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Africa Challenge Book Reviews

The Reviews
All material Copyright Lynn Purdon Yenkey. Do not reproduce this material without written permission.

West with the Night
Things Fall Apart

West With the Night
by Beryl Markham
first printed 1942

Farmer’s daughter, kiddie warthog hunter, winning racehorse trainer, friend to Nandi warrior and Muthaiga Country Club patron alike, pilot, elephant scout, record-setter, adventurer on wings, Beryl Markham leads you into the “remembrance” of her time in Africa, beginning at motherless 4 years old, with the plaintive wisdom that “there are as many Africas as there are books about Africa,” and simply aims to tell you about hers:
“To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing–it is never dull….I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss the boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and lived there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”

And then you’re off with her, awakened rudely at 1 in the morning at the word of a sick miner hundreds of miles off, dying and in need of oxygen, and you the airborne delivery mechanism. There is so much detail in the telling–of the face and bearing of her longtime servant spinning the propeller; of the farcical menace of the runway at night, fenced against wandering zebra, giraffe, and wildebeest; of the flight checklist rotely recalled–that it’s difficult to believe this is memory and not fiction. But hers is a story distilled from thousands of hours of preparation, study, thought, observation, struggle, flying, sheer living, and time alone, told from a voice humble but intimate enough that you can feel you are the first person yourself.

It’s just you and Beryl looking out at the world from the cockpit. She gives the impression of herself as an expressedly solitary, thoughtful individual in the truest sense. Although she speaks of friends (in particular of two men with powerful but prudent affection) and offices at the storied Muthaiga Club, the hub of British East Africa society in its day, she does not divulge much of a personal life, keeps mum on any party gossip, never seems to miss a lover left behind on the ground. When she brings up white society, she seems to need a cocktail to endure it. Beryl personifies “a little less talk and a lot more action,” or perhaps just felt it cleaner to leave out the details that would have clouded the image of Beryl the Adventurer.

The men who shaped her life are her father, a white settler who raised her alone as he helped industrialize the Rongai valley; Arab Ruta, her Nandi childhood friend turned servant; Tom Black, who taught her to fly and for whom she shows unabashed love; and Karen Blixen’s ex, the swart and charming Baron, who encouraged her to embrace further the life she chose by scouting elephant from the air for his rich hunters (Winston Guest is mentioned), and through whom the glints of humor in the book appear. The two of them are delayed in Cairo en route to London as she is leaving Africa for good, and stop to have their fortunes told. When the seer tells her she will fly alone over a great body of water to a strange country (foretelling her solo Atlantic crossing), Blix dryly responds, “If I am to be abandoned, Beryl, couldn’t you make it a little closer to a bar?”

Aside from briefly mentioning daily visits to her nearest neighbor, Lady Delamere, as a child, and a short colorful description of June Carberry, who with her husband sponsored Markham’s Atlantic crossing, I don’t recall stories of any women except for one haggard brothel-keeper in Egypt–certainly no women to influence her. Were there none? I wonder how much her personality was shaped by the harsh early environment of no mother, sleeping alone in a mud hut, and not much oversight, and how much ambition was simply in her to burst out?

Early on she makes sure to laud the “Native” races of Africa and to question white assumptions to power over the continent, yet she does not buck the lordly attitude of whites toward Africans of her day. Instead, she mixes it confusingly with love. It’s the relationship with Arab Ruta that is most confounding. As a child, she plays with him and hunts wild pig with his father, brought into their fold (or is it only that she is the master’s daughter and so given free rein?). But as adults they live across an unbreachable chasm. Ruta follows her when she leaves the failed farm at 18, serving her in her every endeavor, from grooming the racehorses she trains to becoming keeper of the plane when she takes up flying. He lives in the “Native quarter,” always on the outside, but her tea is always steaming when she awakes before dawn.

Though she loves the things *about* him, calling him a member of “the tribe composed of those too few, precisely sensitive, but altogether indomitable individuals contributed sparingly by each race, exclusively by none,” you wonder if she can love or even know him, later describing him serving drinks and dinner to her and Tom Black, “understanding very little English, but hovering still about the dinner table, not like a servant, or even like a friend, but like an animate household god, quite as bronze, quite as omniscient, and quite as profound.” Because of their long and devoted relationship to each other, it does not appear she’s parroting the objectification whites are often accused of toward Africans. Maybe distant admiration of the qualities that made him up was as close as they could come.

By the time she gets around to telling you about being financed for a record solo flight across the Atlantic from England to N. America, she’s been self-deprecating enough in the face of death–attacked by a big lion as a kid, down-draft forcing her plane low to the point of seeing individual leaves flutter on the Ngong Hills, belly down and squelching cries from army ant bites while a bull elephant threatens to trample her and the Baron–that you aren’t surprised when she says of her flight, “There was nothing extraordinary in this.” She just does it, getting scraped a little in the process of crash-landing a few hours shy of the New York airfield, and it’s done: first man or woman alive to make the trip.

The austerity surrounding her life comes to a point in the words, “No human pursuit achieves dignity until it can be called work, and when you can experience a physical loneliness for the tools of your trade, you see that the other things–the experiments, the irrelevant vocations, the vanities you used to hold–were false to you.” Right, no Happy Valley party gossip here. But the writing and the memories are rich, and as you move with her through through midnight mercy flights and other travails, you stop too at the places a quiet mind considers as it hones the moments into the life it desires.

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
First printed 1959

When presented with a work so hailed as this one, with its millions of copies printed in 50 different languages, its place in school curriculums, its miles of praise, a reader should think a while before trying to say anything about it. I waited even longer, being so unmoved by it I couldn’t think of much worth saying.

Chinua Achebe tells a complex story briskly, giving depth and nuance to most of his characters, even the noxious ones, sometimes even as they incriminate themselves. Why then is the antihero so one-dimensional? Why isn’t there a single thing to like or care about or be interested in about Okonkwo? Why did I even finish reading to the end? Well, because the reading went quickly, and I was hoping to find something besides the inevitable decline of the tribe and Okonkwo’s destruction. A smile from him would have been worth it; a change of heart was too much to hope for.

Okonkwo is driven by one thing: to be the opposite of his indebted, derelict, arty, musing, layabout father. He’s lucky, since “a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father….Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered.” So he uses all he has—a physically imposing body and a hit-first philosophy—to rise high in his community. He’s a champion wrestler, a warrior who’s brought back enough human heads from to prove his ferocity, he holds two tribal titles, has a barn full of yams, three wives, lots of children, and is by all accounts a growing success. His thirst for lordship, more titles, more accolades from his people is insatiable, but he certainly doesn’t want to be liked.

He seems to speak only in a roar. He breathes so loudly that his wives and children can hear it from where they sleep in their own huts. He beats them at the merest perception of laziness or other infractions. He appears to be a single twitching muscle, reflexively lashing out, but Achebe mentions a stutter and hints at an insecurity that propels Okonkwo to use his fists rather than his faltering voice when confronted. Still it’s questionable whether he has an original emotion or sense of morality or is merely a slave to his image in the community.

Just a few pages in, a boy from a neighboring village is sacrificed to Okonkwo’s village to make peace after a murder. He’s left alive and in Okonkwo’s care until the elders decide what to do with him. It takes them three years. During this time he becomes like a son to Okonkwo, who finds a lot to like about the kid. He becomes a beloved older brother to Okonkwo’s first son. He’s family! Then the elders show up one day to take their belated revenge. One of them tells Okonkwo he should not take part in it, but, not wanting to appear womanish or shirking, he lies to the boy, telling him they are returning him to his mother. On the road, Okonkwo, shaking from the half-realization that what he’s about to do is an abomination, but blinded by his pride, is the first to cut the boy down. The boy cries and calls him “father” as he’s hacked to death.

This was the first time I wanted to put the book down for good. I think it was Chapter 2.

Okonkwo does struggle with his act. He’s drunk and depressed in his hut for a few days, but as soon as there is some work to put his hand to, he’s righted again, and ceases to lament what he’s convinced himself was right. Damn the three years of treating him like a son! So he has original emotions; he just buries them so deep as to be inert.

Things don’t get much better, maybe because Okonkwo cannot change with the world around him. When the whites come in with their government and religion, it’s not all bad news for the community, including Okonkwo’s oldest son, whom he’s beaten and brow-beaten so heavily that the boy flees to the arms of the church, taking a Christian name and going off to the teacher’s college in a distant town—not too far off the kind of reaction of his father toward his grandfather, except this time turning away from violence. Achebe says that the new religion makes sense out of the world for some tribe members, but Okonkwo is only unhappy that they don’t go kill them all.

Achebe recounts an interesting saying to describe the black-and-white-thinking, condescending schemer of a pastor who replaces the first, well-liked missionary: “There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.” Okonkwo is his counterpart, both of them doomed to dance right off the edge of the platform.

In the end, his aggression, grown to a furor over all the change he can’t control, drives him to once again react in violence to kill a white enemy, and then take his own life, an abomination to the Earth god he believes in. He feels abandoned by the weak tribe who would no longer stand with him, who no longer reveres his greatness. The standard no longer applies. And so he destroys everything he has and is before his enemies can.

Things fell drastically apart, but not for everyone. Some in the tribe welcome a new path though it came unbidden, and move with the changes around them, prospering. The tragedy in the story is not that the whites came in and mucked up the system, sending Okonkwo to his ruin. Systems are always being mucked up; power is grabbed (human heads are taken!); motivations vacillate; some interlopers are tolerable, some you hate. The real tragedy to me is that Okonkwo couldn’t see beyond his own lust for glory, could not imagine another arbiter besides his fists, could not imagine a world outside his village, and could not equate peace and merriment with anything other than his impoverished father, who failed the family but had a heart at least.

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