Expats Writing: On the Prowl in Africa

Norman Rush: Mating, 1991.

This is an interesting book about cultural differences, white privilege and domination in post-colonial Africa, but it’s also a love story told from the point of view of a young(ish) brainbox of a female anthropologist. She is completely insufferable and elitist, and has built up a cynical and manipulative shell around her heart, but she can also be very funny and at times quite vulnerable and oddly innocent.

The narrator’s voice is so loud and unique in all its contradictions and complexities, that it’s hard to believe it was written by a man in his late fifties – closer to the age of the narrator’s paramour in the story. It’s an ambitious endeavour – but works well.

The unnamed narrator finds herself somewhat adrift – she has had to abandon her Ph.D., her relationships and friendships are unfulfilling, she does not want to return to the US, she feels twice as intelligent as most of the people she meets (fluent in several languages, well-read, able to quote literature and philosophy at the drop of a hat), and she has quite strong opinions on the types of people she meets in Botswana.

There are more whites in Africa than you might expect, and more in Botswana than most places in Africa… Parliament works and the courts are decent, so the West is hot to help with development projects, so white experts pile in. Botswana has almost the last hunter-gatherers anywhere, so you have anthropologists like me underfoot. From South Africa you get fugitive white and black politicals… And then Botswana is a geographical receptacle for civil service Brits excessed as decolonisation moved ever southward. These are people who are forever structurally maladapted to living in England. This is their last perch in Africa…

The novel is set in the 1980s, so South Africa is still under the apartheid regime, and the Boers and spies play a part in the narrative. The narrator’s thoughts about love and sex are equally unfiltered:

Love is strenuous. Pursuing someone is strenuous… Of course it would be so much easier to play from the male side. They never go after love qua love, ever. They go after women. And for men love is the distillate or description of whatever happened with each woman that was not actually painful in feeling-tone… I don’t know if getting love out of a man is more of a feat of strength now than it used to be or not, except that I do: it is. It’s hideous. It’s an ordeal beyond speech.

Despite her cynical pronouncements about love, she has not quite lost hope of finding a worthy partner – and the one she has decided is worth pursuing is Nelson Denoon, a fellow academic on the cusp of getting divorced, who has established a utopian female-led community called Tsau somewhere in the desert. She embarks upon a somewhat dangerous solo crossing of the desert to find this closed community and is not above resorting to all sorts of lies and subterfuge to be allowed to stay in the community and win this man over.

I had to realize that the male idea of successful love is to get a woman into a state of secure dependency which the male can renew by a touch or pat or gesture now and then while he reserves his major attention for his work in the world or the contemplation of the various forms of surrogate combat men find so transfixing… Equilibrium or perfect mating will come when the male is convinced he is giving less than he feels is really required to maintain dependency and the woman feels she is getting more from him than her servile displays should merit.

My utopia is equal love, equal love between people of equal value… Why is it so difficult? Assortative mating shows there has to be some drive in nature to bring equals together in the toils of love, so why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity?

The bulk of the book is set in Tsau, which of course is not as idyllic a community as it describes itself (and Nelson believes it to be), and covers her burgeoning relationship with Nelson. The contrast between ideal and reality is present in both their community and in their love affair. I did feel this part of the book got a little bogged down in detail and in the lengthy conversations between the two main protagonists (about right versus left-wing politics and economics and all sorts of topics). Nevertheless, I loved the dry asides – and there were bound to be some on virtually every page:

Even when a woman gets her own order authorized, like Mother Teresa, it’s women who end up doing the cooking and cleaning and nursing and little detachments of men who get to do the fun proselyitzing.

This was an example of not knowing you were having a peak experience at the time you were having it and mistakenly assuming that it was the forerunner of many equal experiences waiting for you onward in life.

…if I died there, no one in his right mind would regard it as a tragedy. I would be in the category of an aerialist falling to her death. Or I would be entitled to the species of commiseration people get who show up at parties on crutches but who got injured skiing at Gstaad… It would be sad but not that sad.

My bet is that, all things considered, no woman would have voted to have the washhouse, the stores house, the central kitchen and the Sekopololo offices located at the top end of a long though gentle ramp. We inhabit male outcomes.

The book was more interesting when it dealt with the tensions and subtle shifts in power within Tsau, and issues of race and gender. Despite the narrator’s understanding of Setswana language and culture (and often trying to educate Nelson about it), most of the couple’s references remain resolutely Eurocentric. The author did spend five years in Botswana, but you know my feelings about ‘it’s not the length, it’s the intensity’ of experience, as I know many expats who spent over twenty years in a place and still didn’t really understand the culture.

I liked the fact that Norman Rush did not feel the need to dumb down his ideas or his prose – this is a very dense piece of work, full of historical and political detail, full of literary and philosophical allusions. It also contains very frank descriptions of sex – although the true seduction here is of two minds in conversation. It feels like a novel in which the author has, just like his creation, poured out the best of himself – everything he had.

The Kalahari Desert, from müvTravel

This unusual book won’t be for everyone: it has an overabundance of style and content. I suppose the best way to think about it is that the narrator is making field notes – that indispensable element in the anthropologist’s toolkit, which is at once an observation of the external – the people around you, the rites and habits and patterns – but also of the internal: how you interact with your surroundings and how you are changed by what you observe. Rush seems to adopt the ‘impressionist’ style of ethnography, i.e. holding back on his own selection and interpretation, and simply giving us the unvarnished writings of the narrator, leaving it to the reader to make of it what they would. I understand why he does that, but I do wish he could have exercised some editing on occasion.

I wanted to incorporate everything, understand everything, because time is cruel and nothing stays the same.

Levels of Gentility in Crime Fiction

You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…

BVERYflatMargot Kinberg: B Very Flat

Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).

Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur.  It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.

BirdCageFrédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)

Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).

This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.

bloodonsnowJo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)

I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!

AngelisAugusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)

Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!

Deadly-Harvest-Vis-6-copy1Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest

This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.

For a more comprehensive review of the book and an interview with the authors, see Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

DeathMantisIf you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.

 

This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.

 

It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people –  used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.

 

The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.

 

Sunrise in Botswana
Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!