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A breathtaking novel



A notable feature of international publishing in the last few years has been the outstanding success of emerging African and Afropolitan female novelists – “emerging” in the sense of novelists newly arrived on the scene. These include Yaa Giyasi (Ghana), Namwali Serpell (Zambia), Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria), Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia) and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda). So, as you can see, this is pretty well a continent-wide development. Now comes a breathtaking novel called Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Zimbabwean Petina Gappah. The sub-title of her novel is “Being a Faithful Account of the Final Years and Earthly Days of Doctor David Livingstone and His Last Journey from the Interior to the Coast of Africa, as Narrated by his African Companions in Three Volumes” (of course a novel centred on Livingstone is going to be set in the nineteenth century, and the sub-title is a nice parody of Victorian book-speak). Bearing Livingstone’s body travel 69 companions, some of whom die on what turns out to be a perilous journey of some 1 500 miles. The novel’s epigraph is from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, recording the words of Pericles speaking of dead Athenian heroes: “in foreign lands there dwells an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but on the hearts of men.” The Prologue deals with Livingstone’s “doomed, demented search” for the source of the Nile (he got that all wrong) and with the horrors of the slave trade, of which a heroic Livingstone was one of the fiercest opponents. There is also from his companions an appalled premonition of the colonial depredations that are shortly to follow: “What if we had known that our final act of loyalty to [the Doctor] would sow the seeds of our children’s betrayal, their fate and that of their children’s children also.” To say what the novel as a whole is about isn’t as simple a task as it sounds. Here, surely, the interest, the energy lie not so much in the contents of the “Faithful Account” (focus, Livingstone) as in the experiences and perceptions of those who do the accounting and those who narrate the story (or, as we say nowadays, the focalizer). The first of these is Halima, observant, responsible, and sharp-tongued. After Livingstone, convulsed with laughter, rebukes her, she records “I shouted after him, you can say what you will about my tongue . . . but I will not have my character taken away from me, Bwana or no Bwana.” The tirade that follows, about Livingstone’s plans to round the Cape, is hilarious; it might not be going too far to claim that Halima is one of the great characters of modern African fiction. There is little up to this point on Livingstone’s Christian evangelism, but the focus shifts dramatically with the novel’s second part “The Body of David” from the diary of Jacob Wainwright, a convert, which is written from a faith perspective and so forms a vivid and vital contrast to Halima’s narrative. Gappah notes that the journal is her own invention, as she’d finished the novel by the time the actual Wainwright diary was belatedly published. Gappah is, again, hilarious in establishing Wainwright’s alarming level of self-esteem. At the same time, his account of his rescue from a slave dhow and his years at a mission school near Bombay is inspirational. Towards the end of the section Wainwright has a vision of the Valley of Bones (an important trope for Southern African poetry of liberation) and an episode of volcanic power follows in which one of the party launches a furious diatribe against all the whites who will follow Livingstone and expropriate everything that Africans possess. Without my giving too much away, the novel’s very short and satisfying final section (“Bagamoyo”, a town near Dar es Salaam) deals with the happy life of Halima after the party reach the coast, and with Wainwright whose life remains turbulent and troubled. I don’t know how my readers might get hold of copies of this superb novel. At present it is published in hardback by Faber and Faber, London. Let us hope that at some point a Southern African paperback edition appears. Chris Dunton

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