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The Heart of the Matter

THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.\o7 By Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins: 544 pp., $27.50)\f7

November 01, 1998|PHYLLIS RICHARDSON | Phyllis Richardson is the author of "Portmanteau."

The rape of undeveloped countries, the exploitation of primitive peoples, the destruction of ancient traditions--these are themes usually attacked with the zeal of the newly converted. Barbara Kingsolver has written on social justice before, but she is no less fervent for it. In this powerful new epic, she addresses these issues through the more minute concerns of an American family caught in the social and political upheavals of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. Leaving the familiar Southwestern terrain of novels like "The Bean Trees" and "Pigs in Heaven," Kingsolver paints the modern history of Africa with a broad brush while ensuring that individual lives pop out like hardened bumps on the palimpsest.

Nathan Price is an egomaniacal evangelist who drags his wife and four daughters out of suburban Georgia to a remote Congo village on a mission motivated more by a hunger for personal absolution than by any larger Christian purpose. The women's resistance and resignation are comical at first, but the seriously tragic implications of this presumptuous journey soon emerge.

Confronted by a centuries-old culture and mysticism, Nathan's fierce single-mindedness only burns brighter, leaving his wife, Orleanna, and his daughters to shrivel with neglect. Yet the scope of this novel is far greater than the recounting of tragedy.

Kingsolver follows the women, limping and exhausted, on their path out of the jungle and for three decades along the roads each chooses for her own salvation. Unlike the Congolese women who carry well-balanced bundles atop their heads while continuing unperturbed at other tasks, the Price women bear their Congo experience as if it were an unwieldy albatross. Even Rachel, the beautiful eldest daughter who cares more for personal comfort than for the fate of any of the millions of perishing Congolese and who "always believed [she] could still go home and pretend the Congo never happened," cannot escape its potency.

The story is told through each of the women in voices that are distinct and recognizable. Here, Kingsolver has excelled in creating singular portraits within a united experience. And the Congo she depicts is not the stuff of myth. Hers is a blatant condemnation of the American and Belgian plot to assassinate the Congo's first democratically elected leader and replace him with the dictator Mobutu, the atrocities of whose regime are only now being fully revealed. Through the voice of Leah, who chose to stay in the Congo and marry into the local community, she expresses furious indignation at the rich nations that expanded their coffers by draining Africa of its mineral wealth while its people were starved, killed and ruthlessly suppressed. "We have in this story the ignorant but no real innocents," Leah concludes.

Adah, Leah's hemiplegic twin, is a quick-witted, sardonic observer who is unable to speak but expresses herself in writing, delighting in palindromes and irreverent backward transcriptions of biblical exhortations like "the Amen enema." Adah in particular appreciates the subtle duplicities of the Kikongo language in which she is benduka, both "someone who is bent sideways and walks slowly" and "a sleek bird." The most alarming (and prophetic) dual meaning, for which Adah has an early and silent understanding, is that of the word for the poisonwood tree, whose sap causes stinging, swelling rashes to erupt on the skin. The word, bangala, uttered with different emphasis also means "something precious and dear." As the steadfast Rev. Price declares with closed fist from his makeshift pulpit every Sunday that "Jesus is bangala" and fights the villagers to baptize their children in a river where a local child was recently killed by a crocodile, his determined ignorance is hugely symbolic. In the subsequent turmoil that erupts within the small community of Kilanga and then throughout the Congo, the stubborn interference of the white man in Africa is both magnified and reduced to the clarity of a single life.

Nathan Price, as rendered through the eyes of Leah, Adah, Rachel, the eternally innocent child Ruth May and through Orleanna (who "learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points") is a man possessed by demons he is powerless to cast out--pitiful if he were not so dangerous and certainly not innocent.

"We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions," a "healed" Adah surmises, a fitting epigraph for post-colonial Africa. Whether one is converted by the testimonials given in "The Poisonwood Bible" or indeed enticed by Kingsolver's thoughtful evocation of a turbulent paradise, the degree of her achievement is unarguable. She has with infinitely steady hands worked the prickly threads of religion, politics, race, sin and redemption into a thing of terrible beauty.

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