Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe

A review of the political literary novel Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe.

Tom Sharpe’s no-holds-barred portrayal of apartheid in Riotous Assembly is a fearless, gutsy read of comedic delight. Drawing upon his social observations of life in South Africa before he was eventually deported for sedition and criticising the government, Tom Sharpe’s 1971 novel remains to this day a hilarious, rollicking and rebellious masterclass in razor-sharp social criticism, coming across like a storytelling equivalent of P.G. Wodehouse writing a Times editorial in the style of Viz magazine.

At times downright filthy and crass – with gross-out gags and smut in abundance – Riotous Assembly tells the story of Kommandant Van Heerden, a South African police officer who is called out to investigate the murder of a black Zulu cook who has been shot (with a large gun!) in a crime of passion, found dead in the garden of a well-heeled English socialite, Miss Hazelstone. Van Heerden’s attempts to cover up the crime, despite glaring evidence of Miss Hazelstone’s guilt (as well as her seemingly unapologetic confession) propels the story into an absurd frenzy of comic farce which leads to more violence and extra lashings of mayhem than you could possibly imagine.

At times, Riotous Assembly reads like an early-seventies prototype of Fawlty Towers-style situational irony, but with a rather more lacerating political slant, plus a tendency to up the ante with crude but witty dialogue, slapstick comedy capers galore and oodles of raving pomposity. It certainly crosses over into hyperbole very often, but Tom Sharpe’s writing elevated the novel above mere exaggeration, allowing you to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all but appealing to one’s intellect by allowing the heavy-handedness of the satire to bring you thudding back down to earth.

Peppered with many laugh-out-loud moments, the characters in Riotous Assembly are overblown caricatures, for sure, but all with the sole intention of lampooning the lunacy of apartheid and mauling the jugular of institutionalised racism like a lion savaging its prey. Make no mistake, racism remains a thorny contemporary issue which most writers (mainly white ones, strangely enough) tend to steer well clear of, but Tom Sharpe absolutely nailed his satirical targets to the wall in this book. It’s a shame more writers don’t have the outspokenness and the bravery he clearly had.

If you’re easily offended by old-fashioned racial slurs of the Alf Garnett variety and jokes made in extremely poor taste, Riotous Assembly may make you feel somewhat uneasy at times, but the whole point of Sharpe’s satire was to make you think very seriously about apartheid in South Africa. In between the belly-laughs, you’ll find yourself thinking how reprehensible (not to mention unsustainable) the colonial mindset truly was following the fall of the British Empire.

Let’s be honest, a comedy novel set during apartheid may not necessarily be a topic you’d expect to extract much humour from, but Tom Sharpe truly excelled at this searing, take-no-prisoners style of comedy. As a writer, I find often he did this with all the zeal of a revolutionary. Trust me, I was crying with laughter whilst reading Riotous Assembly for the first time I read it. With any luck, I’m confident you will be too.

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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