Monday, February 5, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE POISONWOOD BIBLE” by Barbara Kingsolver (first published 1998)
I’ve already mentioned on this blog (see the posting on Stranger in a Strange Land) the perils of reading a book because somebody has recommended it to you enthusiastically. The fact is, often your good friend’s tastes can be quite different from your own. But occasionally a friend’s recommendation can lead you to strike gold. For me, this was the case with The Poisonwood Bible, the novel for which the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver (born 1955) is still best-known. When it was first published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible was both a critical success and a big bestseller. In fact, the copy I bought at a second-hand bookshop has the stamp-of-approval of “Oprah’s Book Club”, which would usually lead me to avoid a book like the plague.
I’ll say straight off that I engaged with this book, enjoyed it, found most of what the author had to say both realistic and humane, and was glad that my friend had recommended it to me. But (as a reviewer “but” is one of my favourite words) I also have some misgivings about it. Of which more later.
To orient you simply, this longish novel (600 pages in the 1999 Faber and Faber edition I read) concerns an American Protestant evangelical missionary Nathan Price – from the state of Georgia – who drags his family off to the Congo, in 1959, to convert the heathen on behalf of the Southern Baptist Mission. His family are his wife Orleanna and four daughters, Rachel the eldest (aged 15 at the novel’s opening), the twins Adah and Leah (aged 14) and the little sister Ruth May (aged 5).
The story is told in the first person by Orleanna and her daughters. Orleanna introduces most of the novel’s seven parts with sad, long-term reminiscences from years later, and most of the novel’s seven parts are ironically given Biblical titles – “Genesis”, “Judges”, “Exodus” etc. But the bulk of the story is told, in turns, by the four daughters. The Reverend Nathan Price himself tells none of the story – this novel is strictly from the women’s point of view and en route it makes many (implicit, explicit and occasionally ranty and dead obvious) comments on the oppressiveness of male power. Most of the action spans the years from 1959 to the late-1960s, with the last 100 pages or so taking us to the 1980s.
Barbara Kingsolver has apparently created, in the four girls or young women who tell the story, archetypes (or stereotypes).
The eldest daughter Rachel is the materialistic airhead, constantly complaining about the discomforts of Africa and wishing she were back in the USA, where she could have ice-cream and watch TV and be ogled by boys in high school. Kingsolver stresses her self-confident stupidity by having her often utter malapropisms, sometimes with unintentional humorous effect. Inevitably she is a narcissist, seeing herself as the natural centre of attention. She remarks of the Congolese village of Kilanga where they settle: “Of course everybody kept staring at me, as they always do here. I am the most extreme blonde imaginable. I have sapphire-blue eyes, white eyelashes, and platinum blonde hair that falls to my waist.” (p.55 – all pages numbers according to the 1999 Faber paperback)
The twins Leah and Adah represent two different models of rationality.
Leah is at first her father’s best student, an industrious young Christian who learns by heart all the Bible lessons he prescribes. She truly believes in the mission, and through her Kingsolver suggests the idealism Christianity can inspire. But Leah, a very intelligent girl, is not unobservant, and the arc of the story has her gradually coming to see the limitations of her father’s world view and finally rebelling against it.
Before the tragedy that eventually breaks up the family, Leah’s twin Adah is set up to be the novel’s unorthodox visionary. Because of trauma in childbirth (hemiplegia), Adah is lame and she can hardly speak. As she explains : “My right side drags. I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap.” (p.39) She is every bit Leah’s equal as an intellectual and reads many challenging books surreptitiously, but she is more intuitive, more offbeat in her reasoning, and far more sceptical of her father’s mission from the very start. It is notable that she frequently refers to her father as “Our Father”, suggesting either that she thinks the Reverend Nathan Price believes himself to be God, or that she sees the concept of God to be too bound up with a father’s power. Just as Rachel is characterised by foolish malapropisms, so Adah is characterised by ingenious palindromes, which often reveal the truth of things – such as “The ‘Amen enema’, as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend.” (p.80)
As for Ruth May, she is, incarnated (and – dare I say – very idealised) the essential innocence, shrewness in observation, trustingness and spontaneity of childhood. She easily makes friends with the African children of the village, plays with them the game of “Mother May I?” (the American equivalent of “Simon Says”) and is venturesome at times when older people would be more cautious.
Most obviously this is a story of cultural clash and mutual incomprehension between cultures, with an American family, affluent by the standards of most of the world, attempting to live in an African environment far from their familiar comforts. The time in which the story is set is also important. In the years from 1959 to the mid-1960s, the Belgians withdrew from their long (mis)rule of the Congo, independence was gained, but the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba was widely suspected by America of being a Communist, and therefore the CIA and European financial interests engineered his overthrow (and murder), thus ushering in the long dictatorship of Joseph-Desire Mobutu (later styled Mobutu Sese Seko).
There was much violence in the Congo in this period, and as I set out reading The Poisonwood Bible, I assumed confidently that such mass violence that would eventually engulf the Price family. I was wrong. To Barbara Kingsolver’s great credit, the novel does not exploit the violence of new independence for sensationalism or to make plot points, and it is quite a different tragedy (about which I will not provide a “spoiler”) which breaks the family apart.
The naïvete of some Americans about the political situation in the Congo is a major element of the novel. In one episode, Leah accompanies her father to Leopoldville for the independence celebrations as Lumumba becomes PM. She is more perceptive than her father about the way Lumumba does not respond favourably to Belgian comments on the past. When little Ruth May injures her arm, she is tended by a Belgian doctor. Ruth May notes: “Without looking up from my arm, the doctor said, ‘We Belgians made slaves of them and cut off their hands in the rubber plantations. Now you Americans have them for a slave wage in the mines and let them cut off their own hands. And you, my friend, are stuck with the job of trying to make amens.” (p.137) This sort of talk is intolerable to her father, who cannot see how his Christian mission is related to the general political situation. Nor can he understand that European or American intervention breaks down the traditional structural authority of the village, without building any real new community as an alternative.
It is the Reverend Nathan Price’s incomprehension of local customs, and his refusal to see their importance, that particularly damns him. He begins his residence in Kilanga by condemning vehemently the nakedness of the Africans. Mama Tataba, an African housekeeper, points out that “poisonwood” is the English equivalent of the Congolese name for a tree with toxic sap. The Congolese name is bangala. But pronounced differently, bangala also means something wonderful. Perceptive Adah points out how Nathan mispronounces this word and thus gives the novel its name: “ ‘Tata Jesus is bangala!’ declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon. More and more, mistrusting his interpreters, he tries to speak in Kikongo. He throws back his head and shouts these words to the sky, while his lambs sit scratching themselves in wonder. Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.” (p.312) So, for the Africans who listen to him, Nathan’s Bible is the Poisonwood Bible.
Nathan, a Baptist who believes baptism requires total immersion, fails to understand that the locals regard the prospect of baptism in their river as an invitation to be eaten by crocodiles. They also think it is absurd for a great man, like the missionary, to have only one wife. (At one point in the novel, the polygamous village headman Tata Ndu offers to help the Price family financially by marrying Rachel.) The African village teacher Anatole Ngemba tries to enlighten Nathan by informing him that the villagers think of Jesus as just one more god to add to the pantheon, and less important than the local gods who control fertility. Later in the novel the chief Tata Ndu gets the village to vote on whether they accept Jesus as their saviour (“Jesus Christ lost eleven to fifty-six,” remarks the narrator.)
Barbara Kingsolver is careful to note that not all Christians, and indeed not all Christian missionaries, have the same wilful cultural blindness as Nathan Price. Others, such as “Brother Fowles”, the missionary who preceded Nathan in Kilanga, have adjusted to the local culture and understand that Christianity is not synonymous with current American norms. They have “inculturated” in ways Nathan cannot. At a late point in the novel, one of the Price daughters takes refuge with a convent of Catholic nuns – a community that would be anathema to a Southern Baptist of that era, who would regard Catholics as superstitious “papists”. Evidently Nathan’s version of Christianity is not the only version.
There is something admirable in Nathan’s dedication to his mission. Unlike other Americans and Europeans, he refuses to be evacuated with his family out of the Congo as the political situation becomes more violent. Even so, the blinkered authority he wields over his family constitutes the novel’s most sustained attack on what feminists would call patriarchy. This matter of gender is one of the things that leads Leah, who had initially been his most faithful aolyte among his daughters, to begin questioning both his authority and his version of religion. Leah asks herself : “But where is the place for girls in the Kingdom? The rules don’t quite apply to us, nor protect us either. What do a girl’s bravery or righteousness count for, unless she is also pretty? Just try being the smartest and most Christian seventh-grade girl in Bethlehem, Georgia. Your classmates will smirk and call you a square…” (p.274)
The intellectual awakening of Leah and Adah naturally follows their repudiation of their father’s values. Their destiny is at first plotted out for them as marriage and domesticity in America. All the Price girls have “hope chests” (what would be called “glory boxes” in other parts of the English-speaking world) in which they can store things that will be useful for them when they become wives. But Adah, already sceptical, moves further away from her father’s moral authority when she befriends the teacher Anatole Ngemba and accepts the fact that he is politically engaged. Similarly Leah is still the good missionary’s daughter who wishes to be “saved” when she befriends the African boy Pascal and begins to see his perspective. Leah has already begun to question Western norms of child-rearing, and the way white kids are often cossetted and left out of group discussions : “I could see that the whole idea and business of Childhood was nothing guaranteed. It seemed to me, in fact, something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up like a frill on a dress. For the first time ever I felt a stirring of anger against my father for making me a white preacher’s child from Georgia.” (pp.130-131)
The Poisonwood Bible is a novel which presents a very comprehensive view of a particular cultural environment, questions American (and, by implication, all Western) assumptions about African society, looks at male leadership in a family, and scores a lot of political points. Most satisfyingly, it has an inventiveness in terms of incidents and (filtered through the voices of the four girls) a variety of description that make it akin to some of the better nineteenth century novels.
But now come those misgivings I signalled earlier.
Is this too “patterned” a novel – too carefully arranged to neatly make the author’s points?
So often, in The Poisonwood Bible, characters do and say things that seem determined by the author’s ideological agenda. The novel takes characters exactly where the author destined them to go from the first – airhead materialistic Rachel to material wealth but complete amorality; Leah to a life of solidarity with local culture; Adah to an intellectually-challenging career in America; Orleanna to the worthy cause of civil rights in the United States. This is all very neat, just as is the one-dimensional zealotry of Nathan.
Its neatness is accompanied by some heavy-handed symbolism. The Price family bring to Africa seeds to plant for a model garden – but the seeds do not flourish in African soil, just like their missionary endeavour. When, in the village of Kilanga, there is an apocalyptic infestation of voracious ants marching in their millions, and the residents have to flee, it is her mirror which Rachel chooses to save, a clear symbol of her narcissism. Orleanna has a beloved decorative dinner plate, which to her is a nostalgic reminder of everything she valued in her life in the United States. At one point, in his anger, Nathan smashes the plate, and from this moment we know the marriage is disintegrating. In Africa, the Price family inherit a pet parrot called Methuselah, who can mimic human voices, including scraps of scripture and obscenities, thus providing a mocking chorus to the Reverend Price’s strenuous pieties. When Methuselah is finally freed from his cage, he still lingers wistfully near the house, expecting to be fed – thus the psychological conditioning of domestication.
There are some problems with the narrative voices. As an account of an American family’s experiences in Africa, it is skewed by the absence of the father’s voice, but I accept that this is Barbara Kingsolver’s deliberate choice to emphasise the growing women’s interpretations of things. It does become awkward, though, when it is Orleanna, in one of her long-term reminiscences, who has to explain the traumatic experiences in the Second World War which might have made Nathan the authoritarian zealot he is. Likewise, I accept the convention of the four girls’ narration – including the convention (to keep the narrative moving) that they find out things that would, in probability, be very hard for them to discover. The problem is, though, they they frequently show an improbable degree of self-awareness, and an improbable ability to analyse and articulate both their mental condition and what they have learned from experience. Perhaps the intellectuals Leah and Adah could do some of these things, but vacuous Rachel becomes the novelist’s puppet when she gets to enunciate one of the novelist’s major ideas: “You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.” (p.584)
Even if I were to accept the narrative voices and what they say as a novelistic convention, I am still left with moments of crude exposition and the placarding of messages. In Book Three, there is a long passage where Anatole explains to one of the girls, but purely for the reader’s benefit, the Katanga secession and the problems Patrice Lumumba faces. Most improbably, a South African mercenary called Eeben Axelroot (I have not outlined his role in the novel) tells the teenaged Rachel about the CIA plan to murder Lumumba – again for the benefit of the reader.
As for the placarding of messages, take these two examples.
Considering her marriage and what she has had to sacrifice for her husband’s sake, Orleanna says: “It took me a long time to understand the awful price I’d paid, and that even God has to admit the worth of freedom. How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? By then, I was lodged in the heart of darkness, so thoroughly bent to the shape of marriage I could hardly see any other way to stand. Like Methuselah [their pet parrot] I cowered beside my cage, and though my soul hankered after the mountain, I found like Methuselah, I had no wings.” (p.228) So there’s the Patriarchy and Domestication neatly skewered for those of us who were too dumb to pick it up from what was already implicit in the story. Note, by the way, Orleanna’s use of “price” – which helps to explains why her husband’s name is Price – and note the clear allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Kingsolver lists in her bibliography of books that helped her in writing this novel.
Then there is Leah’s neat summing up, which tells us that the mother is the more powerful figure when a girl is becoming a woman : “I hadn’t yet considered the loss of my father. I’d walked in his footsteps my whole life, and now without warning my body had fallen in line behind my mother. A woman whose flank and jaw glinted hard as salt when she knelt around a fire with other women; whose pale eyes were fixed on a distance where he couldn’t follow. Father wouldn’t leave his post to come after us, that much was certain. He wasn’t capable of any action that might be seen as cowardice by his God. And no God, in any heart on this earth, was ever more on the lookout for human failing.” (pp.445-446) By this stage in the story, Nathan has stayed behind conducting his (futile?) mission on his own, while, neatly and according to the author’s schema, the women have gone where no man has gone before.
So overt symbolism, aspects of the narrative voices and the clear spelling-out of themes are flaws in this novel. It would also be fair to point out that some informed Christian critics (no, I’m not talking about unlettered fundamentalists) have noted, correctly I think, the distortions of Christian teaching that the novel places in Nathan Price’s mouth, and the simplified way it presents a Christian mission.
Why, then, near the beginning of this notice, did I say I’d struck gold when I finally read this book? Because its variety of incident, ability to convey dramatically for us many important matters, and sense of creating a real world all held my attention. Just that.
Footnote: A great advantage to the appeal of this novel is that, in the nearly twenty years since it was published, it has not been made into a film. Thank God.