Chipman Smith is still in the closet when he arrives at the Hornbill Palace Hotel at Tlula Leisure Beach in Bomzawe in 1972, but he is well and truly out of it by the end. Or is he? Mr Smith will never be the same again, and neither will you, after reading Chipman’s African Adventure. This blackly comic tale balances throughout on the edge of laughter. Crescendos of absurdity and high camp drama supplant and transcend each other with accelerating speed.
Bomzawe, an imagined West African country, is on the verge of civil war. Chipman’s dilapidated hotel has become a node on the international hippie trail. It’s cheap and alive with pulsating flora (the encroaching jungle) and fauna (avian, reptilian and human, native and travelling). A colony of eccentric hippie/new age imports, led by Dr. Starry Sanguini, camps by the beach. Sanguini has recently married the Hon. Cerisia Twitchley, middle-aged belly-dancing daughter of a British peer. Leading figures in the native contingent are Fangga, the Snake Fetish Priest, and matriarch Lilibet Lanfal. Everyone congregates at bull-dyke Blossom’s Leisurely Chophouse and Bar where the Hornbill Palace’s deplorably anglicised cooking can be avoided.
Fledgling lawyer Chipman longs for true love. Will he find it with Zach Shaler, the Nebraskan cowboy with Peace Corps dreams, with Drift, the mamba snake catcher, even though Drift is seriously obsessed with Toffee, his intoxicatingly beautiful girlfriend, or with neither?
Sanguini is a drug-crazed Australian psychotherapist, determined to get to the bottom of Chipman’s sexual hang-ups. Why is Chipman so enamoured of Wally, his boss back at the Department of the Attorney General in Sydney? What is it about a summer back in Chipman’s childhood that so connects him to the cicadas that congregate in the poinciana trees that overhang the Hornbill?
Chipman thinks he has nothing but a drinking problem. To his horror he finds himself dragged into Sanguini’s bizarre re-birthing rituals which expand into psychedelic theatrical extravaganza. Sanguini hopes that the culmination of these will be a centrepiece of the Hornbill Palace Hotel’s famous Easter Carnival, the pride and joy of tycoon, Sir Henry Kmango, Anglophile proprietor of the hotel. This year it will be in honour of returning exiled dictator, Ulysses Oratorio, who has a special relationship with the Carnival, in particular its Maypole Dance.
Not all goes well with the re-birthing. Nor with much else. Chipman metamorphoses into cicadan Chippo Cherrynose and is reduced to hanging out with the feathered denizens of the hotel – the ubiquitous hornbills, and Old Idi, an eared vulture and his flock. Chipman emerges from his chrysalis but is he more clear sighted than before or just a slave to Sanguini as guru and ringmaster?
Chipman is a benighted but endearing character, confronted by many moral and ethical dilemmas. His naivety and goodwill are offset by a shrewdness of intellect and ability not only to observe but to participate in the beauty, brutality and seething sexual shenanigans of his post-colonial environment. The satire is savage and so is the civil war which inevitably comes, but there is an unexpected and underlying tenderness shown in Chipman’s dealings with Sanguini’s troupe of international outlaws and generational refugees. It would be easy for a psycho adventure like this to fall into caricature. Instead, the protagonists have a depth of characterisation which makes it all touchingly down to earth and real.
Not everyone escapes alive, sane or uncompromised from Tlula Leisure Beach.
You will never guess the end.
(10 interior illustrations by Peter Kingston)by