The American keeps talking

by Tze Ming Mok / 05 February, 2005

Could you have made this up? Say there's a country purchased at gunpoint by the American Government in the 19th century, to be settled by freed African slaves. Boatloads of manumitted Americans arrive at this tiny nibble on the coast of West Africa, and promptly take on the role of their former masters, oppressing and subjugating the native tribal inhabitants. They dedicate the name of the country to freedom, calling it ... Liberia.

Do you think this is going to end well?

Russell Banks's new novel, The Darling, doesn't start with a history of Liberia. The country's perverse foundations, the fall of the Tolbert government and then the Doe one, and the complete collapse of the country into civil war - this long chain of events is at the heart of the novel. But the narrator backs the story into Liberia as if by accident, her mind on something else. Though Banks is a veteran white writer on the African colonial interface, he has set up a difficult and occasionally questionable manoeuvre this time.

Hannah Musgrave, the book's narrator, will tell you about the auto-destruction of Liberia through talking about herself at length. She is an American, after all. Her character is an unlikely avatar of the American colonial legacy. A former member of the Weather Underground, indicted in the 60s for militant acts against the state, she finds herself fleeing to West Africa and transforming, inexplicably, into the white trophy-wife of a minor, corrupt Cabinet Minister in pre-coup Liberia. She herself is a freed "slave" who joins the masters of Liberia, replicating the hierarchies and divisions of a system she has tried to destroy, but which she cannot eradicate from her own instincts. Where her revolutionary consciousness disappears to is a mystery. Her motives and relationships are rendered dry and unconvincing, but her self-absorption rings true. She turns her back on humans, and sets up a chimpanzee sanctuary, which functions for her as an experimental world of emotional surrogacy, a vent for her identity angst.

After a promising start, the novel emerges as strangely uncharismatic. Hannah employs the old saw of savage African as a backdrop for her guilty, Western self-consciousness, and this is, I assume, set up to a critical, dramatically ironic purpose. It doesn't quite work.

The realisation of his heroine is not just unconvincing, but unlikeable. Whiny, bitter, sullen and often boring, she makes this satire of the American psyche unentertaining. At the peak of her ambiguous angst, she beats her breast in sappy mourning upon the death of her father (about whom she has complained relentlessly), savages her mother for being self-absorbed, then steals her mother's car. There is no archness in the presentation of this stuff; it does not read with a hint of irony, it has no sly jokes between the lines, no punchlines whatsoever.

At least the war will wake you up. The research is thorough, and while astutely narrating Liberia's political history, Hannah's whininess and sullenness get turned down, leaving her entirely suitable bitterness to come into its own for a time.

If the narrator is blinkered and uncharismatic, you look for the soul of the novel elsewhere. But where is it? This is where the other side is meant to step in; the underside. Where are the people in this novel? Are chimpanzees really enough? They are just a metaphor here, and an intentionally contrived one at that. You want Liberia and its people, not just their wars, to be the authors and stars of this novel. That would have made the whole thing come together. But they have no presence, no personality. The militia, the looters, get their own back on Hannah in a way. But are they real people or just historical forces? Hannah's voice is self-centred, but the very bones of the novel are supporting her. In Hannah Musgrave's world, she, the dark angel of American history, busted Charles Taylor out from prison for no reason that rings very true and sent him back to his country to destroy it. She bred from her own womb the child soldier who cut off President Samuel Doe's ears, on the drunken orders of warlord Prince Johnson - a torture scene infamously captured on a video widely available across West Africa.

This novel makes you realise that, although you might have long despised the political history of the US and its triumphalist voice, you don't want to hear the US talk about how it's to blame for everything and feels terrible. Because it still sounds like the US talking about itself. It's still unbearable.

THE DARLING, by Russell Banks (Bloomsbury, $35).

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