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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.”

But as the book begins Ray is too much at ease with the contradiction at the heart of his life. His teaching career is a cover for his job with the CIA:

He wasn’t an officer, he was contract, which meant he could go or stay, which was a sort of freedom, a good thing…. He would defend his country as a decent package of forces…. Of course all governments were evil, or had a level of evil within them, but in the case of America wasn’t it fair to say that being evil was forced on it by lesser and more corrupt other governments…thug-states, actual lunatic-run states like Libya, and so on?

Ray finds his intelligence work untaxing and lacking in challenge. He is disappointed to find how venal and corruptible most people are. He comforts himself that nothing he has done during his career has directly hurt anyone: “And of course he had chosen to work in the borderlands of the struggle. He saw himself as a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his.”

He is a collector of data, then; he amasses information, does not judge. So he persuades himself. Roy is a Milton scholar, but he is a timid one. His literary ambitions are now channeled into his reports for the agency:

Basically, what he wrote went straight to posterity…without needing to be nastily reviewed in the Washington Post, say, or the New Republic. And there was no being overlooked when the prizes came out, no sweating over grant applications, no begging for the attention of literary agents, no being remaindered…

When the book begins Ray is approaching a personal crisis. He detests Boyle, his new agency boss in Gaberone, who deals a low blow to his literary fantasies by telling him to report on tape. He is worried about his wife, who he thinks may be having an affair. Two newcomers to Botswana will be his undoing. Samuel Kerekang has recently returned to the country after gaining a doctorate in civil engineering in the UK. He has flirted with Trotskyism but now belongs to the non-Party left. He has egalitarian and idealistic schemes about land tenure. Ray hears him speak at a meeting, and very much enjoys his recitation of Tennyson, as well as his William Morris allusions. He favors what Ray thinks of as a “yeoman democracy.” Ray takes him to be an innocent, “a pilgrim.” He is amazed that the government does not see his value and give him a job: “The man was a prize, from the standpoint of the country, a jewel.”

But the government is suspicious of Kerekang, and Boyle insists Ray place him under surveillance. The man he really wants to spy on, Boyle tells him to leave alone. This is Davis Morel, a black American, handsome, monied, a holistic therapist. At a Harvard conference a minister in the Botswana government had Davis treat his bad back, with such miraculous results that Morel now has the entrée to Botswana. He has left the US, for good it seems, and is making Africa his future. Like Kerekang, he is a visionary. Kerekang wants to set up a system of underground reservoirs which will guarantee access to water for poor and remote regions.

Morel has come to lift the yoke of religion from the African neck and to save the African from the diseases induced by the Western diet. His hatred of religion is so thoroughgoing that he is said to have handed out anti-God pamphlets at his own father’s funeral. “…Faith is a toxin,” Morel insists. “…In its most virulent forms, it prevents the host from knowing that it is going to die, to die forever, that the host is a dying animal, that we are merely mortals, and that death is our common fate….”

Ray has no brief for God, but he has a grievance against God’s antagonist. Morel moves into Ray’s neighborhood, and Iris, noticing one day that her “urine looked too dark” sneaks around to consult him. Soon he is giving Iris psychotherapy, and she is telling him her most intimate secrets, including the sexual ones. Rush’s deliberate technique succeeds at last. Each private conversation, each public dialogue has been recounted, it seems, at the length it would occupy in real life. Now the writer unfolds a masterly scene in which Ray’s privacy is stripped off as painfully as if it were his skin, stripped off very slowly, line by painful line. Iris, so “sexually lively,” whose body parts are such a delight and a diversion for her besotted spouse, reveals that she usually gets a bout of cystitis after vaginal penetration. Dear Davis, she says, has a suggestion for him, for Ray. “And this is not to say you’re not a clean person, Ray. It’s just that there may be certain salts on the body, something like that…I don’t know, maybe there’s a scintilla of urine or something I’m sensitive to.” If only, before the act, he would wash with oatmeal soap, as per Dr. Morel’s instructions, this little trouble would surely clear up. Ray is appalled, contrite: “Oatmeal soap it is, then.” Inside, he is burning with humiliation and rage. “He thought, Crush him: Find a way.”

Never mind that Boyle has forbidden him to investigate Morel. Ray will do it anyway. The more he finds out about his past, the more he is convinced that he is about to lose his adored wife. Morel’s lovers tend to be drawn from among his ex-patients. Ray has never felt quite good enough for Iris, and it is not only Morel who is undermining him; his brother Rex, a clever waspish homosexual, is sending her long and frequent letters, letters which she finds deliciously witty, revelatory about Ray’s past; letters which (so that Rush can allow Ray to overhear) she is in the habit of reading out loud when she thinks she is alone.

Reading out loud? Here is a device that would get the author thrown out of an undergraduate writing class; but maybe some sympathy is due? When you have expatriated your imagination, part of your mind becomes homesick for the place you live in; in the same way, when you write historically, you become nostalgic for now. Rush has committed himself so wholly to his Botswana epic that his brain must be swarming with unused stories, observations, aphorisms about contemporary America. How can he use them? He will employ Rex as his agent. Rex has written a book called Strange News. He has sent it in manuscript to Iris. It is a collection of isolated aphorisms, micronarratives, orphan anecdotes, and stray homeless jokes. It is Rex’s testament, drawn (or so it reads) from Rush’s notebook.

But behind Rex’s book—and indeed, behind Mortals—there is another book, which perhaps Rush should have written. It is about Ray and Rex as boys, as young men; it is about their family life, their parents, their curious and interesting rivalry. Rex is hidden behind his own verbiage, and never shows himself in Mortals—we meet only the version of him created by his brother’s jealousy. The reader would like to know more; but now Rush has a problem. The more this subplot succeeds, the more it distracts from the main narrative. Rush hands Rex what you might call a standard fate; he dies of AIDS. In the early 1990s, when Mortals is set, Botswana was developing an alarming AIDS problem; Samuel Kerekang insists on discussing it publicly, which is one of the reasons why the government does not like him. The only AIDS death that affects Ray is that of his brother, at home in the US. But this does not strike the reader as an irony; it is only a sad curiosity, and it is not clear what the author means us to take from it.

While Iris is chortling over the latest letter from Rex, there are developments in the wider world. The government has declined to give Samuel Kerekang a role, a job; it has ridiculed him and frozen him out. He takes off to a remote area upcountry, near the border with Namibia, and founds a commune. He is followed by some of the idealistic young sons and daughters of the ruling party. Soon disaster strikes the project—and it is Ray’s fault. He had employed a young man called Pony, one of the college staff, to spy on Morel. During the brief period of association between Morel and Kerekang, when they were speaking together at fiery public meetings (described speech by speech), Pony had latched on to Kerekang and joined the commune. He soon ran away, taking most of its funds. The commune has broken apart, and Kerekang’s followers have turned to violent protest, attacking and burning the property of the great absentee cattle ranchers of the region.

So far, no news of the disturbances has appeared in the press, domestic or international. But events have thrown Boyle into a panic. He sees the attacks on the ranchers as “the beginning of an unstoppable jacquerie” which will lead to the expulsion of the whites, the overthrow of the present government, and Botswana absorbed by a militant South Africa governed by the ANC. Communists, Boyle believes, control the ANC; this rich Communist superstate will link with Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and pile up in its Communist treasury all the mineral resources of southern Africa.

Boyle now sends Ray upcountry. His mission is to ensure that the trouble dies down and no one hears of it. “Ray had been sent out because Boyle had needed above all to be seen as acting, machinating, furiously taking steps.” The reader is glad to be leaving town, to get away from Iris and her relentless jocularity. Iris is a woman who calls paper tissues “Kleenices.” “The love of a woman with a funny mind is the definition of paradise, he thought.” Just in case we have missed the point, Rush adds, “The word Kleenices was, of course, plural for Kleenex.”

But we are alone with Ray now, Ray and his driver and his Land Cruiser packed with supplies and ammunition, Ray and his revolver and his interminable thoughts. Iris proposes that while he is away she should move into Morel’s house, for what she calls an “intensive.” She explains, “You get everything…diet, body work, counseling, healthy cooking, and you de-toxify…” Ray is deeply suspicious, but decides he must show trust in her. Thoughtfully, Iris has packed a copy of Madame Bovary in his kit, and he has also taken along Strange News. He is full of misgivings. Is he fit to undertake this journey? “…He had never gotten to the marrow of Africa….” In the heart of the Kalahari he indulges in lurid daydreams about what Morel and his wife are doing. He reflects on his deficient knowledge of Emily Dickinson. He thinks about ticks and snakes and about Dr. Johnson and Bishop Berkeley.

There is dogged honesty in Rush’s efforts to capture the inner voice, the ebb and flow of the commentary that is with us from babyhood till death, every waking hour: that inner chatterbox where the trivial and the trite is mixed with the fleeting perception of universal truths, where, faced with an urgent and special demand, the quotidian tugs at our attention; where the body’s low imperatives overwhelm any higher purposes our mind has for us, and some irrelevant memory-trace bobs up to the surface and distracts us from the present peril. But this honesty, this purity of intent, gives rise to a narration that is garrulous, out of control. If this book were a person, you would consider hospitalizing it. It exhibits a cognitive defect often taken as a sign of psychosis, known as “the loss of the middle distance.” Its concerns are not person-sized. There is no mediation between grandiose abstractions and finicky pinpoint details.

In Mating Karen felt: “My story is turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents, but I feel I should probably say everything.” Rush has the same compulsion as his character. To be stuck in a hut with Karen, back in the town of Tsau, was like being stuck with the Ancient Mariner—only with dust, rather than water. Now we are stuck with Ray in the hot metal box of his vehicle, moving nearer to the emergency zone. His Motswana driver is a reticent man, by Rush’s standards, so Ray reads him some poetry. Later, imprisoned together, Ray and Morel will have a scrap about Coleridge. Amid the battle to come, under fire and facing death, Ray finds himself remembering “the faces of the librarians in his life.” And when Kerekang reappears, it will be revealed that he never fails to carry, when he leads his band of arsonists, his Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

They were born quoting, these children born of Rush, these hyperliterate androids with human names. They are books who walk, books who have grown not legs but stilts. They have bindings, not skin; they have glue for cartilage and paper for flesh. They are walking compendia of twice-used tags, turning routine communications into arch word games to reassure us about their cultural credentials. At one point in the novel, Ray tries “to call up anything he knew of Tennyson’s beyond what everyone knew from Locksley Hall.” Would we not have scraped up to Ray’s standards if we only knew The Charge of the Light Brigade, or The Lady of Shalott?

And yet the narrative, sodden with the secondhand, staggering under the weight of its own antecedents, is about to reach a climax; into the valley of death charges Ray. He suspects that the government, rather than use its own army and police to suppress the insurrection, will call on “obscure forces,” who will cross the border from Namibia. He is right. He is captured by members of koevoet, a paramilitary force led by white South Africans, taken to a sinister, empty tourist hotel, and interrogated by a brutal Afrikaner. Davis Morel arrives, thrust into Ray’s cell. He has come upcountry at Iris’s behest to look for Ray, and is now locked up with him. His habitual dapperness is gone, and he is without his shoes. His pride hurts, more than his feet; he has one leg shorter than the other, and now this defect is exposed to Ray’s avid gaze. Ray is also shoeless, battered, and bruised; and his interrogators have taken away his brother’s manuscript.

For many pages the two men bicker violently, more preoccupied with their sexual rivalry than with how they are going to survive. Ray wants to force a confession from Morel that he is sleeping with his wife. Ray is forced to acknowledge that his identity as a spy is widely known in Gaborone. He has been keeping a secret which is no secret. Morel tells him, “I loathe what you do.” Ray must pass his whole career in view, try to justify himself: “There was no time for a seminar on the proper attitude to take toward the triumph of the pretty good over the utterly abominable that was roughly a fair summary of the Cold War….”

No time, thinks the reader, why ever not? Why not extend the novel by another five hundred pages, so we can fit one in? Once Morel and Ray get together it’s jaw-jaw, not war-war. They should have been married to each other. There are moments of brilliant bitter absurdity when, as in the earlier scene with Iris, Rush’s fixation on the animal details of existence deflates the pomposity of his characters and makes them the material of farce. Morel suffers from constipation and has high blood pressure, it is revealed; locked up in his cell, he needs to get hold of his medication. Ray exults over him: “Does Iris know this? About you?… Well why the fuck not, my man…. I have perfect blood pressure.”

Finally Ray secures this simple admission: “We are lovers, yes.” Morel regards Iris as the love of his life and hopes to carry her off and make her happy. Here is a further crushing burden for Ray—more crushing than his own bad conscience. He now has to save Morel’s life, even if he loses his own in the process—if he doesn’t deliver her lover back to Iris in one piece she’ll suspect him forever of having put some harm Morel’s way, or at least being careless about his welfare. He warns Morel of the joys to come: “You may wind up playing Scrabble a lot….” Then the two prisoners hear gunfire, and mortars. A blast cracks the cement wall of their prison. As they prepare to go out to confront whatever hell has been unleashed, Morel says, “I never got a chance to talk to you about Milton.” In the battle that ensues—Kerekang’s guerrillas against the Boer paramilitaries—Ray retrieves his brother’s manuscript from his interrogator’s table, and straps it to his chest, creating terror among his opponents, who think he is carrying explosives. In a scene of deranged comedy, he strips himself naked, the better to inspire terror. After the fiery, bloody battle is over, Ray is assured by the remnants of Kerekang’s men that he has “the genitals of the lion.”

The novel needs to be over now, but the finale is prolonged. Morel and Ray leave the guerrilla camp together, racing back toward Iris. Insofar as he can see any future, Ray plans a speedy departure from Iris, Botswana, and the CIA. He will learn that it is thanks to his master in the agency that he has been interrogated, imprisoned, nearly killed. The Boer paramilitaries were Boyle’s idea, brought in to quash the revolt. Ray’s mission was superfluous, and he himself could so easily have been an unnoted casualty of that superfluity. He has been betrayed by his wife, and betrayed in his turn; he has betrayed his own instincts. He had thought of Botswana as “a decent and placid country…a country that deserved to be left alone.” He has failed to do that. His betrayal is capacious, as wide as a continent. “Africa was broken, and broken everywhere and broken worst where the West had come in, intervened…. Land mines kept going off in Angola, removing people’s legs and arms. He was part of the system that had led to that.”

The marriage is wrapped up; there is talk, talk, and some verse, “very personal and parochial.” On a journey to Johannesburg Iris and Ray enjoy a last coupling: “Her pubic escutcheon grew in a neat compact bar over her introitus….” Then Ray, repentant, renewed, is moving away from his old life, off into a better career, making himself useful, founding a bush school, “joining the new South Africa,” linking up with Kerekang, who has escaped over the border. To the reader who has lived with Ray for so long, it seems impossible that he should cease his cerebrations. But he is moving forward from the novel, and into the pages of a tract, which is his natural home. He is not a man who has evolved, so much as a man who has been taught by circumstances, his puppet-strings violently and cruelly jerked, by the CIA, by his country, by Norman Rush his creator. But there may be hope for him. His last letter to Iris is entirely without quotations. He may at last have found a voice of his own.

3.

Over the years, Rush’s epic project has become subject to curious time-slips, repetitions, and recycled references. The water heater that hangs precariously above the bathtub in Whites, terrifying Carl in the story “Official Americans,” hangs there to menace Ray, and certain quips of Iris’s seem to have fallen long ago, from other lips. Botswana’s one and only psychiatrist, set up in Mating as a buffoon, gets another blast of Rush’s scorn in Mortals; though the doctor had long moved on by 1992, his hospital emptying, his practices reformed. Perhaps these confusions, conflations, are understandable: or irrelevant. The country that Rush undertook to describe does not exist anymore.

Botswana has been subject to catastrophe. AIDS has devastated this hopeful country in a way no human agency could have contrived. No country in the world is more blighted, depleted, bereft. In Mortals, set ten years ago, the epidemic casts a shadow, but it is no more than that. AIDS is the Botswana story, and it seems odd that Rush has pulled back from it, when his instincts and strengths are those of reportage. Rush’s authority, his knowledge, his concern—these are never in doubt. The government of Botswana—which is richer and better organized than many African regimes—has mobilized against the disaster. In this crisis in the country’s history, we want to know what Rush thinks, what he prescribes, what sense he makes of the disaster, what hope he sees.

We can’t know the truth of these old-new countries—no outsider can know it. When I lived in Botswana it consoled me to see the children tent books on their head to keep off the sun; books have their uses, after all. In winter—the Botswana winters can be sharp—it was hard to stop the wilder elements raiding the library, using books for fuel. But in a generation, in half a generation, writers can be bred. There’s a stage in the making of a country where its artists must help it to create or renew its myths, make or remake its identity. No expatriate writer can do this, and Rush does not try; his great project belongs to the literature of estrangement.

Botswana needs a writer of her own: someone to help remember what there was, and imagine what there could be. This state, this state of being, its sand and diamonds, its dry watercourses and trees hung not with fruit but with dangling, venomous snakes—it needs to be thoroughly imagined, from the unwatered roots to the struggling stem, to the dry fiber of the leaf, to the unrewarded tip of the thorn. It may be that somebody is already recording—not a paradise lost, for the place wasn’t that—but two generations laid waste, and the slow circulation of poison in the veins of a nation.

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