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.
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.