The Old Man and Mr Smith — A fable (about God, the Devil and the folly of humankind)

Sir Peter Ustinov: The Old Man and Mr Smith — A fable. Arcade Pub 1991

In a world where we are taught to be either secular or dogmatic, good or evil, right or wrong, what place has God or the Devil — even if they did exist? This seems to be the point of Ustinov’s novel about the Old Man, a somewhat overweight, humbly approachable but naïve personality, and Mr Smith, a small, foul-tempered and opinionated man whose dark features, sulphurous aroma and tendency for metamorphosis promise nothing more than mischief. Indeed, mischief summarises the majority of events that take place as the pair reunite on Earth in a comical attempt to revisit a world they once helped create.

The magical realist style Ustinov applies to the narrative of his novel is useful in portraying the conflict between the real life situations the Old Man and Mr Smith find themselves in and the reality they themselves possess as “others” from another world. Quickly the two protagonists discover that their “innocence” becomes questionable and their movements, motives and, ultimately, their identities are of utmost concern to the higher powers of the global elite, personified mostly by the American FBI. Evading the law by means of “de-materialising” and “re-materialising,” which is the best description for the pair’s escape by the world’s finest intelligence services, is but one example of the sort of corny over-rationalisation taking place in the book by Earthlings.

On this vigilante journey, the reader is led through the corridors of power of the White House, the cesspools of New York’s Forty-second Street to abandoned railways of the forgotten “land of the free”. This tends to reflect the inner turmoil of the protagonist in the medieval play Everyman, which likewise explores the notion of a contemporary pilgrimage. At the sociological level, good (the Old Man) and evil (Mr Smith) find that they are constantly marginalised by a society fuelled by norms and conventions, popularised truths and flagrant hypocrisy, which turns the protagonist away from their human mentors regardless of being a President or a homeless drug addict.

At the global level, the protagonists experience much the same thing, only in different cultural paradigms, which Ustinov does well not to over-generalise. Upon visiting officials of the Kremlin in the Soviet Union, the Old Man becomes no less than a hero to both superstitious admirers of the divine and so-called realists whose oversized token military uniforms express a volatile appreciation for power. Small-fry villagers in India simultaneously embrace and chastise the Old Man and Mr Smith; party-politically oppressed citizens of China’s Tiananmen Square warn the visitors of loitering in the streets; and an officer of the Israeli army commits the pair to military reproach for getting involved in a Palestinian conflict. With regard to the significance of events portrayed between the lines of The Old Man and Mr Smith, the reader is encouraged to partake in voyeurism as the novel encompasses what might be termed a “God’s-eye” view of international and cultural affairs taking place in the most secret of confines in some of the remotest villages and urban centres on the planet.

In hindsight, the structure of the plot is relatively predictable, following critiques of contemporary religious/secular, capitalist/communist, nationalised/globalised society, which was written during and published after the Cold War reached an ironic pinnacle of its own. The aim of The Old Man and Mr Smith is to draw on the insecurity of a steadily globalised world on the eve of what Francis Fukuyama terms “the end of history.” It is true that there is no exclusive reference to prophetic language, which re-imagines the world according to a fatal presence of neoliberal hegemony. Yet in offering the reader a satirical critique of contemporary Earth, namely by dissecting its spatial ontological, ideological and cultural features in a jocular but cut-throat fashion, our norms, values and ideas about our world become questionable.

By the time he was knighted by the Queen of England, the same year The Old Man and Mr Smith was published, Sir Peter Ustinov was the author of over twenty-five works, including fiction, drama, essays, travel writing and autobiography. As well as being a hugely successful public intellectual and entertainer, Ustinov was a devout political figure as the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, a volunteer for UNESCO and President of the World Federalist Movement. In 1992, shortly after his knighthood, Ustinov became Chancellor of Durham University, England, which is the reason why the Graduate Society of the university was renamed Ustinov College in 2003 in his honour.

This year celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ustinov College and the legacy of Sir Peter Ustinov, which lives on in Durham’s postgraduate community. Twenty-five years after publication, The Old Man and Mr Smith is still as relevant as ever. The novel reflects a lifetime of social and geopolitical observations depicted by a man whose dedication to global citizenships inspired both scientific and recreational exploration into the diversity of a steadily globalising world. Most importantly, the novel is a display of masterful literary flair and intellectual ability to make the most ironic puns come alive by means of playing with humankind’s universal conventional truth: religion. The success of this novel can therefore be measured by its ability to encourage readers to shed the weight of the most obvious, noteworthy and restrictive of universal conventions in order to see another truth: ourselves.

Mika Laiho
The writer is a thirty year old Finn-Britt, studies a PhD in Political Geography at Durham University. He has spent a lot of time living in Finland, in Helsinki, Turku and Rovaniemi and likes to run marathons and write fiction in his free time.