The novel starts to acquire a deeply involving game-theoretical aspect, along with a flavour of Ben Elton’s ingenious and underrated novel Popcorn, which also explores how being televised can make a tricky situation much trickier. You get the sense that Vermes didn’t know quite how to tie it all up, but tie it up he does, and with whizz-bang energy and gleeful imaginative savagery. His achievement is to make this exodus, and the shaming hypocrisy of western reactions towards it, seem altogether plausible.
As Vermes’s book is a work of satire, it would be unfair to tax it too harshly for its lack of interest in conveying complex characterisation or actual plausibility (we get little real sense of the refugees themselves); but it’s still a shame that its targets are such easy ones. There is a greedy, mostly amoral TV producer; a self-absorbed media star; a magazine features writer obsessed with celebrity access, whose lofty regard for her own journalistic work is matched by no discernible qualities; and a young politician who is quick to compromise principle for ambition. For all its original twists, I’m not sure this is as bold as it thinks it is.
That said, The Hungry and the Fat is an immensely enjoyable read: it manages to avoid the common problem of diminishing returns (impressive for a single piece of satire spanning 560 pages), and really speeds along. Like so many of the most distasteful, grotesque spectacles, once it’s caught your eye, you find it almost impossible to look away.
Vermes has also done his research — there are powerful insights into the lives and longings of refugees that make this something more than mere satire. It’s a book that engages deeply with both Cavafy’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians and the JM Coetzee novel that borrowed its title, as well with the false immigrant narratives of Trump’s America. Where Look Who’s Back felt insular, this novel works because German history is allowed to lend depth and resonance to the subject matter without the parallels being overplayed.