Described by literary critic Peter Craven as “an attack on the modern corporate university,” Hannie Rayson’s play Life After George (2000) is also about the idea of what a university is and can be.
The “George” of the title is Peter George, an ageing Professor of History who’s been married three times and, according to his first wife, is “impulsive, passionate, and full of folly.” George is someone committed to Leftist ideas of a good society and the role of education. He believes in academic excellence and the importance and value of the humanities. But at fifty-eight (and at the end of the millennium) these passions and beliefs — indeed these professional principles — now seem marginalising and inconsequential.
When the history department is identified as a “non-performing sector,” George’s second wife Lindsey, Dean of Arts, says, “Within twelve months you’re looking at slashing a quarter of your subjects and sacking five or six Senior Lecturers. And that’s optimistic. You’re not getting any clients.”
George protests. His enrolments are up, he says. “But,” Lindsay replies, “your students don’t pay fees.” “So we should be teaching tourism, marketing and hospitality management?” Lindsay calls George an elitist, and he in turn responds by preferring to think in terms of academic excellence, as if to ask, When did excellence suddenly become elitist?
Rayson wrote her play in the wake of reforms to higher education made by John Dawkins (Minister for Employment, Education and Training, 1987-1991). The Dawkins reforms wanted higher education to respond more to the needs of industry and in line with national interests and objectives.
According to Glyn Davis, author of The Australian Idea of a University (2017) and former Vice Chancellor of University of Melbourne, the Dawkins reforms allowed universities “to charge up-front fees to international students. In time, this would create a huge export industry for Australia, and allow government to reduce financial support for universities.” These changes provoked “intensified concerns about a managerial logic,” and debates often took the form of “a narrative of decline in traditional university values.”
Obviously this has only intensified. Almost daily, news items and commentary report the problems facing higher education funding as well as the downsizing of departments and entrenched casualisation, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, which has turned the economic garment worn by all of us inside out, revealing how insecurely everything is stitched together.
In Hannie Rayson’s play, George believes students are being turned into corporate fodder. He feels passionately that the function of a university has been lost sight of — to produce educated citizens, not “compliant employees.”
George stubbornly remains true to his own history and beliefs, to his own committed idealism, which is “the most precious and profound human capacity” because it means you are not for sale. And for George, the question of the future isn’t how he’s going to assist in implementing a corporate agenda, but how he’s going to fight it. In its own small way Life After George, the first play to be nominated for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, therefore continues a tradition of investigating the challenges and contradictions of idealism.
But George doesn’t live long enough to fight for idealism — he’s killed in a freak plane crash. The play is also then quite marvellously about grief and the lives we share with friends and spouses. And yet Rayson’s work achieves its final emotional coherence, its most affecting portrayal of tenderness and love, in the relationship between father and daughter, which is to say that such relationships may be the only aspect of life where idealism serves you well. But that’s not a recommendation.
Though I’ve read it dozens of times I still go back to those three paragraphs and that single page of Kafka’s short story The New Advocate. I revere those beguiling sentences and consider endless hermeneutic possibilities, but always find myself asking: Why should a warhorse become a lawyer?
The horse was once Alexander the Great’s favourite battle-steed, Bucephalus. Yet Kafka reimagines the creature as an advocate in the courts of justice. “We have a new advocate, Dr Bucephalus,” says the narrator, who is someone working within the profession and witness to the new appointment. There’s an oratorial aspect to the story, too, as if the narrator or speaker is standing to make a speech with a tone of approval. “Given the present order of society,” he says, Bucephalus is in a difficult position,
and that he deserves for that reason, as well as on account of his historical importance, at least a sympathetic reception … [I]t really is best to do what Bucephalus has done, and immerse oneself in the books of the law.
The story lends itself easily to allegorical interpretation. Some critics have argued that Bucephalus might be a metaphor for writing, that for Kafka writing was always at risk of losing its vitality and ferocity. Others have stated that, because Bucephalus is dramatically out-of-place, seemingly at odds with his setting, he stands for Jewishness.
But there’s always this question of “might” (or “could”) with Kafka, for he is the poet of modality, of verbs of possibility. As in modal logic, truth value depends on accessible worlds, but in Kafka, those worlds need only be accessible in our imagination to be true. Thus, Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find himself turned into a giant bug while still in bed, and Josef K, also still in bed “with his head on the pillow,” discovering he’s under arrest. Both openings are notably threshold experiences. They occur after sleep but before being fully awake and out in the world. No wonder it’s important for Josef K to get a clear picture of his position, which repeatedly eludes him.
But Bucephalus is not suffering from metamorphosis, and unlike Josef K, he’s on the right side of the law, so to speak. Nor is The New Advocate a literary act of magical realism. It’s more a case of historical transposition, where the out-of-placeness of Bucephalus comes to represent the rise and fall of empires, or more elusively, the epochal shifts of history.
Writing of Napoleon – a megalomaniac like Alexander of Macedon who, in exaggerations and frenzies of power, sought to be feared – Hegel famously said:
I saw the Emperor – this world soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.
The horse is given its role in the mega-machismo of the military leader. Homer said of Achilles that he had “immortal steeds,” but it’s the charioteer who confers this supernaturalism on them, for without their master they stand mournful and heart-stricken, “their manes sweeping the ground.” Here’s the thrust of The New Advocate. Bucephalus is now without rider. He has been transposed. The natural order of things has been disrupted. As Ulrich Raulff observes of Kafka’s story in Farewell to the Horse, “the time for heroes is over and with it that of warhorses.” Perhaps battles are now to be fought in the courts, as Dickens also articulated satirically in Bleak House with the interminable court proceedings of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
It’s astonishing that Kafka wrote The New Advocate during World War One (between November 1916 and June 1917, according to Malcolm Pasley). Biographer Reiner Stach writes that “Kafka’s notes reveal little about the visible aspects of the war … [H]e saw no need to chronicle what he witnessed.” And in a diary entry for August 2, 1914, Kafka noted: “Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon.” In his cynicism, Kafka is perhaps closer to us. But our age has no time for allegory.
Kafka was a clerk at a workers’ accident insurance institute, and once said to his friend Max Brod of the injured workers seeking compensation: “How modest these men are; instead of storming the Institute and smashing it to pieces, they come and beg” (this appears in Brod’s biography of Kafka). I cannot escape the idea that the absurdity of a war horse becoming a lawyer is also a demotion of masculinity, a demystifying of the megalomania of the male ego. And yet Bucephalus receives a sympathetic reception. Such is a male-dominated profession, or indeed world.
But the absurdity of the situation remains, which I take to be the persistence of something obsolete. Hasn’t it had its day already? Why still here? In our “present order of society” we rightly describe certain outdated expressions of maleness as “toxic,” in the hope of categorically banishing them once and for all. And yet Kafka’s story seems to suggest that there’s no clean break between generations or between eras, that all reality cannot be done away with so as to create another one. As Samir Puri argues in The Great Imperial Hangover, “there are no full stops in history. One epoch does not stop before another one starts.” It would be hasty to think otherwise.
During my time in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Richmond, between 2008 and 2018, I saw thousands of apartments being built. These constructions were, as we shall see, an ironic reversal of the suburb’s historical development, which since the middle of the nineteenth century tended to favour industry over the residential, and as such, the suburb had mostly been working class. And encroachments of industry into residential space had been the history of Richmond as it grew and developed into the twentieth century.
But then former sites of industry vanished and were transformed into huge apartment complexes. Once a suburb of industrial labour, Richmond was now a place for retail living. It’s history had been turned on its head.
Richmond is a sprawling quadrilateral. One wouldn’t describe it as hugger-mugger. It’s design is clear and orderly, making it … well … clear and orderly, or if you like, bland. Its boundaries are Victoria Street to the north, Hoddle Street to the west, and Swan Street to the south. Although, we could extend the boundary further south, beyond Swan Street to the Yarra, to include Cremorne and Burnley. Geography, rather than municipal boundaries, makes better sense of these inclusions.
The eastern boundary of Richmond is again the Yarra River. Cross over the bridge and you’re in Hawthorn. But do that at your peril. If you’re broke and living in Richmond the big houses on the hills of Hawthorn look down upon the south-eastern flank of Richmond with the glint of class divide in their eyes.
On a clear day you can see all the way east to the Dandenong Ranges from Richmond. But you have to look past the cars banked up to the crest of Richmond Hill, the sun intensifying their colour as they loosen into streams of movement when the lights change. And you have to look past the criss-crossing nerve ends of tram wires strewn above the road, past the signs — the signs for beer and shoes, the signs for the hospital and for dresses, food and real estate – and past the buildings that in the summer heat look as though they’ve been rescued from a kiln.
Look past all this and you’ll see the great distance of the mountains to the east. And if you walk in that easterly direction, up Bridge Road and over the hill and keep one eye on and one eye off what the poet Judith Wright calls the “flowing and furious world,” you can exist simultaneously among the shops and the people in the streets and in the freedom of the distant mountains.
But the view is more than this. It’s an immaterial link to the past and one of the few things that will remain, if there is anyone left to see it, of the early years of the city and its expansion east into districts such as Richmond. This view or “perspective” predates even buildings considered historic because it inspired their construction.
Between the lolly-bag scene of Richmond retail and the distant ranges, dimensions of time open up. The elevation that gives you this view is the result of geological activity that occurred over 400 million years ago. Your eye is not only connecting the two points. They are already connected geologically by Silurian-aged deposits over millions of years.
It was precisely this vantage point and its dazzling view stretching east to the mountains that attracted pioneering gentry in the 1830s and 40s.
Richmond was named after Richmond Hill in England, where the view was protected by an act of Parliament, the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act (1902), the only one of its kind in Britain, brought into being under pressure from those who protested against development of the area.
Here in Australia, Richmond’s “hill” also offered commanding views of a vast plateau, but one ripe for the developments of farming and grazing, and later, industry. Historian Janet McCalman tells us that Richmond’s social fate was determined by its topography. Richmond began its colonial days as a semi-rural home for the well-to-do. But it quickly became an over-crowded suburb of the working classes. This change in Richmond’s demography was foretold by the industries that began moving into the area from the 1860s.
Tanneries, wool-washing plants, a brewery, boot and furniture making all took advantage of the wide, flat land by the river. The disused silo still standing in east Richmond was used for wheat. Closer to the heart of the suburb you can see the silos of a disused malthouse, which were converted into apartments and described by Philip Goad as forming “a brutish totemic tower of inner-city living.” Through industry, Richmond became a creation of the late Victorian boom. In another hundred years it’ll probably be seen as the creation of early twenty-first century gentrification.
Richmond hardly bears a visible trace of the past. Richmond Town Hall no longer reveals its Victorian era, revivalist gothic architecture. In the 1930s it was remodelled as a Council priority. And yet there are traces of an industrial past, evident in the malting silos in the far southwest corner of Cremorne, next to the freeway and by the river. If you notice these silos it’s probably for their billboards. And if you walk the backstreets you might glimpse a bluestone wall or a cobble-stone segment of road. But these things don’t amount to much.
And that’s okay. An absence of the past in Richmond means you don’t have to hear, see, or smell the slums. In 1916 a Richmond local despaired:
The aspect presented to the train traveller between Richmond and South Yarra is one of most unsightly backyards, and the mental impression of this city conveyed is that it is a slum neighbourhood excelled in unsightliness by nothing else between here and Sydney. Where it is not a slum, it is advertising hoarding, and the odours are certainly not those of ‘Araby the Blest’.
(Richmond Guardian 26 February 1916)
The blessed aromas referred to here were those of an Arabian Bazaar. The south ward of Richmond was very poor, cramped and narrow. There were lots of unmade streets with a lot of mud in winter and dust in summer. This area was once known as Irish Town. To the north were the fresher airs and leisure gardens of the homes on Richmond Hill, whose drainage ran south, downhill, into Irish Town.
Walking in Irish Town, this local further observed that the streets were “full of horse manure, waste papers, empty tins, rabbit entrails, dead cats and such-like flotsam and jetsam, whilst the channels contained a quantity of malodorous slush.”
In James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), there’s a story called “Araby,” which begins in a street in Dublin called North Richmond. The narrator of the story is a boy who wants to go to the Araby Bazaar in Dublin to buy something for a pretty girl he likes. But he’s held up, waiting for his drunk uncle to come home and give him some money. By the time he gets to the Bazaar it’s too late. Nearly all the lights are out and the stalls are closed The boy leaves with nothing. Later, reflecting back on this time, he says, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, argues that the Bazaar in Joyce’s story has a real-life counterpart in the Araby Bazaar which came to Dublin on May 14-19, 1894. Was the Richmond local familiar, like Joyce, with the Araby Bazaar in Dublin? Had he read Joyce’s story? And if so, did it inform his low opinion of Richmond? Was “Araby” a cultural variable in his social observation?
Remembering his childhood journeys into the city by train in the 1920s, the narrator of George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack (1964), says
All the way through to the city proper there was nothing to break the drab flatness of this unadventurous repetition except the club flags flying over the grandstands of some football ground or other, or a particular factory smokestack that impressed by its height or shape or the amount of reek it gave off, or the grimy brick wall of the Rosella Jams and Pickles Factory with the cloth-capped girls working and chattering behind the railway-sooted windows.
This description is one long sentence. Which is deliberate, because it imparts a sense of the out-stretched distance of the journey. Johnston wants to say that travelling through the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, past Cremorne and to Richmond, is like an overly long, uninteresting sentence given pause only by the commas of particular sights (a football field, impressions of industry) and the semicolons of train stations. The full stop is achieved, so to speak, at either end of a flat diffusion of dull geometry and sad habitations, namely, the city or the last suburban “outpost.”
Walking in Richmond parklands one evening, down the south-eastern corner of the suburb near the river, I came across an old dead gum tree. It stood at least twice my height, and because it was surrounded by tall scrub and leafy trees and set back from the path, I’d never really noticed it before. But this particular evening, the sun going down, there was an eerie light which seemed to indicate the significance of what stood inconspicuously behind the surrounding scrub.
I found out that it was a Corroboree Tree, which once marked a boundary between Aboriginal tribal lands. This was a site for meetings between Indigenous tribal groups and for the performance of song and dance. It was a place for stories and exchange. And as a shady, wide-open area to gather and meet, the parklands are still, in a way, serving this need. But in a place of dog shit and laughter, that bare tree stump is a haunting symbol of dispossession. Here more than anywhere else in the docile inner-east the terror of history will strike a blow.
The ABC recently aired a story about “paper orphans” in Nepal. These are children who are orphans only on paper, their status “invented” by orphanages to attract money, or sponsors, from wealthy countries like Australia. According to the ABC, Australians are “still funding and volunteering at orphanages, unwittingly perpetuating a multi-billion-dollar global industry that exploits children for profit.”
I know something of this first-hand.
Kathmandu was my first overseas destination. I travelled there in May, 2004. My partner at the time, S, had already been there for a couple of months, and this was her second time in Nepal. She’d fallen in love with the place and wanted to go back and do some work in the orphanages. She had one in particular in mind and this was where she went when she returned. While she was there I was busy working in a factory. I’d graduated from university at the beginning of the year and took the factory job because I needed the money to travel. I wanted nothing else than to see S again in Kathmandu and help her in whatever way I could. And I was thrilled to be going overseas.
During my first few days in the city, reading the Kathmandu newspapers, I learned a great deal of the political situation at the time. In fact, I was shocked to discover that for the last seven or eight years there had been a civil war. More than ten thousand people had died in this conflict. There were political insurgencies, communities broken apart, and people fleeing their homes. I read of sixty teachers being abducted from schools in the district of Udayapur, in the east, and there were stories of children being taken by insurgent Maoist groups and trained in the ways of a “People’s War” against the urban bureaucrats.
This conflict was chiefly between the Maoists, who wanted a republican state, and the King and his royal army. Out in the streets I heard that Maoists were targeting trekkers for money. Later, when S and I were in Pokhara, the locals denied this. Maoists were bad for business, of course. But all the same, the stories were getting through. And the following year, by the time S and I were gone, the political situation would become much worse. There would be a coup. Not until 2008, with the establishment of a secular republic and the Maoists now part of the political process, would there be a peaceful resolution, and an end to the world’s only Hindu monarchy.
S had been doing some good work at the orphanage, which was located in Banasthal, a district in Kathmandu where the Bhachaa river runs. When I arrived the river was little more than a canal of filthy water and littered with garbage.
S had taken me there to meet the children and the two women running the place. There were other people behind the scenes but I could never figure out who was who. S and her friends, other tourists, one a Swiss national doing research for a PhD on international relations, knew far more about the place than I did, or ever would.
At the orphanage I saw how S was already quite attached to one of the children. Her name was Geeta. From overhearing conversations I discovered that Geeta was being mistreated and was sick. She had a terrible cough. It was sickening to have to listen to it. But Geeta had never been taken to the doctor. There was always a lot going on behind the scenes. S and her friends were constantly talking about the orphanage, making plans, coming up with ideas. I was on the outside, on the edge of all this. It was difficult for me to know what was happening between S and her friends and the orphanage. Nonetheless, I tried to keep up and trusted S. I supported her. I was in love with her.
Spending time with many of the children at the orphanage was a joy – “Sir sir, have a sweet dream” they would say when I waved goodbye in the evenings. One day S revealed that she was planning to relocate Geeta to another orphanage. But first we’d have to take her to the hospital for tests. We were all so worried for her health.
After a few long, exhausting days at the hospital, we finally received a diagnosis for Geeta. She was very sick and had tuberculosis and other related complications. The doctor who gave us this news was quite angry. Why hadn’t she been brought in for treatment sooner?
Over the next few weeks Geeta received care at the hospital. S stayed with her overnight. I would arrive in the morning and spend the day. When it was time to leave we all went to the new orphanage in Thankot, a village just beyond the city to the west.
I don’t know how long we were there at Thankot, how much time we spent with Geeta. But I do know that S and Geeta were inseparable. I do know that they loved each other. I do know that Geeta was happy and smiling and spoke more than ever before. S was like a mother to her. It worried me, actually, how attached to Geeta she’d become, but sometimes that just can’t be helped.
One day I travelled south by bus to Chitwan with M, the Swiss national, while S stayed behind to spend as much time as possible with Geeta. In Chitwan the river was flooded and the national park was closed. The rain didn’t let up. During the day there was a rhino on the loose and at night the rain got heavier and louder. The heat was sticky and oppressive. At one o’clock in the morning I was awoken by the hotel manager and told to leave the room because the floodwaters were so high. We waded out into the yard and slept on kitchen tables. The day we left we rode elephants to the bus shelter.
Back in Thankot, time passed quickly. How long we were there before we had to leave and fly back to Australia, I don’t know. It wasn’t long enough. Leaving was crushing for S. Saying goodbye was difficult and very sad. And then a month or so later, when I was in Japan alone, my mobile phone rang. It was S. Geeta had died. It was devastating news. The date was August 4.
S and I never knew if we would have a future. I went to Japan to teach and this had already been arranged before I went to Nepal. I was employed by the government to teach in a public high school. I’d already started my job when this terrible news came through. Before all this I didn’t know if S was ever going to come to Japan to be with me. It was all uncertain. I suppose I was ready to accept that it might have been over between us.
But then Geeta died and S was in Japan and in my apartment. She loved Geeta and Geeta had loved S. We remembered Geeta’s smile. I knew S had done the right thing in finding a new home for her. Geeta was happy. I knew the love was real for her.
But who was she? The whole time I never knew. I don’t think anyone did. I never heard her past being talked about, only that she might have come from a village in the far east of the country, that one day she got on a bus, the wrong bus, and ended up in the city wandering the streets and was later taken in by the orphanage. That’s what I heard, but over the years since, after reading much about Nepal in books and newspapers and watching news reports such as the one on the ABC, I don’t know what to believe. It seems to matter and I still think of her because the poor girl never had a chance to say who she was in this world, never had a chance to speak her own truth. After everything, the only thing I do know was her smile, and the love between her and S. That was real. That was true.
In keeping with customary funeral rites, Geeta’s body was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River at an open temple in the Hindu Pashupatinath. Orange cloth, her favourite teddy, marigolds — these were all prepared and went up in flames with her. When it was over, when the smoke was gone, her ashes from the pyre would have been swept into the river and the concrete pillar on which she had lain washed clean. Soon after, another body would have been placed on the pillar. And then another. More ceremonies would have been held, more pyres lit. More smoke, more ashes, more washing the pillar clean.
Several years ago there was an article in The New York Times that caught my interest. The article was about Olly Neal, a high-school kid in the late 1950s who stole a book from the library because he liked the racy cover. Neal was an ‘at-risk’ kid. He was poor and black and had an attitude. His father was a farmer. The house had no electricity and Olly Neal was one of thirteen children.
Olly had stolen a novel by Frank Yerby, a black writer. He finished the book. Then he went back and stole another, again by Yerby. This happened another two times. Four novels in total, all stolen and all by Yerby. Olly had caught the reading bug. As the article in the Times describes, this probably changed the course of his life. He eventually went to college and studied law. By the 1990s, now in his early fifties, Olly Neal had become a judge.
What’s even more wonderful about this story is that Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, knew all along that Olly had stolen that first book, but she kept quiet and instead sought out more books by Yerby, at her own expense, to put on the library shelf so her student could steal them. What a sweetly covert system of encouragement, of reaching through to a vulnerable kid!
And who was Frank Yerby?
His name is not really heard of today, but Frank Yerby (1916-1991) wrote more than thirty novels, and was acclaimed for the meticulous research of his historical fictions. Yerby protested vociferously against US racism and left the US in the 1950s for France and then Madrid, where he lived for the next thirty-five years.
In 1971 Yerby published one of his most well-known books, a historical novel called The Man from Dahomey, which is about the slave trade in early nineteenth-century Dahomey (now Benin, in West Africa). It’s a book that goes to great lengths to explore the social conscience of its characters and assert a cultural politics of history, race and power.
It’s often said, pragmatically, that historical fiction is useful for cultural politics because it can evoke empathy for the injustices of the past. As literature, historical fictions can, in the words of WG Sebald, “attempt restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” David Malouf has also claimed the “superior powers of empathy and historical understanding” of historical fictions. He means ‘superior’ to strictly factual non-fiction writing. As Malouf argues,
our only way of grasping our history –– and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now –– the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there. And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. … It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.
Both Malouf and Sebald appeal to the category of experience in the belief that fiction gives us the “truth” of history. For Sebald, fiction restores those experiences of the past which have been lost to the onward rush of progress. For Malouf, the truths of fiction are the truths of imagining more empathetic relations between the present and the past.
Similarly, Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River (2005), a historical novel about early nineteenth-century settler encounters with Australian Aborigines, and more recently, A Room Made of Leaves (2020), argues for the empathies of historical fictions. Of the The Secret River she’s said that it’s “probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.” And in an interview with Ramona Koval on ABC radio, responding to Koval’s question of where she would position her book in relation to debates over Australian history and the colonial past, Grenville said that her book
is up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. … [A] novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. … The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?
For historians, these claims are a little frightening because they obscure what should be a clear line dividing the historian’s role from that of the novelist’s. Historian Mark McKenna has argued that Grenville promotes the “rise of the novelist as historian, of fiction as history,” which encourages a decline in critical history and an ascendance of historical novels as “dream histories.” Likewise, in The History Question Inga Clendinnen points out that the crucial point of difference here — one that shouldn’t be obscured — is between the aesthetic purpose of the novelist and the moral purpose of the historian.
But what if a novelist writes with a moral purpose over and above that of an aesthetic one? And how can we tell if a historical novel is motivated not by aesthetics but by a moral relationship to the past?
We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey. The book appeared in the wake of the Black American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in a note to the reader Yerby states that he wants his novel “to correct … the Anglo-Saxon reader’s historical perspective.” He does this by showing how North American slavery destroyed a high and admirable African culture and reduced “a proud, industrious, warlike people … to the state of tortured, neurotic, self-hating caricatures of humanity.”
The Man from Dahomey tells the story of Nyasanu, the son of Gbenu, a well-respected African chief. It traces Nyasanu’s relationship with his family, particularly the affection between Nyasanu and his father, and his marriages to six wives. As as a chief’s son, we see the importance of Nyasanu’s social position as well as Dahomean vices, like the renaming of wives. But after suffering a fall from grace for taking revenge on the man who sleeps with his wife, Nyasanu is sent into exile and later transported to North America. “He had been a man, almost a prince,” writes Yerby. “Now he was a thing. A slave.”
In Yerby’s novel, Dahomey is a complex society of marriage rites, of languages and religious customs unique to particular tribes, and of the power struggles between the ruler, King Gezo, and his people. A lot of research went into this. Yerby’s book is rich in anthropological content, drawing comprehensively from key sources such as Melville J. Herskovits’s two-volume, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938).
If there is a formal, or aesthetic, weakness in the novel it’s the way in which anthropological explanations endlessly accompany dialogue and plot development. But it’s clear these explanations serve a political purpose rather than a strictly artistic one, informing the reader about the sophisticated realities of early nineteenth-century Dahomean life.
It’s interesting to compare Yerby’s novel with another work that’s also about the slave trade in Dahomey in the early 1800s. Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), tells the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, Chatwin’s fictional counterpart to the historical Francisco Felix de Souza (1760-1849), a West African slave trader from Bahia, Brazil.
In the novel, da Silva leaves a desolate childhood and a life of aimless wandering in Bahia and sails empty-handed to Ouidah. He takes command of an abandoned Portuguese fort but is soon arrested by the King of Dahomey. The King’s brother helps da Silva escape and in turn da Silva helps stage a coup. Da Silva is rewarded for his efforts by being appointed the new King’s viceroy with dominion over the sale of slaves. But his situation worsens and da Silva is eventually stripped of his wealth and entitlements, dying a ruined man.
Chatwin’s book divided critics. Some saw it as a triumph of style over substance, while others dismissed it for lacking humanity and not taking a moral stand on the slave trade. Bernadine Evaristo, winner of the Booker prize in 2019, recently wrote about it. “By rights,” she said,
I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.
Chatwin’s novel is a stylistic marvel. Ornate, short, brisk and baroque, clever and dazzling, it’s straight out of the Flaubertian school of writing – aesthetically detached, striving for artistic purity. Actually, as a historical fiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah has more in common with Flaubert’s Salammbo than Yerby’s novel (the literary historian Georg Lukacs wrote that Salammbo is the result of Flaubert’s “programmatic non-partisanship.” We could say the same of Chatwin’s book.)
But where does that leave us?
Yerby’s novel may not be the best of its kind, but it contains a people’s history of Dahomey and inscribes a form of moral and political reclamation. Of course, you could always read West African historians themselves, or if you have to, go back to Herskovits or even to Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer, whose mission journal of Dahomey recounts his time spent with King Gezo in 1849 and 1850.
And there’s Cameron Monroe’s 2014 book, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey, which features historical, archaeological and ethnographic sources to investigate the political order of Dahomey during the Atlantic Era.
But Yerby’s novel carries you off into the moral story of Nyasanu. Something Olly Neal might have felt when first reading those earlier books of Yerby’s, books that came into his life at the right time, and for the right reasons.