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From the truth comes some strange fiction

by Martin Webb

Homunculus by Hugh Paxton. Macmillan New Writing, 2005, 256 pp., £12.99 (paper).

The grotesquely fanged monster armed with a spear and an assault rifle that comes hurtling out of a rising sun on the cover of “Homunculus” should be fair warning to readers that something a tad disturbing is to be found within this book’s pages.

The author’s name, Hugh Paxton, may also come as a surprise to those familiar with The Japan Times’ “Nature Travel” column, which Hugh contributes together with his wife Midori. But be warned, this is certainly not a hunky-dory tale from the Paxton ranch outside Windhoek, Namibia.

No, the monstrous cover of this book is a mere hint of the bloodthirsty — and unapologetically outrageous — work of the imagination that is in store for readers who are intrepid enough.

“Homunculus,” is a fictional story drawn extensively from true-life firsthand encounters and experiences of Paxton, a former BBC journalist who has reported from most corners of the world, has had during his years in Africa.

Of course, the army of undead humanoids (created by an alchemist posing as a missionary) that are being auctioned off to representatives of the Japanese cult Aleph (formerly known as Aum Shinrikyo), a Colombian drug cartel and other assorted baddies jetted in for the purpose are the stuff of pure horror, sci-fi and fantasy.

But, given that the ever-unclad teen warlord “General Butt Naked,” and most of the other psychopathic mercenaries populating this tale — as well as the depraved carnage they perpetrate — are based on the author’s real experiences, or on tales that he heard at foreign-press club bars, Paxton makes his zombies and magic eerily veritable.

And he can get away with this, because this is a comedy, a supremely black one, but a comedy nonetheless. Readers are expected to ignore the awkward marriage of anecdotes and caricatures with outright fantasy, and to instead ride along for the laughs. Perversely, perhaps, most of these Paxtonian jokes come at the expense of befuddled outsiders who meet with myriad gruesome and senseless ends as the sale of the humanoids coincides with a particularly bloody flareup in the Sierra Leone civil war.

This is a comedic gambit likely to appeal to the more bloody-minded of readers — the likes of whom may also derive not inconsiderable amusement from the fact that “Homunculus” is irredeemably politically incorrect and laced with language that at best can be described as “offensive.”

If a blow-by-blow account of “sociopathic loons” from Aleph getting blown to bits on their way to purchasing a squad of homunculi humanoids sounds like a hoot, this book might just be for you.

But if extreme violence and a sickeningly bizarre comedy of errors in anarchic Sierra Leone is not what you want to read with your cocoa on a winter’s eve, then maybe you should stick to Paxton’s nature column. Because Paxton’s Africa is riddled with cruelty, hatred, corruption, farcical ignorance and ludicrous superstition — affecting everyone from politicians to foreign mercenaries, U.N. agencies and ordinary soldiers. If the Africa really was affected by only 10 percent of the carnage he writes, then there would be little hope for the continent.

To end as we began, be warned: “Homunculus” is most definitely a book that will be long remembered by its readers. Even the author himself warns his young nephews and nieces in his dedication: “For Annabel, Nushi, Michaela, Tim and Robin. Your first book dedication. Just don’t read it until you are a LOT older!”