Screenwriters have to accept several layers of interpretation – by producers, directors, actors, co-writers, rewriters – between their words and the audience. This may be why so many successful practitioners, including Dennis Potter, Andrew Davies and Julian Fellowes, have intermittently been tempted by the dogmatic solitude of the novelist. Now Jesse Armstrong – Oscar-nominated for In the Loop, Bafta-nodded for Peep Show and The Thick of It – has taken a sabbatical from screen collaboration with a debut work of solo prose fiction.
In what may or may not be a self-conscious gesture, the protagonist-narrator of Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is a man who opts for a cultural project outside his comfort zone. Andrew recalls events in 1994, when he was a young Welshman exiled in Manchester, clever and politically engaged but opting for heavy drug use, funded by shifts in shops or on construction sites, rather than university. Through an encounter in A&E with a fellow victim of recreation-related injury, Andrew falls in with a group of posh students who, believing the Bosnian conflict to be the equivalent to their generation of the Spanish civil war, plan to drive a van to the civil war zone. They will deliver humanitarian supplies and perform a “play for peace” that, although not quite written yet, is intended to achieve a ceasefire in the theatre of war.
In targeting the suspected war criminal Radovan Karadzic and others with a student drama, the Peace Play Project smacks of naivety and hypocrisy. Andrew, while fluent in the required speeches against Serb aggression and western prevarication, only really wants to be on the mission to prevent the territorial invasion of Penny, the alluring daughter of Blairite movers, by Simon, an aspiring poet.
As the bright young things and the out-of-his-depth duffer blunder into geopolitical jeopardy, a literary discussion in a battle-scarred bar throws up the name of Evelyn Waugh. This seems fair because Armstrong’s novel can be read as a synthesis of elements from Waugh’s 1930s satires about the English in foreign conflicts: Black Mischief, Scoop and A Handful of Dust, to which a river sequence seems directly to allude. Armstrong, though, has rather more jokes than Waugh about “dongs” and fewer racial stereotypes, although Bosnian Serb warlord readers may disagree.
Because of his day job, Armstrong, unlike most debut novelists, already has considerable experience of shaping narratives and expertly applies such scripting tricks as the presence among the group of an ingénue, who serves as a useful surrogate for the audience in requiring explanations of Balkan history and the splits within Split. While many screenwriter-novelists play safe by maximising dialogue, Armstrong opts for monologue. Again, though, this is not entirely a stretch as his scripts (with Sam Bain) for Peep Show are notable for prolonged internal voice-over monologues by the main characters in much the tone of erudite and scatological social panic that the novel sustains enjoyably over almost 400 pages.
But the novel also skilfully employs moves that writers can’t use on screen, such as withholding someone’s race until the writer wishes to tell us. There are very few clues that Armstrong is more used to writing for the screen than for the page, though he pays unusually intense attention to physical appearance, minutely describing the colour and shape of characters’ eyes.
The book’s most ambitious aspect is the accommodation, within a plot of class-clash and culture-shock comedy, of darker tonal shifts signalled by casual references to the fighting: “Once there had been no shooting for an hour or so…” Between the excellent jokes and the lovesick slapstick, Armstrong addresses the morality of western intervention, with one Bosnian arguing that the foreign policy of the Blair-Ashdown era reflected a refusal to accept the end of the British empire: “You think you matter. You used to rule the world, so now you worry about it instead?” Sharp scenes feature foreign vultures who have come to feed on the Balkan corpse, including a squad of British mercenaries and a delegation of neocon politicians from the US and UK.
With some bravery, in terms of budgets and the box-office prospects of a story about the downfall of Yugoslavia, Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals could make a tremendous piece of cinema or television. (The reader’s inner casting director notes stonking roles for Zawe Ashton and Jack Whitehall from Fresh Meat and Chris Addison and Roger Allam from The Thick of It.) But, fully justifying his change of medium, one of our most accomplished TV writers has announced himself as a novelist to watch with the best Waugh-like war story debut novel since William Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa almost 35 years ago.