UC Berkeley graduate’s ‘Saddam’s Parrot’ entertains, confuses, critiques Berkeley protest culture

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Olivia Staser/Staff

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Saddam Hussein, George Bush, a parrot, an elephant, Berkeley Law, Antifa and the African wilderness all in one story. Can’t imagine it? Don’t worry, Jim Currie already has, in his novel “Saddam’s Parrot.”

Currie, a Berkeley graduate, combines absurdism and journalese in an attempt to analogize the strange political and protest culture at UC Berkeley. While the result often is a confusing jumble of storylines and references, deep at its core, “Saddam’s Parrot” is an entertaining novel of passion and dedication to one’s sincerest desires.

The novel follows Pankaz Panday, a Berkeley resident and investigative reporter, as he travels the globe, investigating and reporting on rather unorthodox tales, all the while narrating the story.

Throughout the course of “Saddam’s Parrot,” Panday uncovers elephant abuse, is caught in a sniper shoot-out, exposes a Berkeley weaponized pie dealer and races pigeons. Confused? Same.

Though the various plots and stories are humorous and action-packed, their variety and abundance creates a muddle of confusion for the reader. Just when you are becoming invested in one plot line, the chapter ends and we are still with Panday — but charging off in an entirely different direction, confused as to the connection between the various plots.

One of the biggest let-downs was the story of the title character Alex, aka Saddam’s Parrot. Introduced at the beginning of the novel as a verbally gifted parrot from Baghdad U’s Animal Communications Lab, Alex, Hussein’s personal pet, is seized as a war trophy and presented to George W. Bush. After living in the White House, Alex now has classified and incriminating information about the Bush presidency. Yet, this absurd and intriguing origin story is almost all we ever get about our feathered friend.

Alex provides some laughs, but is rarely an actor in the plot, frustratingly leaving him as an attention-grabber more than a fully developed character.

Berkeley students will find particularly special resonance with the novel, not only through its setting in Berkeley and San Francisco, but also through one of its many plot lines. One scene takes place at Berkeley Law, where protesters throw explosive pies at the speaking professor, James Mee (a pseudonym for the current law professor John Yoo). This is just one of many references Berkeley locals will enjoy finding throughout the novel.

More than just references, Currie weaves tales of coopted violent protest where Berkeley readers can’t help but ask, “Is that about us?”

With the current concocted position of Berkeley as a politically manipulated fighting ground for “free speech,” protests have not been infrequent on the UC Berkeley campus. Thus, this protest, which features Antifa arriving and hijacking a train carrying circus elephants, serves as an interesting allegory for actual Berkeley protests.

Through the fast-paced action and curiously critical dialogue in this scene, Currie forces the readers to not just engage with the whodunit of the story, but also with the question of why do we do it.

The most heartfelt plotline of the story is Panday’s love interest Marianne, the witty waitress and elephant enthusiast who devotes her time and savings to creating a sanctuary for the surprisingly emotional creatures. Though this plot thread eventually becomes tangled in the mess of stories running through “Saddam’s Parrot,” readers cannot help but become attached to this unlikely romance and the passion the two characters share — even if it is the only attachment the reader makes in the entire novel.

“Saddam’s Parrot” is a niche novel. While witty and humorous, this detective tale’s absurdity often becomes overwhelming, at times leaving the entire novel bogged down with excessive details. Currie tries to tackle too much, at the cost of leaving plotlines undeveloped and readers confused. Each story itself is great, and, if separated into separate novels, would provide endless laughs and tears. Yet, Currie included them all, which in the end leaves the reader begging for explanations, to no avail.

Sadly, not even our title character gets the resolution he deserves. If you’re wondering what happens to Saddam’s parrot, don’t pick up “Saddam’s Parrot” — you will never find the answer.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].

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