Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Poisonwood Bible

No novel which finds a white man losing his mind deep in the Congo can quite escape the shadow of Heart of Darkness. It is in the bibliography at the end of this book. Kurtz is echoed in the description of previous resident Brother Fowles who, we are told "had gone plumb crazy, consorting with the inhabitants of the land."

However it is not by 'going native' that Baptist missionary Nathan Price loses his mind but by the refusal to do so. Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May - his four daughters  and his wife Oleanna narrate the book. Early on we hear the story of Lot, who "offered his own virgin daughters to the rabble of sinners, to do with as they might, just so they'd forget about God's angels that were visiting and leave them be." We also know early on that one of them will die before the story is told. When we finally meet Brother Fowles we realise that he is a sane and admirable man. It is Nathan Price who is mad and whose madness is smothering his family.

The story of the family is interwoven with the story of the Congo, particularly the story of Lumumba's short lived democracy and how it was replaced by Mobutu's tyranny with aid from the USA. The day of Lumumba's death is also the day on which the Price's lose one of their daughters.

The four daughters are all very different. I most enjoyed Adah's chapters. She is obsessed with palindromes and anagrams and Emily Dickinson. The book, I felt, started a little awkwardly but then gets into its stride, the chapters alternating between the four very different daughters with the odd chapter from the mothers point of view. This way the same event can be presented from many perspectives and we can see how the events change each of the daughters.  It creates a picture of a world outside the experience of westerners in a way that avoids most of the traps of being patronising or just picturesque.

It strikes me as a form of witness, telling insistently of a history that is often written out of history. Near the end two of the characters discuss the history of the Kingdom of Kongo. 500 years ago the Portuguese found an edenic country, where people lived in harmony with nature. They crossed rivers on vine bridges strung between the trees.
"But what if it's a huge river", I asked him at once - "like the Congo, which is much broader than the reach of any vine?"
"This is simple," he said. "Such a river should not be crossed."

But many rivers have been crossed and we must live in the world as it is, not as it could have been nor as we wish it to be. A warning to Evangelists and patriots, the truth is different everywhere and is always changing. Words written down by men and copied and translated by others cannot contain universal truths for all people for all time.

This is a book that deserves to be read. It opens the door to a broader conception of the world we live in without preaching too much. And it suggests that maybe we shouldn't be preaching at all.
Barbara Kingsolver & family

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