Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Darling

I’m not going to attempt a long critical analysis of the novel I recently finished, but I want to try to express some prominent "turns-of-emotion" I experienced while reading Russell Banks’ The Darling. I chose this novel after reading a short review of Banks’ latest book The Reserve. The review referenced 2004’s The Darling as a novel set against the atrocities of the Liberian civil war, and because I based my capstone research paper on colonists in Liberia I was drawn to this work of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed, although the events of this novel take place around 140 years after the period I researched. Still, the recent past, as portrayed by Banks, proves more horrific and inexplicable than anything I uncovered about nineteenth-century pedagogy and separatism.

Founded as a quasi-American colony through the patronage of an organization known as the American Colonization Society, Liberia gained independence in 1847. The independence was tenuous and heavily reliant on American aid, with descendants of relocated American slaves being the prominent members of a class-system based along ethnic and genealogical lines. By the mid-twentieth-century Liberia was experiencing a relative period of stability under the leadership of William Tolbert, underwritten by a cash flow from American corporations such as Firestone. (One of Liberia’s key exports is rubber.) From 1980, after the overthrow and murder of Tolbert, until the end of the century Liberia experienced almost two decades of bloody civil war. The country only just gained a marked amount of security with the election of American backed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Charles Taylor, whom Sirleaf succeeded and whose life-story could be made into an outlaw western if he wasn’t guilty of so many atrocities, is currently standing trial on hundreds of counts of war crimes in the Hague.

The Liberian portion of Banks’ work spans from 1976 until the late-1990 by which time Taylor is leading the country. The narrator is Hannah Musgrave, an ex-1960’s radical who, to escape her stifling upbringing and the FBI’s most wanted list, flees to West Africa with a fellow militant idealist and ends up in Liberia, the wife of the Minister of Health in William Tolbert’s cabinet. Musgrave must endure every indignity in this highly patriarchal culture to remain with her husband and three sons, and as the situation deteriorates Hannah endures far worse. Her only true peace comes when she opens a refuge for abused chimpanzees. She finds solace in the unambiguous nature of these apes, who demand only food, water and company from her. They seem to live at the whim of some inexplicable natural force that dictates they live in the present at all times. This detachment from Hannah’s world compels her to name them her “dreamers.”

This is the first work I’ve read by Banks and I found it an absolutely unique, although not always pleasant, experience. I was halfway through the novel before I came to the conclusion that I was engrossed. I tried not to like it for about 200 pages, but found that I couldn’t put it down. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel this length (392 pages) in such a short time. (I won’t tell how long it took to save me some embarrassment from the speed-readers out there). My initial problem was that the narrative builds around meandering reminiscences and explorations-of- feeling by Hannah as she tries to explain her story to the reader and herself. I don’t have much patience for extended self-exploration, unless I’m the one doing it, and the first half of this work has this in spades. There is a great deal of second-guessing, expressions of resentment, regrets and ambiguity that had me zoning out a time or two. But somehow it all seems convincing, as if this is how someone’s brain must work if they have experienced—witnessed—great tragedy.

So when the atrocities take place in the book they come with a force that could only be rivaled by actual events. It has also been a long time since I’ve felt such a physical jolt while reading. Banks’ succeeds in getting the tone and suddenness of brutality, so when the acts of violence come it is as shocking to the reader as to the characters portrayed on the page. I will say here that if these types of descriptions bother you, it's probably best if you avoid this novel. But to me this is the novel’s greatest achievement. The Darling unmasks how the brutality-of-war and the reality-of-death shakes us from our own dreams, dreams built on self-delusion, faulty ideology and filtered news segments, so that the real story of Liberia is contained only in the abrupt downward stroke of a machete.

After I’d finished the novel I went out and rented Hotel Rwanda. I avoided this film when it first came out, I’m not sure why, maybe I just wasn’t ready for this story yet. The movie is good, and I found myself moved, but I also felt that as hard as it tries it just isn’t as good as it needs to be. There is hope, and a hero, and a happy ending and nothing can get the attention of the West like that combination, but something about this movie and the 1,000,000 lives lost during Rwanda’s crises didn’t seem to connect. Still, there is a point that the filmmakers were brave to make. Western society continues to revere Africa as a “less-than” in the world equation. While many of these Westerners also complain of corruption in African countries, I can only guess that corruption is the inevitable step-child of exploitation. We would do better to view Africa for its most valuable commodity, its people.


litlove said...

This sounds amazing, but it's the kind of book I like to experience more second-hand through a great review like this, than actually read. I can only do violence for academic texts I have to teach - which gives me the distance I need.

IM said...

The violence in this novel is very graphic Litlove. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone without telling them that first. I found it a little hard to take and now I'm reading a book with a little less sharp focus on brutality.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post--I really like the last paragraph. There was a documentary about the same story that "Hotel Rwanda" tells regarding the UN pulling out. I wish I could remember the name of it because it was really good. linser

Emily Barton said...

Oh, Russell Banks is brutal, but some of his stuff is great. I haven't read THE DARLING, but CONTINENTAL DRIFT nearly did me in, and THE SWEET HEREAFTER is near perfection (the movie of that was really good, too). For some reason, though, I couldn't get through THE RULE OF THE BONE. I think it was just too foreboding. You make me want to pick him up again.

IM said...

Emily, I couldn't continue with Rule of the Bone either and I'll need to read something uplifting soon because I'm just finishing up a book about the wreck of the whaleship Essex (the one that inspired Melville) where they had to resort to cannabalism (!)So any feelgood stuff you could recommend right now would be welcome.

Emily Barton said...

Hmmmm...something uplifting...Have you read any Harlan Coben? He's great for good-guys-win-in-the-end-type thrillers. And I'd highly recommend G.K. Chesterton's THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, as well as his Father Brown stories, if you haven't read them. Whatever you do, though, don't read I AM LEGEND (if you haven't already read it).