By Geoff Wisner
My book A Basket of Leaves covers the 54 countries in Africa by way of 99 books, which is barely enough. I had originally planned to include some books that deal with more than one country, like Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth or Water Music by T. Coraghessan Boyle (a wonderful reimagining of Mungo Park's journeys through West Africa). I had also hoped to include some novels set in imaginary African countries, like Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh, Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby, or The Coup by John Updike.
In the end, I regretfully left them all out. But as we look back at the career of John Updike, we should remember that he was not just the author of skillful stories of middle-class angst and suburban adultery. In his fiction (especially the Bech stories) and as a book reviewer, he took a keen interest in the world outside the U.S., including Africa, as I pointed out in my last post ("Updike on Africa") on Updike.
Although The Coup could not be called African literature in translation, it is certainly an impressive feat of cross-cultural imagination. In it, Updike put himself in the skin of the leader of an imaginary African country: Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû, the leader of the dry and impoverished North African land of Kush.
Ellelloû is an odd sort of ruler. Though nominally in charge, he spends much of his time roaming his country in disguise, like a pasha in the tales of the Arabian Nights. As if to underline his alternate roles as dictator and observer, the novel, though told entirely in Ellelloû’s voice, shifts fluidly from the first to the third persons. While his chief minister, a plausible schemer named Ezana, is administering the government, Ellelloû may be disguised as a messenger or an orange vendor, paying a clandestine call on one of his four wives or the deposed and imprisoned king, or making an arduous secret journey to the borders of his country to investigate a rumor. He recalls his youth as a college student in the fat and complacent America of the Eisenhower years, a land where everything “seemed to this interloper fat, abundant, and bubblelike, from the fenders of the cars to the cranium of the President.” The Koran-quoting narrator makes us feel the oddness of such phenomena as the “strange Christian heaven, where nothing happened, not even the courtship of houris.ë
Where exactly is Kush? Unlike authors whose imaginary countries are too vague to be pinned down, or are thinly disguised versions of real places with only the names changed or missing, Updike ingeniously salts his narrative with specific but contradictory clues. Kush, says Ellelloû, is a landlocked former colony of France, with desert to the north and a river border to the south. So far we’re talking about Mali, Niger, or Chad. The capital of Kush was once called Cailliéville after Rene Caillié, the solitary young French adventurer who was the first to reach Timbuktu and survive. West of Kush is a “decadent” country ruled by a poet president—something like Leopold Senghor, who was president of Senegal from 1960 to 1980. Both these details favor Mali.
But wait: Like Niger, Kush borders Libya to the northeast. Like Libya itself, its flag is a solid green field, and it is led by a flamboyant ruler (our narrator) who is considered an Islamic extremist and self-appointed spokesman for the Third World. The name Kush itself comes from a Nubian kingdom in what is now Sudan, and Ellelloû says that his modern-day Kush is as far removed in years as in miles from that 4th century kingdom—which would locate it for maximum ambiguity right around the point where Mali and Niger meet Algeria.
Unlike some authors who invent imaginary countries because real ones are too complicated for their purposes, Updike seems to have done it because no single real country was complicated enough. Kush and its leader give the author great latitude to speculate playfully with ideas and points of view. America is an aggressive country, he believes, because Americans “have the chronic irritation of their incessant elections to goad them into false heroics” and because they “have reached that dangerous condition when a religion, to contradict its own sensation that it is dying, lashes out against others.” African hairstyles are elaborate, he argues in good Marxist fashion, because of the disparity between abundant time and labor and limited material resources.
How seriously should we take all this? Despite all the erudition that has gone into it, The Coup is essentially a satire on African historical themes. The golden arches of McDonald’s, glimpsed at a distance during a desert crossing, become a symbol of the malevolently ingratiating American style of neoimperialism. The enormous French colonial administrative building in the capital is decorated with “sixteen pilasters representing the sixteen most common verbs that require être instead of avoir as auxiliary in all compound tenses” and is surmounted with marble statues of Médiocrité and the seven other bourgeois virtues. In one passage the author even lampoons his own prose style. But like many of the best satires, this is a satire of serious matters, shedding unexpected light on questions of faith, tradition, identity, and nationhood.
Published Apr 23, 2009 Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner