Another review of Pandemonium
Rip-roaring Satire in Iota
Pandemonium by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen
Hybrid $32.99, 297 pages
Reviewed by Rocco Loiacono
This novel is the ninth book of the satirical series concerning Grafton Everest, a rambunctious, overweight, fictional academic who, as the book’s opening paragraph states, has been appointed, ‘once again through no ability, effort or desire of his own, to the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations’, the first Australian to hold the office, thus reaching the pinnacle of his haphazard career.
Ross Fitzgerald (emeritus professor of history and history) and Ian McFadyen (of the Comedy Club fame) have taken us over the last few years through Everest’s bumbling arrival on the national and then international stage. After his election to the Australian Senate in Going Out Backwards (2015), he then became President of the IRA (Inclusive Republic of Australia) in The Dizzying Heights ( 2019).
The Lowest Depths (2021) saw Everest’s first foray into the United Nations. Even though he is now its Secretary General, as is usually the case with our protagonist, he has no idea why or what to do. As the authors describe, Everest ‘had long ago perfected the art of deliberately forgetting things. Throughout his life, he had been plagued by people who were wildly enthusiastic about projects which always, for some reason, involved him doing a lot of work. Luckily he discovered, early in life, that if he procrastinated long enough they eventually forgot about the whole thing and moved onto some new inspiration.’
Despite Everest’s fervent hope that it will be a purely honorary position, he finds himself at the head of an organisation in New York that is unbelievably complex and secretive. Over the novel’s 20 chapters, we see Everest endure attempted kidnappings and assassinations by a conspiracy within the ranks of the UN. He also finds himself part of a secret program to protect western influence and promote democratic values in the developing world.
While all this sounds very serious, readers of the novel will have a good laugh, too, especially when the authors take aim at political correctness and how it has led to the malaise the world is currently in. Those of us who work in universities will read chapter 9, especially the description of how Everest ran his courses in ‘Lifestyles and Wellbeing’ and will be unable to contain our mirth at the extraordinary wit the authors employ to describe Everest’s academic career as a microcosm of the parlous state of tertiary education in this country. Indeed, ‘Grafton understood that much of Engineering 101 was taken up with discussing the concept of space and alternative deconstructions of the word ‘engineering’.
Despite having no desire to save the world, or anything else, Everest finds himself having to deal with a potential diplomatic nightmare in Africa. In this endeavour he is ably assisted and shepherded by a long-term Australian diplomat at the UN by the name of Tony Murphy. We are introduced to this character in chapter 4. Tony attains Everest’s trust following a question the former asks when they first meet: ‘which code do you follow?’ As an Australian, Everest understood its meaning, and he answers ‘AFL’. ‘Good,’ said Tony. ‘Now the crucial one. Which team?’ ‘Collingwood.’ As the plot develops, we find out that this is a real advantage when it comes to the situation in the tiniest of African nations, Iota.
As Tony describes, Iota is a former French, German and finally British colony that is mineral rich. Due to this fact, Tony explains to Everest that ‘certain countries, which shall remain nameless, but which rhyme with Blusher and Eyeliner, are seeking to turn Iota into a client state by offering generous investments, which is to say bribes that will burden them with national debts that they will never be able to repay.’
Tony’s diplomatic work has been premised on the fact that, while ‘Australia doesn’t have a lot of dough… we’ve got other things we can offer’. These have included trade arrangements, development deals, support for education, and lucrative stipends and scholarships to study in Australia.
Tony cemented relations by taking sports-loving President Ngambo Mbota to an AFL match involving Collingwood. He explained to Mbota – who up to that time had been an enthusiastic soccer follower – that soccer was emblematic of colonisation, while Australian Rules stood ‘bravely alone against the imperialist global sports machine’. He said the British abandoned Australia when they wanted to join the EU, and they did the same to Iota when it was granted independence as an afterthought, because the country was so small the British forgot about it ‘until some bastard in the Foreign Office looked at a file and realised the UK still owned this place no one had ever heard of.’
Mbota subsequently had an epiphany, changing his first name to Daryl – which he subsequently shortens to Dazza – and swears allegiance to Collingwood.
The scene describing the lunch at the Iota Presidential Palace is hilarious. Everest arrives in a Holden Statesman. “President Mbota stepped forward and shook Tony’s hand. ‘Mr Tony, you old bastard. Welcome back. Good to see you!’ Tony turned to introduced Everest. ‘I am so pleased to meet you, you old bastard. You are so welcome in Iota,’ Mbota said solemnly.”
Everest and Tony are then ushered along a corridor hung with posters of Collingwood players. The lunch is a feast of lamb and fish fingers – which Tony has flown in especially to this landlocked country. ‘Up and down the table, the dignitaries were drinking beer directly from stubbies and white wine poured elegantly from a cask. It was possible the label was Coolabah. Dessert was Ardmona peaches and cream (the brand being confirmed by the fruit being served directly from the can).’
Along the way, Everest meets a mysterious woman names Ileana who has been assigned to write his biography but is possibly not what she seems, and there are various twists and turns before we find out her real mission. Underneath the laughter, the novel has a thought-provoking streak, which is what satire is all about, as well as ensuring an uproarious but insightful read.
The Spectator Australia, 11 November, 2023, p xii.