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Africa, just out of reach

Disturbance-Loving Species A Novella and Stories Peter Chilson Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin: 240 pp., $13.95 paper

August 08, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

SOMEWHERE out beyond the markers placed by Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen is the reality of Africa -- a continent and its peoples at once vibrant and terrible, but somehow just beyond the reach of even the keenest foreign imagination.

That fraught disjunction is what animates Peter Chilson's first collection of short fiction, "Disturbance-Loving Species," and if his protagonists inevitably fall short in their efforts to understand one another, this finely made novella and four stories never waver in their conviction that the game is worth the candle. The 46-year-old author knows the physical territory, since he spent more than five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and, later, working as a freelance journalist in West Africa. As a teacher of creative writing at Washington State University, he also has a subtle grasp of the literary landscape over his shoulder, something he slyly acknowledges with this collection's very first passage.

Here's the way Chilson describes the six guards and eight prisoners marching through the first paragraph of "Tea With Soldiers," the novella with which he opens the book:

"Carter heard the soldiers just before sunrise, knew them by the sound of weapons slung over shoulders and clicking against belts as the men walked from the prison up the road past his apartment, a room with a balcony and French windows above a dusty street. As they emerged from the half-light, he leaned back in his chair, sipping from a mug of coffee and counting the prisoners, who formed a line between soldiers ahead and soldiers behind. The captives, barefoot in blue T-shirts and shorts, were linked with a rope tied at the waist. The soldiers wore faded fatigues and berets. Some wore sandals and others, boots. . . . The prisoners shouldered shovels and hoes or hefted bags of cement on their heads."

This is how Conrad sketched Marlow's famous first encounter with the chain gang in "Heart of Darkness":

"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. . . . Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity."

"Tea With Soldiers" is set in the capital of Niger in 1993. Drought racked the Sahel -- the border lands between the Sahara and the savanna -- in those years, and the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people, were in the third year of open revolt against the country's black central government. Poverty, dislocation and deepening military tyranny are the order of the day. Soldiers and government agents are everywhere. People are robbed and beaten or simply disappear for no stated reason.

David Carter, a 22-year-old volunteer English teacher at the city's Lycée Centrale, is the story's narrator, but its central character is his friend and faculty colleague, Salif. He is a man of "no tribe" in a deeply tribal society, son of one of the Tuareg's hereditary black African slaves who took women from various ethnic groups as his wives, farming and raising his children outside the established social system. Salif has returned from a university in Germany with an admiration for the anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon and the anti-Hitler plotter Claus Graf von Stauffenberg. Somehow, he has amalgamated their example with his own sarcastic wit into a private campaign of resistance that involves weaving political commentary into his algebra classes.

He also is Carter's mocking guide to Niger and its society. Here again, Chilson unobtrusively plays off the Conrad example: Marlow's anti-colonialism was paternal and racially tinged; Carter's apprehension of Niger -- dim though it is -- is entirely romantic and naive. Salif good-naturedly taunts him for his isolation and privilege while instructing him on the realities of local life. Repeatedly and mostly unsuccessfully, he urges his foreign colleague to break out of his "ice cube" of expatriate security to experience life in the countryside firsthand.

When the security forces at one of the city's ubiquitous checkpoints arrest Salif as he and Carter walk to school together, the young American is set spinning on a callow and uncomprehending quest for his friend that, in the end, only makes matters worse.

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