This month we review two novels sat in Africa, one a light hearted comedy, the other following Conrad’s footsteps into the heart of Africa’s darkness; and two books on the revival of natural medicine in the West.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
The African experience
A Good Man in Africa
by William Boyd
Penguin (pbk) £1.95
by Roger King
Andre Deutsch £6.95
Despite the demise of colonialism, Africa still holds an attraction for Western novelists. It isn’t only for trendy tropical backdrops and sensuous natives that the serious writer is drawn to the continent, From Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, novelists have shown how Africa put Western character to the test. William Boyd and Roger King, two young English novelists, continue in this tradition, though in markedly different ways.
Boyd’s A Good Man in Africa is a very funny book. Set in the mythical country of Kinjanja, its hero (or anti-hero) Morgan Leafy is a British High Commission functionary in the remote town of Nkongsamba, alienated from his stiff compatriots,
cuckolded by his African mistress and later blackmailed by an ambitious local politician, Sam Adekunle, a graduate of Harvard Business School.
It is the latter episode which is Leafy’s real test, bringing him face to face with some of the more unpleasant realities of modern African political life. Elections are coming up in Kinjanja, and Leafy must choose which party the British should support to best serve their commercial interests. Leafy picks Adekunle’s KNP over the corrupt ruling party (Kinjanja is one of the top ten champagne importers worldwide), but Adekunle has his own private agenda.
You get a good laugh from A Good Man in Africa, though not a lot more. Most of its characters are caricatures and the British community is more a focus than Africa itself.
But in Roger King’s Horizontal Hotel, Africa is both a physical location and ‘an area of our minds’. The narrator, John Meddows, is the Deputy Director of Rural Planning in an unnamed African republic. The novel spans only one day, but that day encompasses a long mental journey. Meddows has a fever, and King’s writing is intense and feverish, full of the minute observations of an obsessed and prophetic eye: ‘Outside, a mist of pink Saharan dust loiters oppressively’ - the world seems tinted, slightly askew.
Unlike Boyd, King explores the subtleties of the neo-colonial relationship of white men working within a black government, where the rules of the game are less strictly defined. Meddows’ boss Adrian is a typical well-intentioned technocrat, aloof from the society he is trying to plan. His colleague Obi, on the other hand is an African on the make, whose favourite word is ‘modern’. Meddows’ own response is to experience Africa raw. He enters Africa by entering her women and dancing the night away at the Horizontal Hotel.
Meddows’ fever heightens his sensuality and the book reaches a peak at night at the Horizontal Hotel. But as sickness overpowers him, so does the realization that his feeling of holiness is an illusion. His friends betray him, not on purpose, but because the basis of friendship itself is culturally defined and open to question. Dream turns to nightmare and he ends up in hospital, where the doctors no longer believe in white privilege. On the hallucinatory edge of death, he is forced to face himself. The presence of his boss Adrian is the presence of England. of an order he both despises and needs. The book leaves you thinking: the writing is inspired.
Both books are written from a male point of view, with women as sexual foils, or, in King’s case, as metaphors for the sensual African experience itself. The choice not to present them in greater depth makes for a narrower world. One wonders whether a female sensibility would paint a fuller human landscape and find more middle ground between the sterility of Western reason and the African area of the mind.
Betsy Hortmann is co-author of A Quiet Violence:
View from a Bangladesh Village, London, Zed Press,
1983. She has just completed her first novel.
Natural health book to give your doctor
The Medicine man
by John Lloyd Fraser
Thames/Methuen (hbk) £8.50
The Alternative Health Guide
by Brian Inglis and Ruth West
Michael Joseph (hbk) £12.50
Once a particularly pill-mad doctor prescribed me 12 tablets a day for an assortment of symptoms. He didn’t see that the symptoms might all have a common root: he attacked each of them in isolation. When I reported nervously that I had only taken half the dosage, quite unable to bring myself to swallow so many drugs, he was furious - until he brightened up and said, ‘Well, you only weigh half as much as an average six-foot, 12-stone man, so half the dose is probably about right for you.’
The thought clearly comforted him but it didn’t do much for me. I’d have double-dosed myself if I’d followed his instructions. Worse, the true cause of my symptoms soon revealed itself: I was pregnant - the last ‘ailment’ for which I needed 12 tablets a day.
Incidents like this are legion, and are encouraging more and more people to turn to natural remedies, either self-prescribed or administered by practitioners of alternative therapies who tailor their remedies to the patient’s unique needs.
Two of the best books I’ve seen recently introducing alternative remedies to Western readers are John Lloyd Fraser’s The Medicine Men, a lucid and cautiously sympathetic account of eight of the therapies best known in the West, and the hefty Alternative Health Guide by Brian Inglis and Ruth West, provocatively advertised as ‘the book that you should give to your doctor’. This is a comprehensive guide which reaches far beyond the well known therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy to other physical therapies like shiatsu (the Japanese form of acupressure, using fingers instead of needles), or cranial osteopathy (a subtle form of diagnosis and treatment using variations in the cerebro-spinal fluid in the patient’s skull and pelvis as diagnostic indicators). The Guide also explores quite a range of psychological and even paranormal therapies, from the well established Christian Science to the fringier ‘past lives therapy’. It makes a fascinating read.
The books touch only lightly on the social and political impact of a non-drug oriented way of approaching health - the Guide briefly quotes Ivan Illich, the scourge of the medical profession. Their main purpose is descriptive rather than analytic. It is a pity that both books are so very Western in their outlook. Ayurvedic medicine, for example, is entirely omitted because it has not yet taken root in the West, although the system is so widely practised in countries like India.
Tara de Silva