Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby (1933)

Review by Judith W:

Mandoa is a small African state rarely visited by westerners where the traditions remain undisturbed, until the Lord High Chamberlain, Safi Talal visits Addis Ababa where he discovers luxuries of the western world: baths, cocktail shakers, cars, cutlery and handkerchiefs.

Back in England it is 1931. Maurice Durrant, a Director of Prince’s Tours Ltd, who specialise in arranging travel to distant exotic places, has just won a Conservative seat. His Socialist brother Bill, a former pilot, is unemployed and their friend Jean Stanbury loses her job on The Byeword, a radical weekly paper. All three and other characters find themselves in Mandoa for the wedding of the Royal Princess. Many adventures and situations follow.

Mandoa, Mandoa! is a wonderful read, exhilarating in its depth of invention and humour. Despite its subtitle ‘A Comedy of Irrelevance’ and the fact that it was written in 1933, it feels very much a work of relevance to the present day.

The scenes which put Mandoans and rich London bohemians and American travellers seeking excitement in an uncivilised country side by side are hugely funny. All conversations seem to be at cross purposes and neither can understand the other. Pages 272 – 273 illustrate this well through a conversation between Safi Talal and Felicity Cardover ‘Hampstead’s most fascinating and corrupt success’.

Alongside the wit there is, at times, a serious side to the book and occasional poignant scenes. Jean Standbury, for example, could be Winifred Holtby herself, wishing for some kind of future when, at the time of writing, she knew herself to be dying of kidney disease.

The author based much of the descriptions of Mandoa on her own visit to South Africa where she witnessed the impact of colonialism on the native population. As a result the descriptions of landscape, villages and towns and human interactions all have a ring of truth.

On finishing the book my overall feeling was, 80 years on – ‘Do we ever learn?’ and ‘Will things ever change?’

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