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Strange News

Mortals

by Norman Rush
Knopf, 715 pp., $26.95

1.

When Norman Rush went to Botswana in 1978 he arrived in a country largely uncolonized by the writing imagination. As the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the country existed in the yellowed journals of missionaries, their pages crisped by the dry heat. Post-independence, it had one novelist, Bessie Head, a refugee from South Africa. She was a woman of mixed race and volcanic temperament, living uneasily in a large tribal village, and subject to periodic bouts of madness; in those days, hardly anyone read her. So when Rush arrived as codirector of a Peace Corps project, Botswana was a country waiting to be written into being: endless tracts of scorched blue air, a vast uninscribed wilderness of scrubland, the dazzling salt pans whiter than paper.

When independence came in 1966, it was granted to the scorpion and the snake, to thorn bushes and cattle posts, to the dry well and the quarantine fence; there were fewer than a million people. Among Europeans, the country was usually described as being the size of France and Belgium put together, which probably didn’t impress Americans much. Vastness and desert heat didn’t faze them, nor did the tropical night sky and the moon, massive and low, solid like a lump of wax; I recall an evening when I pointed to it, gibbering with awe, to be told by a puzzled Peace Corps volunteer, “We have that moon in Colorado.”

Landlocked, hedged in by territories at war or in some uneasy stage of half-revolt, Botswana functioned as a parliamentary democracy, though the president happened also to be the paramount chief. Seretse Khama had been exiled for six years by the British, but he forgave them. He had a white English wife, and this example from the top suggested to people that racial hostility, if it existed, should be kept under wraps. The country had diamonds but was short of water. Tourism was not yet developed. There were only short stretches of hardtop road; electricity was an urban luxury, and telephones worked sometimes. Crime was containable—housebreaking was frequent but usually petty, and even the shanty settlements growing up on the fringes of the small towns did not boast the nightly casualty figures of their equivalents over the South African border. Corruption was low-level, not because the Batswana were more pure in heart than other peoples, but because they lacked practice.

The people were hard to know, the language difficult. Little girls curtseyed when spoken to; their voices never rose above a whisper. Prostitution was a big career choice. Syphilis was a problem, tuberculosis was a problem, drought was a problem, and children still died of measles. No one had heard of AIDS. To paraphrase Tacitus, it was a wilderness; you could call it peace.

Botswana was also a one-joke country. Of what does a bushman family consist? Mother, father, and six anthropologists. So when Rush published his first Botswana stories, Whites, in 1986, it was natural that an anthropologist should be one of the characters and should reappear as the narrator of his 1991 novel, Mating. Karen—it’s only in the new book Mortals, where she makes a guest appearance, that we find out her name—is a heroine in the grand style and the grand manner; we live through almost five hundred pages with her quirks of thought and odd manner of speech, her fierce intellectual pride, her social insecurity, her serviceable and ever-ready sexuality. Karen has decided to catch a very intelligent man, and in Mating, finding herself adrift after her field studies have fallen apart, she treks off into the desert to captivate Nelson Denoon, a visionary of the type that wears a small ponytail. Denoon is the founder and presiding spirit of a self-sufficiency project, an ideal community, a utopia for women.

Mating gains as a novel by being set in a closed community. Proximity magnifies conflicts of interest between the younger and older women, between the more and less educated, between the women agriculturalists and their male hangers-on, who want to go hunting. The tensions within the community are convincing and strong. The tensions set up in the private life of Nelson and Karen are perhaps less involving. Rush tries to catch the texture of their partnership by reproducing the couple’s day-to-day conversations, their fizzy little spats and hissy fits. Mating is an expansive and heartfelt novel, but it has scenes that are deeply embarrassing. It also has scenes of antique magnificence, man versus nature—or rather, Karen versus nature—scenes where you think the desert will win, where futility pierces the heart, where the donkey runs away and takes the potable water and it’s just Karen and the dust, the dust and Karen, the two of them left together to slug it out.

For this reader, the great difficulty with Mating lies in believing that Karen is a woman at all. There is little attempt to convince us that a female psyche is looking out through her eyes, and scant sense of a female body attached to her fretful self-perceptions. Like Nelson, she is the vehicle for the author’s thoughts, his grumbles, his private worries and public concerns. To witness a debate between Karen and Denoon is to witness their begetter head-to-head with himself, two fists pounding his own rib cage; Rush knocks down Norman, then Norman jumps up to flatten Rush. He is reluctant to release his creations, to give them the semblance of free will that makes readers care about what they think and do. Yet they are not under-written; the opposite is true. Obsessively, they measure and evaluate each other. In Mortals, the main character, Ray, gives us a lengthy description of his wife, feature by feature, line by line, as if he were telling us how to make her from a kit. The instructions are clear, but we could not confidently say whether we were assembling a woman, a robot, or a bicycle.

Ray himself is Rush’s best-realized, most convincing character. His ancestors are the sexually anxious American males in Whites—men like Frank, the compulsive handwasher in “Alone in Africa.” Yet Rush’s intentions toward Ray are not benign. He is set up, at the start of the narrative, as decent but deluded; the reader can join in head-shaking over his naiveté, for the book is set in 1992–1993, so that we can all be wise after the event.

2.

Both Mating and Mortals are concerned with the solipsism of the American abroad; they describe it, but as narratives they also reflect it. The Batswana are in the books because they are the raw material for American benevolence, American manipulation. Europeans are invisible, so are the Asians, so are the English-speaking South Africans. (Afrikaners are referred to throughout as “Boers,” which may or may not be an insult per se but is certainly meant as one.) Perhaps when Rush first went to Botswana this is how he read the landscape. There were the locals and there were his compatriots, large against the skyline. It is true that the Europeans were more easily lost against the bleached-out terrain and in the dusty Mall, the capital’s main street. They somehow fitted into the scene, though only the way traffic lights or signposts did; they were not part of the landscape, but they were at least part of the street furniture. They complained a lot, drank a lot, lost their illusions early, and soon settled into a mode of comic despair which, after a few years, withered into cynicism.

But Americans came armored with collective ideals. They were so protected, the Europeans thought, so protected and so fearful. They came injected against every disease hazard known and unknown—whereas the Brits disdained, for example, BCG vaccination, as if they deemed nothing more bracing than a brush with the old Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The Americans had been on induction courses, to prepare them in some way for the unreality of Africa; the Brits came equipped with a little red book issued by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a droll vade mecum which flexed well and was good for striking insects.

Ray and Iris, the married couple at the heart of Mortals, seem to be bonded by shared hypochondria. They take their antimalaria pills even though they’re not in a malarial area, and even though the pills give them headaches. What defines Iris is not just her patrician nostrils and taut underchin, helpfully detailed in her inventory of parts: it is also her adrenal insufficiency and her postnasal drip.

Iris has no non-American friends; a lunch date with an Australian woman ends in mutual incomprehension. Rush has seen how uneasy the Americans are in a heterogeneous society—how easily wrong-footed, how disappointed by the reception they are given. His character Ray is struck by how “many Batswana seemed to like the racist British more than they did the…better Americans. The Brits got more loving care in the hospitals than Americans…the Batswana nurses mocked the Americans behind their backs for their attempts at egalitarian camaraderie toward them.” The Brits in Botswana understood their caricature selves, and played their parts with will. The Americans wanted to see their reflections in the eyes of their clients, their customers, the people they were there to help. Around 1979, when the present writer was teaching in a Botswana secondary school, the US embassy sponsored an essay competition for students: subject, “The Americans.”

You think of a lover who rashly asks: tell me, really, honestly, do you think I’m beautiful? No, the kids said, we just think you’re funny. In the students’ competition, everything about the Americans came under attack, from their dress code (“they don’t like suits during their youth period”) to their tonality (“they talk at the upper of their voices”) to their general sneakiness: “They are usually soft, but cruel…very polite and smooth, but hiding a brutal possession on you.” One “schoolboy” in his mid-twenties, who had worked in the South African mines before coming back to submit to classroom discipline, rose to a height of scolding eloquence—the only good thing to come out of America was rock music, “which our grand African parents didn’t hear it.” He granted that Americans were “the best in plowing,” but castigated their hypocrisy and greed, against which “we are going to fight till the last black molecule dies.” Hidden American hands, he believed, fired the guns in civil wars throughout the continent. “They are the engender of every problem that splits over Africa.”

By the end of Mortals, this is very much what Ray thinks too. Ray is a schoolmaster employed at Saint James College, a secondary school in the capital, Gaborone. Ray is one of fiction’s most memorable worriers. He worries about mortality. He worries that his wife Iris will be unfaithful to him. He worries about the size of his penis, though “he knew he was fine. He was better than fine…The men in his family happened to be well endowed.” But does his wife know this? Does she appreciate him? “I would like to reassure you about my penis. I think that’s important.” Ray wants to be appreciated. He wants to be liked. He wants everything to be out in the open. In Mating Karen told us: “I hate the mysterious, because it’s the perfect medium for liars…. Liars are the enemy. They transcend class, sex, and nation.” Ray too has an “aversion to mystery,” as we learn on page 75 of Mortals. By page 364 he likes it no better, “I hate a mystery, he thought.”

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