little house in the congo or the poisonwood bible


i havent read a novel in a long time and if I wouldnt have picked this up if it wasnt so important to SG. I do actually feel quite bad about how little I liked it but in the interest of critical integrity, I’m not going to hold back.

the first two thirds of the book which chronicles 18 months of the family in congolese village life.

my first gripe starts here. The african characters are only seen through the prism of its first person narrators (the Price women) and come across as single dimensional stereotypes, their inner life completely non-existent with minimal hints as the Price women are so isolated from the community. I can understand that the author may feel that she has no right to tell African voices but the result of this is that the african characters with the exception of Anatole are almost racist in their stereotype. Here we find the old wise woman, the canny servant boy, the misunderstood tribal strongman and the evil witchdoctor. only Anatole, the french-educated post-colonial teacher / savant succeeds and then only in comparison to the other characters.

The setpieces of the initial welcome, the election, the antraid, the hunt and its aftermath do little to illuminate their drives – instead they come across as shabby plot devices to push across the author’s message: that colonisation is a great evil, that african village people have their own ways which are different than that of the west, that western ideas of technology and civilisation can not be easily transplanted. All very worthy message of course but delivered in such a poor way.

The lack of depth can be said of every non-narrator character. the father Price is depicted only by his caricatured christian fundamentalism and his violence. The only rather trite insight into his behavior and motivation is unresolved war trauma. The other white man in the village who acts as spy, pilot and exploiter is a very poor amalgamation of every fortune hunter cliche best left in B grade movies. The only favourable white male character in this novel is a Saint Assisi like figure – Father Fowles and his presence is a high note if only because his relationship with his wife provides much needed interest and complexity where almost every other relationship depicted is one-dimensional. Even then, his portrait is so idealised (he has an ideal relationship with the congolese, his personal networks extending into the NGOs, his integration into congo without flaw) it is unsatisfying.

As for the main narrators, each of the Price women are so involved in their own internal emotional landscapes that very little comes through of the outside world. This is in spite of the presence of Adah, the supposed observer whose obsession with anagrams and its laboured metaphor of multiple reversible meanings applying to life is irritating after the first fifty pages. Only Leah and to a lesser extent the mother Oleanna come across with any reality. Rachel never quite shakes off her comedy relief function and turns into yet another caricature of a willfully blind exploitative expatriate in Africa.

The most well drawn character in the novel is Leah. Leah’s growth from adoring daughter to questioner to rebel and finally political activist and idealist is the most convincing and engaging part of the novel. The dramatic core of the novel shifts to her in the last third of the book which skims 20 years. Because of the author’s attempt to cover so much ground (and time) the political sections remain clunkily amalgamated and are often reduced to outraged polemic as told by Leah, the most politically aware of the characters. The fierce idealism of Leah and Anatole, Leah’s anxiety at his constant imprisonments, her pregnancies and her failed attempts to reintegrate into american society are well-sketched out but lamentably remain only sketches. Still, the entire novel could have been cut down to a fifth of its length (over 600 pages), polished and limited to Leah’s point of view and it would have worked out a lot better.

Scenes that did work were the depiction of starvation (on physical, emotional and intellectual levels) and the alienation, isolation and loneliness of its narrators not just from the villages and the father but also from each other. These portions of the novel felt the most grounded in reality but unfortunately only made up a tenth of the novel.

The way each of the women deal with the violence of Father Price is also convincing and emotionally powerful. However, set against such an ambitious backdrop, the very real story of women living and then leaving abusive spouses both diminishes it and the backdrop. Against the massive exploitation of the Congo as polemically illustrated, I found it difficult to feel that much sympathy for the women. And if the family dynamic was a metaphor for the destruction of the Congo by the west, then I’m afraid to say that the metaphor is insufficient and indeed insults the material.

Finally, the central theme of the novel which is that of sin and the possibility of forgiveness and redepemtion is just too American for me. Isnt is about time that American authors came away from that? After a sustained attack on the cynical manipulation of African government by the US, the final scene of forgiveness even if it was from the spirit of Oleana’s dead child to herself just did not fit. Did we need to have such an uplifting ending? I’d think that some sins can never be forgiven, redepemtion impossible and the only option left paltry and insufficient recompensation.

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