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Please, let us out of Africa

Mortals: A Novel, Norman Rush, Alfred A. Knopf: 722 pp., $26.95

June 01, 2003|Peter Green | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph.

Anyone who wants to get a real handle on Norman Rush's fiction needs to bone up on Botswana, the setting -- and more than the setting -- not only of "Mortals" but also of Rush's novel "Mating" (1991) and of "Whites" (1986), a volume of short stories. This southwestern chunk of the African continent, once the British protectorate known as Bechuanaland, obviously impacted his creative psyche in a fundamental way.

Rush served five years as a Peace Corps director there, and his deep knowledge of the country's languages, social customs, politics, climate and gritty geophysical realities (including the Kalahari Desert, which, unlike Laurens van der Post, he doesn't romanticize) shines out on every page. The dirty detritus, simmering restiveness and long-nursed resentments of a new and awkward independence permeating Rush's fictional Botswana bring it a good deal closer to reality than, say, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria.

Yet in one way, perhaps inevitably, Rush and Durrell resemble each other: Both seek to impose on this terra incognita a pattern of personal relationships imported from the Anglo-American tradition. The antihero of "Mortals" spends a large part of this very long novel in guilt-ridden (and very P.C.) self-examination over his relationship with his wife, something that could have been done anywhere and that in fact is given an allusive liberal-cum-literary flavor redolent of East Coast Brahminism. Rush does his best to integrate this post-Jamesian take on marital infidelity with a postcolonial narrative of anarchy, espionage and revolution; but the link (despite a symbolic interracial affair) is precarious.

The old joke about intellectual fiction -- nothing but talk for 500 pages and then someone gets killed -- is a little too close for comfort here. For more than half the novel, very little actually happens. Also, since Botswana itself forms a key factor in Rush's sequence of events, shaping characters and dictating their actions with the implacability of fate, it would help if we knew more about it than we're told here.

Symptomatic of this offhand treatment is the glossary of foreign words, in Setswana and Afrikaans, scattered liberally through the text. At a guess, I'd say almost as many were left out as included. But what the reader really needs for a sense of perspective is something on how Botswana got to be the way it is in all of Rush's work -- the early 19th century influx of refugees from Zulu expansionism, the rivalry of the Cape Colony Boers with agents of the London Missionary Society, the meddling of Paul Kruger and Cecil Rhodes, the exploitation of Bechuanaland as a Crown colony, the winds of change in the 1960s that created the independent republic of Bechuanaland with Sir Seretse Khama as its first elected president.

Cut, now, to the early 1990s. Rush gives us a vivid and unsettling picture of the sociopolitical scene in "Mortals." Across the border, Nelson Mandela has not yet come to power. Europeans in Gaborone, the capital, complain about everything from dust storms to a strangulated bureaucracy. Sloth, inefficiency and corruption are ubiquitous. The desert outback is a kind of no man's land infiltrated by Boer paramilitary death squads from Namibia and Angola.

These two anarchic states are attracting the interest of the CIA, in the persons of Chester Boyle and Ray Finch. Boyle is the Gaborone station chief, ostensibly working for the U.S. consulate. Finch is a contract officer, an expert on John Milton yet, whose cover is as a high-school teacher. Both are blissfully unaware that their real occupations are known to every non-European man, woman and child in the capital.

The cast is completed by a black American holistic doctor, Davis Morel, on a crusade to rid Botswana of white-imposed Christianity; an idealistic, Tennyson-quoting revolutionary named Kerekang, aiming (in a drought-ridden land) to wean big native landowners from their obsession with large herds of cattle as a mark of prestige; and, last but unfortunately not least, Finch's insufferably pretentious wife, Iris. Finch insists she's wonderful.

Now, we have to be careful here, since Finch (unfortunately again) is the central character throughout Rush's more than 700 large and closely printed pages. All the action and argument, exposition or perfervid self-examination (of which there's a great deal too much) is filtered through Ray's obsessional and overarticulate consciousness. This includes everything we ever learn about Iris; and for one reason and another, not least that she turns out to be having an affair with Morel (psychotherapy having morphed into sex), Finch's take on his wife -- praise and complaints alike -- can be seen as neither complete nor altogether objective.

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