Updike le Noir

The Coup

by John Updike
Knopf, 299 pp., $8.95

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

Military cartographers sometimes employ a device called an “overlay,” a sketch on transparent paper of some special feature such as the deployment of artillery batteries; placed atop a regular map of the area and keyed to it, the overlay thus easily becomes part of the real map itself. Overlying those regions our atlases of Africa call Chad and Niger, their borders straight-edged over desert and mountain by some nineteenth-century colonial administrator in Paris and mapped still that way today even though de Gaulle decamped almost twenty years ago, there lies the country of Kush, 126,912,180 hectares of “delicate, delectable emptiness,” with twenty-two miles of railroad, one hundred seven of paved highway, ground-nut plantations, some millet, sorghum, cotton, yams, dates, tobacco, and indigo; the blue nomad Tuareg slavers in the mountains to the north, fearsome riverine animists to the south, two Boeing 727s, an Islamic Marxist dictator who calls himself Colonel Ellelloû, an imprisoned king, a disastrous five-year drought that is causing its population (of the density of .03 per hectare) to starve, an ample treasury of diseases; a vast white and green Palais d’Administration modeled on the Louvre, and no more elephants at all: John Updike, sole owner and proprietor.

The average life expectancy in Kush is thirty-seven years, the per capita gross national product $79, the literacy rate 6 percent. The official currency is the lu. The flag is a plain green field. The people are eating thorn-tips, wild nettles, crumbs of grain from anthills, bark. Even the most brackish water holes have been drunk dry.

Updike was in Africa in 1973, one of the years of the great drought that reduced the always barren country around the Sahara to an absolute waste land. Out of what he saw, out of many books, and out of his own head he has made the nation of Kush. It is an audacious creation and there must have been some magic in it too because the entire nation is there in all its splendor, farce, and misery.

With much nerve and surely with some luck, Updike invented his Africa not the way other white novelists have done. He did not dispatch a Henderson or Lord Greystoke, some Francis Macomber or one of Paul Theroux’s emissaries, or even a Basil Seal or a Marlowe to suffer his shock in the heart of darkness. Updike’s book is written by the dictator himself, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû. The Colonel is short, prim, and black. He is appealing and wicked, and to me at least he is like Africans I have known except that Updike knows him better than ever I knew an African and I knew them for years. The Colonel is frightening and I think he must have frightened Updike too, in a way that has done wonders for his writing.

In some twenty books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, Updike has tried to bring…

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