futility of handing out aid and intensifying dependence instead of promoting independence.  At the same time, however, he shows the constraints of African culture that preserve the status quo – African women, in their way,  as guilty and barbaric as cynical and corrupt politicians and secret police. There are some very uncomfortable and dark chapters dealing with female genital mutilation and intertribal hatreds. 

Falla holds nothing back  – it is as it is.  No wonder then that the aid agency team is beleaguered.  Add to that their own incompetence and lack of common sense, it’s no wonder that the field director  – Xavier (saviour?) Hopkins continually compares his team with that of William Hicks who was commanded to fight what amounted to a suicidal campagn at the Battle of El Obeid in 1883.

It was a game he played with himself asking “In what sense am I lost today?”.  It might happen as he was driving through the streets  -sand pits, really – between endless blank-walled compounds without names,  numbers or signs. … Sometimes, he would be enveloped in mists of confused policy, a fog of impossible logistics, a blizzard of reproach and a deluge of conflicting interests .. At other times, the operations appeared quite hopeless, even in prospect.  Just as, Hicks, in September 1883, even before they had all marched out of Khartoum to  their deaths, must have surveyed his medieval, chain-mailed troops and said to himself, “We are lost before we start.”

For all that the novel contains moments of dark comedy.  How, and why, for instance is a boat stranded in the middle of the dessert?  There are also moments of  hope.  The novel devotes as much time to the experiences of enlightened and educated Africans  – both male and female. The lead African male, Mogga injures his hands in opening chapter.  His burnt palms,  reminiscent of Christ’ s stigmata, a recurring leitmotiv for the remainder of the novel.  The suggestion being that salvation must come from within – it is not something that foreign aid will ever achieve. 

Further narrative relief comes in the form of a love story which adds an affectionate note in an otherwise heartless scenario. Like much about the situation in Darfur, it is an impossible love, unable to break free of the shackles of its time and place. 

While Falla is uncompromising in his message,  I’ve probably made Poor Mercy sound more didactic than it is.  It’s an engaging read, at times disturbing, always thought-provoking.  And as a book-group discussion generator, second to none.

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