Master comic novelist Tom Sharpe’s PMB ties

2013-06-07 00:00

THE master comic novelist Tom Sharpe, who has died at the age of 85, established his reputation with his first two books, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, both set in Pietermaritzburg, where he lived for several years.

Sharpe returned to the city in 1991, his first visit since his deportation from South Africa in 1961. Speaking on the local varsity campus, Sharpe acknowledged that he owed much of his success to his experiences in Pietermaritzburg where he ran a photographic studio in Perk’s Arcade and taught at the Pietermaritzburg Technical College.

A British citizen, whose grandfather built the Rand Club in Johannesburg, Sharpe lived in South Africa from 1951 until his deportatio, which came about after he had issued writs on a Nationalist Party newspaper, Die Nataller, that accused him of being a “liar”, following the production of a play he had written, The South African, being performed in London. The play dealt with the experiences of Albert Luthuli at a meeting in Pretoria where he had been assaulted. However, no reason for his deportation was ever given.

Sharpe made his debut in 1971 with Riotous Assembly, followed by Indecent Exposure in 1973. Both books, considered by many critics to be his finest, drew heavily on his life in Pietermaritzburg — transformed in the novels to “Piemburg, the capital of Zululand”.

Often described as a satirist, Sharpe said he preferred to consider himself a farceur. “Farce has a greater role to play as an expression of reality in the modern world. But that’s a rather pompous way of saying it. I write funny books.”

Sharpe said the events around his deportation showed how close reality was to farce and that his two South African novels did little more than tell the truth.

His favourite compliment from a reader was: “I laughed and laughed, but suddenly I stopped laughing and thought, hang on, this isn’t funny at all.”

In England, he lectured in history at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, which inspired his Wilt series of books that satirised English life and culture. Wilt was made into a television film, while the novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue were adapted into television series. In all, Sharpe authored 16 novels. His last, The Wilt Inheritance, appeared in 2010. Sharpe died at his home in Spain following complications related to diabetes.

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