I wasn’t prepared for the power of Barbara Kingsolver‘s epic novel ‘The Poisonwood Bible‘ (1998), though I’ve only got myself to blame. Family of Christian missionaries, with four daughters, in Africa – I’ve always thought – nah: prime women’s book group worthiness (and indeed it has won reading group polls), can’t be bothered, though – as can be seen from this blog – I do read women authors (and not just – cue Bob Dylan, “Well my heart’s in the Highlands” as he tells the waitress – “I read that Erica Jong”; sorry, no excuse, I just love that line and that song, from ‘Love and theft’).
Anyway, ‘Poisonwood Bible‘ – great book. Tragic dominating Pythonesque Southern Baptist preacher who can’t see the wood for the trees – the title of the book itself a cruel joke of language – and a mostly bad time being had by all. With a few leavening glimpses. Tale told in five distinct voices – wife, daughters, at various stages of remove; six voices if you count the trees which have the last word, which we must. A concentrated year of missionary action and its episodic aftermath and outcomes for the women (and the African man one of them marries) over nearly three decades. But it’s Africa as much as the gals that is at the heart of this stunning, compassionate and lovingly written novel – an elegy, an apology, an appreciation.
‘Poisonwood Bible’ made me angry again too – reminded me of the anger of younger days – not just at the colonial history of the Congo (we all know the Belgians were the worst) but more specifically at what was later recognised as direct American interference and collusion in the brutal overthrow of the first democratically elected government of the fledgling Congo in 1960, the murder of Patrice Lumumba scuppering any hope of a meaningful independence and installing a self-serving dictatorship – Mobutu – the worst of a very bad bunch in the continent’s history. I was made angry too with Mohamed Ali for being complicit in the obscenity of that ‘Rumble in the jungle’ publicity coup that Mobutu pulled off.
As well as the anger, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of the African concept of ‘muntu’ and a book that made a considerable impression on me at university, back in the late ’60s, that I had completely forgotten about – Janheinz Jahn’s ‘Muntu: African culture and the western world’ (1958) with its hymn to ‘negritude’ and the hope he saw in it. Religion, the notion of religion, its uses, its blind alleys, are another big part of Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificent book. Muntu – animal, vegetable and mineral, the quick and the dead – has the last word here.
Oh. Did I mention I only read it because I’ve joined a reading group at the local library, at which I am the only male?