One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding

A review of the humorous literary novel One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding.

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You can always tell you’re in for an unusual read when it’s set on a desert island and the topics hop from the habits of primitive tribes; unconventional sexual mores; obsessive compulsive order; Shakespearean am-dram; magic spells; to US foreign policy. One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding is an often-overlooked novel crammed chock-full of laugh-out-loud moments with oodles of cutting social commentary.

Harding’s story starts on a Pacific island paradise with Managua, the only member of his tribe with the ability to read and write, attempting to translate Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be…”) into a form of pidgin English his tribe can understand. Unfortunately, the closest he can get to a translation is, “Is be or is be not, is be one big damn puzzler.” If you think that’s strange, you don’t know the half of it yet. One Big Damn Puzzler wastes no time at all in breezily educating the reader into some of the characters’ unorthodox pasts, the bizarre history of the island, and the tribe’s strange spiritual, cultural and religious customs.

Our deep-dive into the tribe’s habits are anchored somewhat by William Hardt, an American lawyer who visits the island in the opening chapter. Upon discovering that a large proportion of the islanders have missing limbs due to the fact that US military forces (who used to be stationed on the island) left hundreds of landmines scattered on the beaches when they disembarked, the lawyer sees an opportunity. He tries to convince the islanders that they could claim compensation (which is difficult to explain because they have no concept of money). This, amongst many other cultural misunderstandings, leads largely to much hilarity and frustration on the lawyer’s part.

Harding’s novel is best described as a story that examines mankind’s near-imperialistic fondness for forcing one’s cultural values upon others. It’s essentially a comedy-of-manners critiquing the West’s colonising impulses and the bemusement and confusion it so often wreaks, all against the backdrop of Hardt’s vainglorious attempts to introduce Shakespearean drama to the tribe. One Big Damn Puzzler is also a veiled comment on capitalism: the islanders possess many unorthodox beliefs, so when the lawyer foolishly attempts to introduce them to the concept of economics, it results only in creating cultural disharmony on the island. Perhaps this is Harding suggesting that social strife in the Western world could be attributed to the iniquities caused by a capitalist system.

That said, to the tribe, William Hardt is essentially a pariah – a social outcast – perhaps as much a misfit to the islanders as he is in the West on account of his occasionally crippling personal neuroses. Hardt suffers with acute Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so at various points in the novel he has to cope with various bouts of insecurity and anxiety, both of which it’s inferred are quelled somewhat by the establishment of his career in human rights law and, of course, his pursuit of money. Nevertheless, this still leaves him feeling somewhat empty, which is described as he stands on the beach looking at the ocean.

How could he take comfort in the idea that man had come from the ocean and would ultimately return there? How could he, as he knew some people did, find repose in the idea of his identity dissolving and vanishing into this mass before him, never to emerge again?

Needless to say, William Hardt’s self-doubt is a window into his tortured soul which almost verges on nihilism, planting seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether he can be trusted. By the novel’s end, it is clear that Hardt’s own insecurities can indeed manifest themselves in destructive ways, particularly when his perspective appears jaded or rooted in bigotry (i.e. his ignorant dismissal of the tribe’s cultural beliefs, and his misguided attempts to replace them with his own values).

Throughout all of this, Harding’s narrative voice remains arch and witty, if ever-so-slightly cynical, which is as tone-perfect as it’s possible to be. Much humour is found as the lawyer – who genuinely feels he is doing the right thing – seems totally oblivious to how he is catalysing a negative change upon the island. Until, of course, it’s too late. This speaks volumes not only for what One Big Damn Puzzler says about how the colonisation of supposedly ‘primitive’ cultures may have unintended and deleterious effects, but also for how our supposedly superior Western values may have had a hand in shaping damaged individuals just like William Hardt.

In such a case, One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding is an eccentric, timely and moralistic tale, almost like a fable for our age. Admittedly, it’s lost some of its potency since the decade it was published, but it remains a side-splitting read for humorous fiction fans who like a good mixture of oddball characterisation, comical dialogue and a wry, knowing tone of voice. If you’re looking for the sort of book which straddles the line between cheering you up and making you shake your head at the sheer absurdity of it all, this is well worth thumbing through – it’s more than just a desert island read.

Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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