Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

When you say Stanley and Livingstone, is the first thing that pops into your head, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" I know it was the first thing that popped into mine. And while this encounter is undoubtedly famous, there was much more to David Livingstone's trips through Africa looking for the source of the Nile than this. Livingstone did not exist in a vacuum, lost until Stanley tracked him down. In fact, he was surrounded by quite a large entourage of native African people whose role in his exploration, his survival on his travels, and in the end the catalyst for his body being transported to the coast over months and months and hence to England for his hero's burial, has been downplayed or minimized, effectively excluding them from the mythic narrative about the man. Petina Gappah redresses some of this erasure in her novel about Livingstone's death and the slow march to take his body to the coast, told through the voice of Livingstone's cook Halima and the diaries of the British-Indian educated, pious, missionary trained, former slave Jacob Wainwright.

Told by Halima and Jacob, this is not the story of Livingstone's journeys. It is of his final African journey, the one undertaken after his death, and as such, mostly devoid of his voice (although chapter epigraphs sometimes have excerpts from his journals). It is the story of the people who called him Bwana Daudi and who undertook the immense task of getting his body 1500 miles to the coast so he could be sent home and buried among his own people. Halima, Livingstone's cook, narrates the first part of the novel in a sly, gossipy tone. She notes the undercurrents flowing throughout the group in terms of power and sex, religion and education. She presents herself as one who knows and suggests the correct decisions to the group, even if she has to be sneaky or roundabout in convincing the men to adopt her conclusions. She is very concerned with the earthly while Jacob is much more concerned with the spiritual. If Halima is contentious with the women and mouthy with the men, Jacob is much more circumspect but not any better liked with his arrogance and his desire to convert the others to Christianity. Halima's voice is firmly from the domestic sphere, gossipy and confidential, while Jacob's, through his journal entries, is superior and judgmental, the voice of a particularly fervent missionary, one trained to scorn the wrongheadedness of his own people. Halima's account of the journey is more outward focused than Jacob's inner wrestlings (especially against his lust for one of the women) but neither one sees the whole truth of all of the goings on, the strife, the fear, the anger, the loyalty, and the compliance of those with whom they travel.

The story is slow and deliberate, echoing the journey itself. The tone is dark and ultimately tragic. And Gappah presses on the wounds of colonialism as she puts this invented tale in the mouth and pen of two real historical figures. Readers won't miss the commentary on the slave trade; the contradiction of Livingstone, an abolitionist, buying and using Africans in his own quest (or as "road wives" for his men); the tensions between religions, native, Islam, and Christianity; the rage and fear that this one dead white man being returned, with his papers, to his people will bring more waves of colonizers who will steal the land and force their ideas on the people; or the constant death and distrust that travels with the expedition. The world that Gappah has brought to life is one on the cusp, or perhaps already falling into the abyss, of massive change at the hands of outsiders and her research and attention to historical detail is impressive. There are times that some of that research is overwhelming in a story overloaded with characters, place names, and so forth that have to be explained to the reader but which wouldn't have occasioned any kind of explanation from either Halima or Jacob in actual practice, being common knowledge as they were. This is not an easy read, heavy and full of the portents of the future. It is a very different heart of darkness from Conrad's but a heart of darkness nonetheless.

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