Thursday, July 05, 2007


If one were to make a list of the least promising settings for a comic novel, Sierra Leone during its 1991-2002 civil war would undoubtedly belong near the top of the list. And yet Hugh Paxton's Homunculus is a comic novel set during Sierra Leone's civil war, with none of its horrors omitted. And it's funny, in a very black (no pun intended) way; though if this is your first exposure to the particulars of the war, you'll probably be too horrified to laugh.

The homunculi (plural of homunculus) of the title are totally obedient, self-reproducing miniature killing machines made from corpses by a mad alchemist. This alchemist's attempt, in partnership with a mercenary, to auction them off is the core of the novel's plot. But, as with many satires, the plot is mainly a device to expose the stupidity, evil and/or indifference of nearly all the characters.

Most of the characters are white: mercenaries, diplomats, intelligence officers, and other self-interested parties. The only major Sierra Leonese characters are members of the RUF (the anti-government force in the war, notorious for their use of child soldiers and atrocities against civilians). One could criticize the book politically on these grounds, as well as for contributing to the West's image of sub-Saharan Africa as solely a land of misery. But it's still a powerful portrayal of evil and stupidity. And it's still funny.

Homunculus has apparently not yet been published in the U.S., but it's available from Powell's or Amazon.

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