What do you do when it's twenty degrees in New York City? Well, you read books about Africa. Literary Africa offers a kind of earthbound escape, not so different from the escapism of science fiction or fantasy, though it also offers the risk of reducing a continent of real people and cultures to a playground for white men and their symbols. (This is what Chinua Achebe rightly blamed Joseph Conrad for.) Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow's novel about a Connecticut millionaire who goes to find himself in rural Africa, runs that risk but succeeds, I think, in part because its fantastical Africa is more nuanced than Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and in part because it's such a terrific novel.
Henderson the Rain King manages to be somehow more personal and universal than the culture-clash narrative you might expect. The titular Henderson (first name: Eurgene) is a vibrant, wonderfully realized character, brash but needy, overflowing with good intention but reaping mostly misery. His problems are uniquely his own but essentially human. A voice nags inside him: I want, I want, I want--but never identifies what it wants, much less how to get it. It's this voice that drives him to Africa, where he hires a guide to take him "off the beaten path."
Henderson visits two neighboring cultures: The Arnewi and the Wariri. The Arnewi Queen Willatale identifies his need as grun-tu-molani: "Man wants to live." In gratitude and love he vows to rid the village of a scourge of frogs that have invaded the sacred, and thus untouchable, water supply:
"Grun-tu-molani," the old queen said.
"What's that? What does she say?"
"Say, you want to live. Grun-tu-molani. Man want to live."
"Yes, yes, yes! Molani. Me molani. She sees that? God will reward her, tell her, for saying it to me. I'll reward her myself. I'll annihilate and blast those frogs clear out of that cistern, sky-high, they'll wish they had never come down from the mountains to bother you. Not only I molani for myself, but for everybody. I could not bear how sad things have become in the world and so I set out because of this molani. Grun-tu-molani, old lady--old queen. Grun-tu-molani, everybody!"
But Henderson's plan backfires--he blows up the cistern with the frogs--and leaves in disgrace, eventually coming to the village of the Wariri, where the bulk of the novel takes place. He befriends the king there, Dahfu, who has been educated in Western medicine yet remains ensconced in a tribal system that refuses to grant him total legitimacy until he captures a specific lion believed to house the soul of his father, the previous king. Henderson, moved to participate in a village ceremony by hoisting an immense statue of the culture's rain goddess, becomes the "Rain King," a title with its own set of ritual responsibilities.
Dahfu has committed himself to a theory of human physiology and behavior that says that human beings can absorb traits from animals and vice versa, and for this reason he keeps a lion (though not his father, who remains at large) in his private room. By exposing Henderson to this lion, he hopes to unlock his human potential, and although Bellow seems at times to be surprisingly in sympathy with Dahfu's ideas, it seems to me that Henderson blooms when forced to confront the fear of death the lion inspires in him:
My nether half turned very cold. My knees felt like two rocks in a cold Alpine torrent. My mustached stabbed and stung into my lips, which made me realize that I was frowning and grimacing with terror, and I knew that my eyes must be filling with fatal blackness. As before, he took my hand as we entered and I came to the den saying inwardly, "Help me, God! Oh, help!" The odor was blinding, for here, near the door where the air was trapped, it stank radiantly. From this darkness came the face of the lioness, wrinkling, with her whiskers like the thinnest spindles scratched with a diamond on the surface of a glass.
Bellow's prose is really something, though it seems more mature and reserved, less ornate than in Augie March, which was published just five years before. Henderson, too, is something like an older Augie, in his unending quest to live more fully. Even Bellow's sense of plot seems more developed, in that it replaces the sprawling, aimless narrative of Augie March with a tight, concise story that resists the urge to travel all over Africa, focusing instead on one story, one friend, one friendship. Henderson the Rain King avoids the Heart of Darkness trap because it refuses to be about Africa, or about America (though Henderson, the millionaire pig farmer, is as essentially American as the scrappy Augie) but about one man's--and thus every man's--fear of death and need to live, his grun-tu-molani.
Bonus material: This spoilery comic.
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Kristin's Book Blog
Connecticut Museum Quest (really negative)