Novels about European and American men of means traversing landscapes foreign and surreal are an opportunity to explore the world with a familiar narrative lens, reducing the sense of alienation and strangeness that can be a barrier of entry to many who need explanations about what is happening in foreign lands. The narrator, also requiring explanation, can turn to someone and ask them what is going on. The culture does not need this information, and would merely continue operating under a context and subtext that may be too alien to Western audiences to be anything but a distraction to readers who struggle with suspension of disbelief, sometimes. Ergo, there is a value in these narratives.
I am thinking of books like Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, in which a terrible human being, believed to be a spoof of Ernest Hemingway-esque white saviors, traverses Africa causing damage and brushing up against genuine danger all the while grappling with his own failure to see what is before him, for the narrator probably doesn’t transcend the racism that came with him on the plane from America. He is a boorish, drunken buffoon wrapped in his own sense of greatness. The book spares him no glory along his path of destruction and failure in Africa. In its time, the book divided critics. It is a beautifully-written, metaphysical exploration of a troubled, difficult man. On the other hand, it is a bit racist, no?
Africa, in the book, seems populated by amalgamations of many stereotypes of what white men in the sixties probably perceived Africa to be. A people of noble savages are simply too noble to kill the frogs that poison the water supply that deny their cattle. The pidgen and depiction of ignorant savages grates in an era when our failure to humanize Africa, as a continent covered in diverse peoples and cultures all with varying hopes, dreams, desires, desperations, far beyond whatever nonsense is depicted in the Nobel-prize winning comic masterpiece.
It still divides. Sometimes, I think it is a brilliant metaphysical book that is wrapped so tightly into the narrator’s failure to see what is in front of his face, that it has to be a masterpiece about rich, white, boorish, racist Americans finding themself on Safari. Sometimes, I am haunted by the gaze of the narrator, describing the peoples of Africa as if they were alien species behind seemingly human eyes.
Recently, I read Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, widely considered one of the best novels written in the English language. It probably is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read in Texas. I’m about two or three hours from the Mexican border, down here, at the moment. I don’t just see a whole bunch of strange, different peoples, speaking in a thick accent, if at all, and operating as a kind of purgatory setpiece for the struggling alcoholic’s delusions and colonial excess. Instead, I am more interested in the tavern keeper whose son is called the son of the elephant, and the supposed bank thief, and the political maelstrom that rides underneath with the police officer’s strike. I want to know the story of everyone except the one person the book is truly about.
It is a beautiful, sweeping masterpiece of prose crippled by the period that produced it, when stories about foreign countries could only exist as great works of art if a white man walked among its pages, where the landscape reflects the soul of the hero on some metaphysical, tragicomic romp.
These narratives are not, necessarily, unworthy of reading. In fact, the great danger of them is how superior the craft of fiction is inside of them. They are marvelous, beautiful novels that have, at their heart, something pustrous and festrule and ignominositously skronk. What do we do with these great books of a former age? I read, and I study them, and I wonder what I am to do with this book in the days to come? We cannot just relegate some of the great books of a century to a dustbin because they carry the racism of their own time and place hidden, unintentionally, in the margins of the text. The books both certainly try to do right by their adopted continents. There is a genuine effort by the authors to let the communities be vibrant and alive and true to themselves as more than what the narrator sees in them. Yet, the landscape exists so that white men can have their souls reflected in them.
It is a narrative trope, done well, that leads to such films as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that is guilty of the same even while it tries very hard to feature Indian characters in lead roles, and to portray a story of cross-cultural dialog that meets everyone in the middle, who is able. Still, one can’t help but grimace at the thick accents, the lingering lens of a camera drinking in exoticism, and the depiction of Indians as present for white redemption that is only barely their own. See the picture of the film’s poster above? Notice how none of the Indian actors are portrayed upon it.
This is also the story of Heart of Darkness, wherein a white man journeys up the river to the white man who became the savior of a savage race and place. It is hard to fault the trope when it has produced major and enjoyable works of art. The outsider comes to town, so to speak, from a different culture and tradition from the one the intended audience knows is a capable vehicle of much great potential. It is also the story of so many terrible and offensive works of film and fiction: these noble savages who need their white savior, these inferior, ignorant others who are unknowable and inscrutable to the white man. How unsurprising and fitting that the Vietnam War would become the backdrop for the great film version of this classic, where the futility of the white savior narrative truly came to the front of white consciousness. We lost that war. We lost so much trying to be saviors of people we dehumanized doubly as both a racial slur and Commies!
I don’t know what to make of the concept, honestly. It is harder and harder to write, when the seams of racism show at all the edges even under the best of circumstances and skillsets. It is such a product of a time when Africa and Mexico and Australia and all the corners of the earth had no voices of their own permitted to speak to the world as an equal, and it continues on in narratives and political narratives today, where the white savior arrives to push around the ignorant, the stolid, the stupid, and the stuck.It is also the way that readers who have those predispositions can actually encounter new cultures (when done well and justly) that would otherwise not enter their imaginary spaces. Hopefully, that will provide some instigation towards a wider exploration and acceptance of new cultures and communities of humans.
1947 gave birth to the novel, Under the Volcano, about central Mexico. By 1960, an explosion of Central and South American writers would propel onto the world stage, reaching readers who would probably be unable to pinpoint the various nations from which these authors derived on a map except to point at a huge landmass somewhere south of Texas. Was Lowry’s volcano part of that coming flood? Did he pave the way in the imagination of readers and reviewers and writers, along with other white authors of all those lesser adventures, for the mental landscape that would become, among other places, Garcia Marquez’ brilliant and dazzling and luminous Macondo? Is this the true trajectory of intellectual colonization? First, the stories are about the white men that visit the place. Second, the stories are about the white men who fail and are defeated by their lack of understanding of a place. Third, the place speaks back, and tells her own stories about what happened when the white man came. Finally, Macondo exists apart from all places and times, a community so deep in the jungle of Colombia, that it carries all the imaginations of the world into a whole new way of thinking about reality, art, the imagination, and the trajectory of souls.
More research and reading is necessary for the final wild assertion. Leave thoughts in the comments, because I’d love to hear them on this topic.