The bishop was feeling rather sea-sick. Confoundedly sea-sick, in fact. This annoyed him. For he disapproved of sickness in every shape or form. His own state of body was far from satisfactory at that moment; Africa--he was Bishop of Bampopo in the Equatorial Regions--had played the devil with is lower gastric department and made him almost an invalid a circumstance of which he was nowise proud, seeing tha till health led to inefficiency in all walks of life. There was nothing he despised more than inefficiency.
Summary: The barely-episcopal Anglican Bishop of Bampopo, who prefers to be known as Mr. Heard and is considering leaving the church in order to go into education, is the character who gives this novel what storyline it has. He is going home to England, but on his way there he is stopping for a while on the Mediterranean island of Nepenthe to see his cousin, Mrs. Meadows. There are a great many characters in this novel: the Duchess, who is preparing to make a public conversion to the Catholic Church; the suave and worldly Don Francesco who is her friend and spiritual director; the ascetic Mr. Eames, passionately devoted to his project of creating a new and annotated version of Mgr. Perelli's Antiquities of Nepenthe; the extraordinarily voluble Mr. Keith, who answers sentences with paragraphs and never gives you one completely arbitrary opinion when he can give you a whole string of them; Denis Phipps, an unassuming young man out and about in the world; Mr. Parker, who as the Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua is the island's only official foreign representative, a position he's inveigled that pays him to live on a Mediterranean island and write a report once a year; Bazhakuloff, the aging messiah of a Russian sect, who was more or less thrown out of Russia, and who has gathered around him his religious followers, who are called Little White Cows; Commissioner Malipizzo, the free-thinking freemason of a magistrate who hates the Catholic Church almost as much as he hates the Little White Cows; the parroco, or parish priest, who is mostly just known as Torquemada; Miss Wilberforce, who has a taste for the bottle and bad taste when on it; the American contraception magnate and millionaire, Cornelius von Koppen; and quite a few others. We also get characters from the island's history, such as the Monsignor Perelli, or the fondly remembered and sociopathic Good Duke Alfred. Many of these backward glances at the history of Nepenthe are among the best parts of the book. Perhaps the most important character, however, is the sirocco, the south wind of the title, which blows with extraordinary heat and humidity over Nepenthe for much of the year and makes foreigners do crazy things; it has almost a life of its own throughout the book.
Thus the book reads more like a description of a crazy holiday outing than a story, although there is something of a story that sometimes shows up -- actually, several different stories that make a half-hearted attempt to rise to the surface. Indeed, the Douglas seems deliberately to foil attempts to make much of a story out of these characters; he will write what seems like a major build-up to a big mystery, to take just one of the things he does, and then deliberately cut it short by telling the reader the solution and remarking that none of the characters ever figured it out. Stories are almost irrelevant: the characters are the story. It is a comic work, but I think it is very uneven. Some parts of it get very tiresome -- too many of the jokes go on too long to be quite funny, and not all the characters on which parts of the book focus are equally interesting -- although some passages are quite good. The whirlwind visit of the island's parliamentary representative, Don Giustino, is priceless, and the book is almost worth reading just to get to that part. I would say that the focus on the characters probably saves the book from what would have been its biggest danger. All the characters in the book have very significant foibles, some of which tend to be somewhat sordid; in a story-driven book, the sordidness would mount up pretty quickly, and with this many characters on the set, they would be sordid two-dimensional characters. By focusing on the characters, however, Douglas manages to round out a number of them so that, despite their sordid flaws, they are actually somewhat interesting as people, and this saves the book from the kind of malice that is always a dangerous temptation in a work that tries to be humorous on the basis of human flaws. Douglas likes his characters, even if he does sometimes seem to reserve his greatest liking for the most sordid ones.
The book was controversial in its day because sex is a pretty common topic throughout, but while the theme is constant, it's pretty tame compared to most of what you'd get today, and merely the sort of thing you'd expect to hear by gossip in a community where everyone knows everyone else. It's not as irreverent as I expected from descriptions; mild irreverence throughout, mostly evenhanded, and the irreverence is balanced out a bit by the delight Douglas has in some of his characters.
Cornelius von Koppen loved a good liar. He knew something about the gentle art. It was an art, he used to say, which no fool should be allowed to cultivate. There were too many amateurs knocking about. These bunglers spoiled the trade. Without doing any good to themselves, they roused distrust; they rubbed the fine bloom off of human credulity. His puritan conscience as enraged at petty thefts, petty forgeries, petty larcenies. That was why he despised that otherwise excellent person, the Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua, whose wildest flights of embezzlement never exceeded a few hundred dollars. He respected a man who, like himself, could work in the grand style. To play upon the credulity of a continent--it was Napoleonic, it was like stealing a kingdom; it was not stealing at all. This, he shrewdly suspected, was what his good friend the Count was engaged upon. That delightful old man was working the grand style.
Recommendation: Very uneven, but there are fun passages; it's probably worth reading at least once, just so you can go back and read the Good Duke Alfred or Don Giustino passages again when you're done.