Monday, June 21, 2010

the last book I read

Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow.

Eugene Henderson is big, loud, American, middle-aged, on his second marriage, rich (having made his money in pig-farming) and generally dissatisfied with his life in a vague and ill-defined sort of way. To alleviate his ennui, his Weltschmerz if you will, he ups and takes himself off to Africa, hiring a guide to show him the "real" Africa, not that rubbish they show the tourists. Inevitably he gets more than he bargained for.

Firstly he encounters the Arnewi tribe, who, in addition to having some sort of vague cattle-worshipping thing going on, have a bit of an amphibian problem. An infestation of frogs has taken up residence and spawned extensively in their water supply (a sort of primitive reservoir), and an obscure tribal taboo prevents them from either extracting the frogs & spawn or saying to hell with it and just drinking the water anyway (possibly with some sort of spawn-sieving exercise carried out first).

Henderson is confident that a bit of down-home rustic American know-how and can-do attitude will sort things out, so he extracts the charges from a few shotgun cartridges and blows up the frogs; unfortunately the explosion also destroys the reservoir's dam and Henderson and guide are obliged to beat a shamefaced retreat on to the next village.

The next village turns out to belong to the Wariri tribe, and following a slightly surreal incident where Henderson and Romilayu (the guide) are accommodated in a tent with a corpse they are granted an audience with the king. The king, Dahfu, turns out to be an erudite sort of bloke, educated in Europe and with an excellent command of English. While he and Henderson are getting acquainted, they attend a tribal ritual, wherein Henderson's impulsive display of strength in lifting a tribal statue sees him anointed as the Rain King.

Henderson (in his new official capacity) and the King become friends, and Henderson is exposed to the tribe's strange belief system whereby the outgoing King is reincarnated in the body of a lion, which must then be captured by his successor. Eventually there is a climactic lion-hunt, during the course of which the King is killed, only to reveal with his dying breath that Henderson is his successor. Henderson, while tempted by the harem of nubile women that comes with the job, isn't keen to get caught up in the whole cycle of become king/hunt down old king in lion form/attempt capture/get mauled to death, and so makes good his escape and finds his way back to America and his wife, possibly as a new man with a new perspective on life, or possibly not.

Bellow famously had never visited Africa before writing this book (in 1959) and it's clearly not intended to be particularly accurate in its representation of anything African (beyond that it's pretty hot and they have lions). What it actually is intended to be is a moot point: Henderson, generally lovable though he is, is a big lumbering oaf of little sensitivity or capacity for reflection. As for the Africans, well, you can read it in two ways: either Henderson has received an insight into life as a result of his experiences among people who may not have digital watches or hostess trolleys, but (perhaps) have access to a more mystical, truer sort of truth, or, alternatively, he has simply discovered that people everywhere believe whatever sort of implausible bollocks gets them through the day, and the Africans are no different - some of them think their fathers come back as a lion, and the rest would rather die of thirst than sieve a few tadpoles out of the drinking water, for fuck's sake.

Whatever your slant is, it's a lot of fun, certainly more so (or at least more straightforwardly so) than the other Bellow I've read, Herzog, which is a convoluted tangle of flashbacks, internal monologues, texts of unsent letters and various other tricksiness. Herzog is hailed as a landmark American/Jewish novel, and no doubt it is, but I liked Henderson better. Which I guess makes me (since Henderson isn't meant to be Jewish as far as I can tell) an anti-Semite. You've got to be so careful, haven't you?

Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976; Henderson The Rain King also appears at #21 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list; note that other books in this series appear at #2, #4, #64 and #70 - twice (well, sort of).

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