19 November, 2008

Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi

I was going to write about Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi, which I just finished yesterday (a very quick, 178 page read), but it turns out that all of my thoughts about the book have already been eloquently stated in this New York Times article that's a month older than I am.

Essentially, though trying to be a timely allegory, the novel doesn't exist outside of its own pages, and hardly within them. Emecheta, a woman from Lagos, Nigeria, who had previously written a couple autobiographical works, sets her fable in the fictional, hardscrabble village of Shavi, somewhere on the lakes of Ogene in the southern Sahara. Emecheta can't quite decide whether the Shavians are heroic, idyllic primitives or warmongering imperialists just waiting to explode out of the past; one things for certain: they're not complex, well-rounded human beings, since no character is afforded more than a few pat summarizations and philosophical objectives.

Some offensive because they're supposed to be offensive liberal white intellectuals crash-land a flaming bird--birds being an oracular animal to the Shavians--into the Shavian wilderness, and the two groups spend a couple years teaching their moral flaws to each other. Their being there is somewhat nonsensical; they've fled Europe in a supposedly indestructible plane because they were certain that the civilized world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust. I'm not sure how people that paranoid and jumpy could be smart enough to build an indestructible plane, but what's more surprising is that when they land said indestructible plane and meet the locals, they can't even figure out where they are. It takes several chapters for them to deduce they're in Africa, and then only because a modified version of a certain African instrument is used in a celebration. Come on, guys? Weren't you looking out the window? Wasn't there any navigational gear? Can't you freaking tell when you're in the Sahara surrounded by a stereotypical African tribe?

The thoughtful, slow-moving Shavians--themselves refugee slaves from five hundred years ago--distrust the leprous, albino monkeys at first, many assuming that they're not human, but eventually they become convinced that, because of the flaming bird they arrived in, they are angels from Heaven sent to test their hospitality as well as deliver gifts that will free them from starvation and drought. This is a key distinction between the Europeans and the Shavians, perhaps the difference that's supposed to be most important. When the plane is fixed, a Shavian returns with the surviving Europeans to England. This man wrapped in goat skins who crash-lands into England in a strange, unregistered plane with five people who have been missing for over a year is detained by immigration officials for a couple of days before being released and embraced by society, which quickly corrupts him with its Western ways. Whereas the Shavians bestow great honors upon the visiting Europeans, the Europeans temporarily detain the visiting Shavian.

But here's the essential difference that's ignored by Emecheta: none of the Europeans think that the Shavian is an angel from God, which he proves by quickly adopting only the worst of Western habits (and there are no good Western values in this book; we're a bunch of jumpy, arrogant baby-killers with no respect for the simpler things in life). Likewise, no European suspects the Shavian is a contagious leper or a beast. It makes sense that the Shavians would pay special attention to visitors from the sky when a) they've never seen airplanes or white people and b) they never receive visitors. It's a little silly to expect one of hundreds of daily immigrants to be treated like royalty, yet Emecheta condemns the British for not giving the man a plush suite at Buckingham Palace.

One of the white people, a female doctor, is cut down a notch for attempting to impose her arrogant Western medicine on the Shavians. Watching a breach birth in progress, she attempts to provide her assistance in possibly performing a Caesarian section and saving the infant's life. She is shooed away, the birth is performed naturally in a squatting position, and everything ends up okay. Later she beats herself up for having fooled herself into thinking that her medical expertise would be superior to tradition (a tradition which, keep in mind, believes that female clitorisation is necessary for a woman to have sex--an act that is brought up but never really explored, a mutilation that is treated as a normal operation). I guess I'm biased, but I like to think that Western medicine and medical procedures have probably saved a few lives. There's something to be said for doing things naturally and holistically--but, uh, the outcome isn't always as peachy.

The Shavians don't exist in the real world, but they seem more realistic than the one-dimensional Europeans in the novel--Europeans that actually do exist and that Emecheta would've known. Lagos with its population of 8 million isn't exactly isolated Shavi. It's difficult pinpointing a reality in this book (the valuable, "hard" stones that proliferate the Shavian land and aren't quite diamonds add an extra dimension of implausibility), which makes the hamfisted statements and talking-head dialogue all the more difficult.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

Thank you! I just wanted to let you know that already having read the novel, your article helped me just as much as _The Times_ with finalizing my Ph.D. research as to this novel.