Outsiders in Africa, STRANGE GODS by Annamaria Alfieri
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Jun 5 2014, 1:07 PM
     In the Historical Note to Blood Tango, the third of her South American mysteries, Annamaria Alfielri discusses her research into Argentina during the Peron era. About Eva Peron, Alfieri notes that in the popular imagination, she is still either a saint or a whore, adding “she was neither and she was both.” This is a very complex perception and should not be confused with the simple idea that Eva was a combination of saint and whore. Instead, Alfieri has created a liminal space between two ways of life which she imagines Eva occupies, and this area between two boundaries can serve as a guide to Alfieri’ other books, in the following discussion Strange Gods, the first of a planned series set in Africa.
     It is 1911 and the Reverend Clement McIntosh had brought his wife Blanche to the British Protectorate in East Africa to take charge of the mission established by the Church of Scotland. There their two children, Vera and Otis are born. Later his wife’s brother, Josiah Pennyman, a physician whose skill in healing is inversely proportionate to his moral sense, comes to the Protectorate and is murdered with a Maasai spear. District Commissioner Cranford, who views all the natives as savages, is eager to try and execute a Kikuyu medicine man, Gichinga Mbura, who is known to have hated Josiah. Pennyman had healed many of the Kikuyu sick, who then turned away from their tribal healer, thereby raising doubts about his ability to cure bodily ills. and causing Mbura to lose face. But tribal custom indicates that it would be virtually impossible for a Kikuyu to have killed with a Maasai weapon. Only reluctantly does Cranford, who is answerable to the authorities in England, allow a search to be conducted for other possible suspects. The investigation is carried out by Justin Tolliver, Assistant District Superintendent with the police, a man with whom Vera will fall in love.  
     He has also aroused in her strong sexual feelings, although she knows that no proper Scottish young lady should experience or admit them even to herself. Her physical response to Justin is only one side of her often repressed rebellion against the culture her mother embraces wholeheartedly.  Blanche tries to instill in Vera the attributes Vera would have internalized and taken for granted in Scotland but the African wild undermines Blanche’s efforts.  About midway through Strange Gods Strange Gods, a scene takes place in the wilderness.  Justin and one of his native police, Kwai Libazo, become aware of the proximity of a rhinoceros followed by her baby. The rhino stops briefly, watching for any potential threat to her offspring before the two move on.  Blanche too tries to protect her child in that she wants to mold her into the suitable lady a suitable husband would want to marry, but in the end she cannot  make Vera resemble the cultural image by which Blanche is guided.   
      Kwai Libazo is one of the most unusual sidekicks in crime fiction, certainly no Dr. Watson, who would have fit easily into the social world of the Protectorate. A native policeman, he loves his job and comes to worships what he thinks of as the British god of justice, which is  too often ignored in the Protectorate. The ease with which Kwai accepts the British can perhaps be explained by his being the character in Strange Gods who is an outsider virtually everywhere in his life, belonging nowhere, either among the native Africans nor the whites. From this enforced distance, Kwai, who is very intelligent, learns a great deal about the ways of the white people and his perceptions and occasional bewilderment as well as those of other natives occasionally add a comic element to Strange Gods. For example, at one point Justin and a character named Denys Finch Hatton are assumed to be enemies because the Kikuyu have heard that in England each had attended a different prep school and had faced each other in a cricket match. For the Kikuyu, attendees as different schools are members of different tribes—and perhaps they are not entirely wrong. Tribalism supplies a significant theme in Strange Gods; at one point Vera describes for Justin how many African tribes there are and how their customs differed, but such a view of Africa is at odds with why Justin has come to the continent and what he hopes to accomplish there.  At least at first there are for him the natives and there are the English and any other way of understanding African culture would challenge the simple dichotomies that make up his world. 
      The major characters in Strange Gods, Vera, Justin, Kwai Libazo, and the Reverend McIntosh are to varying degrees outsiders to their own worlds, and are neither and both as regards their status as English or African, socially appropriate or rebel, savage as the English understand that or civilized. They live between two realms of existence to neither of which do they fully belong.  It was an act of authorial courage that allowed Alfieri in Strange Gods to invite her readers to explore their liminal space with her. Stark antitheses demand less from author and reader, and it is almost a commonplace for a book’s main character to be described as having to choose between two worlds. In Strange Gods what occurs and how characters react cannot be so simply described.
     It will be useful to go outside Alfieri's book to clarify how her approach to opposites differs from narratives that emphasize antitheses.  Fortunately, the example, is a familiar one, the extremely popular ballet Swan Lake and its contrast between good and evil embodied in the white swan Odette and the black swan Odile. (Some dance companies have sidestepped the implications of this potentially racial difference by assigning other colors to Odile, formerly the black swan). The distinction between the vulnerable and fluttering white swan, Odette, and the seductive, sometimes serpentine Odile is an obvious one.  To break down this difference could not be merely a matter of combining the swans and creating an Odilette, for what would she be like? How would she be costumed? In gray. Gray is usually the color of ordinariness, blandness. And in Strange Gods, gray is definitely not a good color. The autocratic Cranford, who can hardly wait to execute the witch doctor as a warning to other natives, is described as a powerful man sitting at his desk, “entirely gray, his clothing, his hair, his skin, his eyes.” He is not an evil man but he is dangerous because of the power bestowed on him by the British. He is not after anyone’s soul, but he is bigoted and self-interested, more concerned with his own position in the Protectorate bureaucracy than in carrying out the ideal of British justice.
     Ballet fans, however, who are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s famous work also know—even if they don’t articulate it this way—that the ballerina who dances both roles has to be neither and both Odette and Odile. The role of the white and black swans is very demanding, partly because the dancer is on stage for so long but even more importantly because a prima ballerina also must emerge from some liminal space to dance each part. If she is too much Odette, she cannot really do justice to the character of Odile, or if too much Odile, she cannot portray the pathetic and vulnerable Odette. The dancer, however, understand that the differences between them does not exist as mere choreography. Rather, she must employ a distinct body language to characterize these stark opposites.  Hers is a very demanding task, and it is not unusual for some dance companies to assign the roles to two different dancers. (See the recent film The Black Swan.) But the truly great ballerinas who have danced both roles have been those who were neither Odette nor Odile, but were also both of them.
      Dark and fair ladies who represent opposite values were a commonplace in nineteenth-century English and American literature, and to read some authors (Hawthorne, for example) is to realize that while the male protagonists of these books prove that gentlemen prefer blondes--not a sexy Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, who knows that diamonds are a girl’s best friends-- but passive, submissive women willing to be subservient to men. The author and perhaps many of their readers may nonetheless be drawn instead to the dark lady. In an introduction to Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott says that Rebecca had “found so much favour in the eyes of some fair readers, that the writers was censured, because, when arranging the fates of the characters of the drama, he had not assigned the hand of Wilfred [Ivanhoe] to Rebecca, rather than the less interesting Rowena.” This would have been impossible in the middle ages, Scott explains, for Rebecca is Jewish and such a union would never have taken place. And no more than Tchaikovsky could create a satisfactory Odilette could Scott create a Rowbecca.  Still, the difference between his two female characters supplies a useful way to approach Alfieri’s Strange Gods. Rowena and Rebecca do not, of course, act out the struggle between good and evil, but are nonetheless the antithesis of each other because one belongs to the society in which she lives whereas the other is an outsider.  To read Strange Gods is to recognize that Alfieri’s main characters prove outsiders who occupy neither of the two worlds that they can choose between. They are in that sense forced into otherness, neither and both. Crossing the boundary into one of those worlds is always possible for them, and part of the interest in Strange Gods, and perhaps the succeeding books in the series, is whether any of them will.
     Of course the question of who belongs and who is the outsider has to do with the British moving into East Africa and claiming it for themselves, rationalizing that they are bringing civilization and enlightenment to the savages who were there before. They force the African natives into the status of outsiders, and for many of the English, worse that that, inhuman, to be compared to animals. It is when Justin comes to understand that he may be the intruder that the space between him and  Vera begins to close, although to the end of Strange Gods, he and Vera do not agree on some fundamental attitudes toward the Africans. Even Alfieri's ending is an instance of neither and both.  The last pages seem to suggest a happy conclusion as Vera and Justin plan to marry. And yet their differences, added to the uncertainties they have where the other is concerned and about themselves would raise in readers significant doubts about their future. 
    It is a feature of Strange Gods that it makes literal in an exciting way what is also symbolic. Both Vera and Justin set out to travel through wild territory to catch up with a party on a safari among whom may be the real murderer of Pennyman. Justin is in a
race to save Mbura because he convinced the witch doctor is innocent.  He has no personal liking for the man but he is passionate not only about British justice but about its importance in converting the natives to what he considers civilization. Vera is anxious to find her brother, one member of the party, because she thinks he may be in danger. Both Vera and Justin are accompanied by others, including trackers. As time passes, the two groups of searchers come closer to each other, but the essential conflicts between Vera and Justin are not over. Justin has begun to recognize that it is he who is an outsider in Africa and  that the whites are perhaps more savage than those they think they must civilize. Still, he has not completely shaken off the idea of the white man’s burden. His elationship to Kwai Libazzo and his disputes with Cranford about English justice  and the importance of not rushing to judgment, of assuming innocence rather than guilt, as is the British way, are evidence of his potential for good in the Protectorate. That is, assuming that his aspiring to the good in a colonial setting does not beg the more important questions. He furthermore has not rid himself of the ideal of pure British womanhood, and his ambivalence about Vera will cause him to make a mistake that could put an end to their relationship.  
      The depiction of otherness in Alfieri’s characters can best be illustrated by looking first at Kwai Libazo, for, again, he is not a member of any group. When, in his official capacity as a law enforcement officer, Kwai questions relatives of the suspect in jail, he is met with scorn. “Who will speak to you now Kwai Libazo? You were not born a fish a fish. You were not born a chicken. But at least you were born an African. But now you have given yourself to the British for wages. So now you are not black and you are not white.” This, however true, is not as scathing as the wound Mbara himself tries to inflict, to taunt Kwai with, for earlier emphasizes that even as an African, Kwai is an outsider. Born of a Kikuyu mother and Maasai father, Kwai belonged to neither tribe.. “You give the white man’s orders, but you are not a white man. You are not a Kikuyu. You are not a Maasai.” Kwai Libazo is very aware of this. He had been denied the circumcision rites of both tribes, the first step to becoming a warrior. “Becoming a full-fledged man in either [tribe] would have freed him from the limbo in which he had lived his life.” Instead, he had become a native policeman in the white man’s department, working under Justin Tolliver. “His work had become more important to him than anything else in his life. In fact, it was the first thing he had ever experienced that drew all of him, that made him feel like a man. He had been denied warrior status in both his mother’s and his father’s tribes. He belonged nowhere in his native land. And he knew very well that he could never be seen as a true member of the white people’s tribe.”
      Nor is Kwai a fully accepted member of the police. Early in the book, Tolliver faces danger when he tries to arrest some white men who were wrecking a bar and finds himself facing two thugs with guns. He knows how to save himself but also knows he “was about to make the unforgivable mistake of using African policeman against Europeans,” that when he ordered Libazo to handcuff them, he was giving a command of which “Cranford would disapprove.” The reality, however, is that he had depended on Kwai and the other askaris (a native policeman and soldier in a olonial administration) to save his life. This episode illustrates how intertwined are the interests of the native Africans and settlers of the Protectorate, but this pragmatic view is rejected by Cranford, who felt the natives needed to be kept “in their place.” In any event, the episode illustrates the marginalized position of not only Kwai but also Justin Tolliver.
      It went without saying in the Protectorate that there would be no social interaction between black natives and white colonialists. At some point, Libazo feels the need to talk to Vera McIntosh, who, it will be seen, is as marginalized a person as Kwai, so much so that when he takes the audacious step of calling on her, she agrees, not only because she does not share the views of the other whites, including her own mother’s, but because she felt like neither “fish nor flesh herself.” But Kwai already knows this although he would never discuss it with anyone, much less Vera. He comes with enough news already to disconcert her, telling her that the witch doctor Mbura has put a curse on Justin Tolliver, such curses amazingly effective in causing the death of those who believe in them. She is also going to be discomfited when Kwai tells her Justin has a good heart but that he “does not understand Africa.”
     Kwai may not belong to either whites or blacks, but his otherness sensitizes him to the impact that culture has on people. And his superior intellectual gifts arouse in him great pleasure as he learns about white people, not as adversaries but as another kind of tribe whose differences intrigue him.  He is eager to understand, for example, the distinction between facts and legal proof as intrinsic to the English justice system. It remains the case, however, that Kwai does not recognize that Justin, like Vera and like himself, is also neither fish nor fowl. What he has learned, however, is that for many English, there are always two sides to the same coin. 
     The image of a coin, a thin object, is such that there is really no significant space between heads and tails. And because Justin himself does not grasp this, Kwai, who works closely with him, has not picked up from his superior officer the clues that would expand his conscious awareness of Justin’s own occasional confusion. It awakens in Justin whenever he tries to understand his attraction to Vera McIntosh.  First, she is not the type that had up to now awakened or satisfied the urges of his libido.  And he takes as given—at least early in Strange Gods--the traditional differentiation of pure young women, virgins, from women with whom men without qualms make love to satisfy their own sexual desires. And if they also give pleasure and satisfaction to those women, this in itself suggests they are lascivious and sinful, not usually to be made wives. That this distinction works better in England than in Africa is a theme in Strange Gods Is a subject that will  be returned to.
       At birth, Justin became a potential outsider, being the second son in his family and therefore not the one on whom the title and most of the family wealthy and property would be bestowed. It is not that the second and succeeding sons are cast out, but their expectations are limited. The futures of landed families "were no longer assured,” one of the Justin’s English acquaintances tells him.  “Bankrolls for second sons had vanished from many families,” his informant having himself come to Africa where his assets could still allow him the lifestyle he once could have taken for granted in England. Traditionally, the second son went into the army (which Justin does) and the third into the church. What all the sons retain, however, is the connection to the title, which makes them desirable husbands for young women whose families trade their wealth for their daughters’ enhanced social status. Many English novels take for their plots this kind of alliance; and rich American young women who came to have the same value to increasingly impoverished European men also supply plots for fiction.
     After Tolliver leaves the army, he decides to remake his life in Africa. And he is welcomed at first by the socially elite of the Protectorate. He was, after all, the son of an earl whose title had existed for seven generations. What Justin would like to have done is own a plantation and be a farmer, but he lacks the money to buy the land and will not marry to achieve his goal. When he subsequently joins the police force, he alienates the families who feel he has fallen in his social position, and has probably disappointed as well families who hoped a daughter would becomes Mrs. Justin Tolliver. Reverend McIntosh fostered no such hope for his daughter Lucy. He is addionally not among the snobs Justin despised, men  who once served in India, whose social position was based only on rank and salary in the Raj, a highly stratified society. The unassuming Reverend McIntosh calls Justin, Captain Tolliver, “a sign of respect that few British en accorded a young nobleman who had had the bad judgment to join the police force.”
     In a life which in one way or another has been marginalized, Justin Tolliver like Kwai Libazo finds in law enforcement not only employment but also meaning to his existence. Kwai finally felt as if he belonged somewhere even if there remained limits to how a native African policemen could proceed against Europeans in the course of conducting an investigation. Justin finds in the work his social circle scorns a way of nobly assuming the white man’s burden. He is convinced that British interests required not only that the police force show that English law now ruled this land, but also that the British Empire stood for true justice. "If they did not take the moral high ground and teach the native the righteousness of British ways, the best of England would never prevail.” Josiah Pennyman’s was a case of murder and “finding the real culprit was the only way to do what he had joined the police force to do: help Britain bring peace and prosperity and civilization to this beautiful but savage land.”
      For Tolliver there is at first no marginal space between native savagery and British civilization, the latter exemplified by a justice system he has not yet learned may be more an ideal than a reality. There is, indeed, usually no middle ground between the many antitheses that make up he world as he perceives it. He has difficulty reconciling his loyalty to England with the growing hold over him of Africa. “He still believed that the letter of British law must be applied. In a sense it was more important in the case of a native accused of a heinous crime.” He reminds himself that the English were in Africa to bring “civilization” to the savages. But his “mind stopped at the word ‘savages.’”  Although new to homicide, he wondered now what right he had to call the natives savages. While “their skin was dark, their souls were lighter than many of his countrymen’s.”
     But none of this confusion comes near his troubled attempt to reconcile his growing attraction to Vera McIntosh with pervasive assumptions about women—again having difficulty finding some middle ground between extremes. When Lucy Buxton, the wife of one of the suspects in Pennyman’s murder because Buxton knew she and Pennyman had been lovers, tries to seduce Justin, he easily relegates her to the role of a lascivious woman, only later experiencing a twinge of sympathy for her situation. Her husband had not proven to be the man she thought she married and she was, in addition, bored and frustrated by her life in the Protectorate. Like an earlier woman who had for a while initiated him into the physical pleasures of sex, Lucy is fair and blonde, “the type who would dress as Diana, the huntress in a tableau.” Lucy is indeed a huntress, one who uses men for her own pleasure and her own plans for her future, but Diana (or Artemis in Greek mythology) is a virgin who acts out her anger against men in her divine role as the protector of young maidens such as Vera McIntosh. But Justin Tolliver has not worked through these contradictions. As he struggles with his own sexual frustration and memories of a former lover very much like Lucy, “his thoughts turned to Vera McIntosh, the antithesis of those hungry women—dark-haired, olive-skinned, slight, and graceful as a fairy forest creature.” But Justin’s vision of Vera is that of an unreal and not a flesh-and-blood woman whose own sexual hunger, had he recognize it, would have shocked him.
     What Justin did know was troubling enough. That Vera has her own strong opinions and is ready to voice them even when he disagrees with her. When he learns that Vera has embarked on a search for the party her brother had joined in the wild, because Otis might be in danger, his “feelings were already at fever pitch, both his admiration for Vera’s courage and his concern for her danger.” But soon his worry is transformed into his own split image of her, and “a pesky voice joined in, one that came into his head sounding like his father. He knew that she had to have defied her parents to set out on her journey, and his juxtaposition of authoritarian parent and rebellious child brings to him the the unseen but yet heard paternal warning about his deepening regard for Vera.” Before long, Justin “could not tell if he should idolize or abhor” Vera. One thing was certain, and that was that for his parents Vera would never be someone "he should consider his wife.” With regard to Vera’s own family, Justin “grappled with the idea that his lovely Vera might actually be a deceitful vixen helping her family cover up a crime.” Would he have to arrest her as an accessory to murder. As the two search parties looking for Otis, one including Justin the other Vera, set out by moving in different directions, this divergence becomes a metaphorical description of the way their emotional lives might be taking different paths.
     To see Vera as Justin does is of course not to see Vera as a complex heroine struggling with her own self-doubts.  For Justin is not the only important adult man in her life.  At the end of the book, when Justin proposes marriage, she tells him, “’Let us go and wake up my father.”  And these are the concluding words of Strange Gods. Vera has always known that it is her father rather than her mother who offers her the nurturing love she needs from both parents, that at sad moments he is more likely to cry than Blance. But to offer Vera such emotional support, the Reverend McIntosh, who seems securely rooted in his mission to bring to the natives the religious tenets of the Church of Scotland, must also depart from it. A close look reveals that he too occupies a liminal space, is neither a rigid follower of Jean Calvin nor a free thinker in spiritual matters.  In some ways Reverend McIntosh is both.
     Whereas Vera sees her father as an exception to the belief that women are more softhearted than men, McIntosh does not disagree that his daughter ought to be other than what her mother expects her to be, a proper young English lady, or as Justin modifies this at one point, a proper young Scottish lady. When Justin Tolliver comes to the McIntosh home after Pennyman has been murdered, Vera asks him bluntly if he has seen the body and her father worries about what the policeman will think. Proper young women do not discuss such things. At the same time, McIntosh is proud of some of the ways his daughter is different from other women in the settlement. Tolliver should listen to what she says about the natives, McIntosh advises, for she understands them and knows their customs—for example, that a Kikuyu would not kill with a Maasai sword. Vera’s father tells Justin that Vera “not only understands” the way the natives think, but also “sympathizes with it on many points.” He describes a “fallacy
about the natives” that would be very familiar to her, “that they are a bundle of unbridled emotions. I have never seen that in them, especially not the men. They are as controlled in their emotions as any Englishman, if not more so.”  What he says is of course ironic, since he does not always feel a necessity to curb his own emotions to be a man. McIntosh also understands that although Pennyman’s skill in healing turned many natives away from their witch doctor and to the church, Pennyman was not a good man. Nor was he a “worshipful” man. McIntosh’s adjective underscore the fact that his moral tenets reflect a basic human decency at one with his strong religious beliefs.
     When, late in the book, Vera is with anguish faced with participating in an act of euthanasia when the natives plan to spare a man a definite but agonizing and prolonged death, “her own father’s voice spoke to her in her mind. The priest of the Church of
Scotland would say that there was no mercy in killing another person before the Lord took him in His own time.” There are many things McIntosh would not have approved of, and one of them would certainly have been his daughter’s premarital sex with a man
no matter how much she loved him. She would be expected  to hold her emotions and phyical idrives (insofar as he would allow that she had them) in check. That the giggling young Kikuyu women, who enjoy sex at an early age before marriage (but are forbidden adultery after) and instruct Vera in matters no respectable young lady should be familiar with, seems not to have accurred to the Reverend McIntosh.  But what he pragmatically accepts in the natives’ behavior would not be extended to Vera.  Insofar as this is an accurate portrayal of Reverend McIntosh, he inhabits a clearly defined rather than marginal world. Where he strays across boundaries into liminal space involves, ironically enough, the Calvinist theology that characterizes the Church of Scotland.  
      When she was young, Vera had been sent to her grandmother in Glasgow, an experience that she hated. Not only was the city cold, but so was her grandmother in her “cavernous” house and her chilly ideas of what constituted  proper behavior on Vera’s part. In Strange Gods, Glasgow, its residents, its religious beliefs represent what has traditionally been thought of as the grimness of Scottish Presbytarianism. It was the doctrine of predestination that made for many the Scottish version of Christian belief one of dread and despair. According to Calvin, the fate of each human soul after death had been determined at the time of birth. A few, the elect would be saved but most would be damned and good works would count for nothing (although the ability to do good works might instill hope that one was among the elect). There were several possible responses to this doctrine. Robert Burns in his poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” reveals the smugness and hypocrisy of one who thinks he is among the elect and can with impunity enjoy impure thoughts and acts. Of course, Burns is satirizing the doctrine itself and no single individual.
     The Scottish were not the only ones affected by Calvin’s doctrines. The English poet William Cowper, who suffered frequent bouts of insanity, was convinced he was predestined to hell. His allegorical poem, “The Castaway,” describes a sailor
who has fallen overboard and no matter how his fellows try to rescue him by throwing lifesavers overboard, they fail. In the last stanza, Cowper’s analogy emerges clearly.
                                     No voice divine the storm allay'd,
                                     No light propitious shone;
                                     When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
                                     We perish'd, each alone:
                                     But I beneath a rougher sea,
                                     And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
But it is usually Scotland that is associated with the forbidding Calvinist doctrine. The mystery writer Ian Rankin calls Edinburgh a particularly Calvinist city and in his list of what Rankin thinks are the five best mysteries ever written, James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is at the top, a serious portrayal of a Jekyll/Hyde type of character but also believed by critics to be a satire on Calvinist doctrines.
      In contrast, Vera tells another of her possible suitors that her father “is a joyful Christian, Mr. Finch Hatton. His favorite quote from the Bible is from the Psalms: ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness.’” Finch Hatton’s “bright eyes danced with glee. ‘Not very Scottish of him.’” His ironic response suggests that the Reverend McIntosh is another character whose attributes can be defined as neither and both.  In this particular area of theology he seems to have stepped over the boundary of his defined world into liminal space.

     In Strange Gods, however, it is not Finch Hatton but Justin Tolliver that Vera wants.   And it is in a section that seems to illustrate their growing closeness that the vast chasm between them opens to view. Vera has convinced her parents to let her go on a picnic alone with Justin and they, hoping this might lead to his proposing marriage, agree.  It is a companionable interlude during which they share their attachment to Africa, his a growing one, hers one that has always existed.  She is part of Africa and yet she is not part of it.  Kwai Libazo had understood this. Kwai Libazo understand her.  Like him she belongs to no African tribe.  Nor was she one with the other settlers: “she was nearly as much of a stranger in the world as he.”  This is what Vera tries to explain to Justin. “The Africans have their tribes.  They know where they belong. The white people all have their cliques, the civil servants, businessmen and bankers, the farmers, settlers, and safari men. Each group has its little circle.  Even the missionaries, I suppose, but they all call Scotland or England home.”  She goes on to tell Justin how much she wants to call Africa home, but missionaries are not thought well of and the daughter of a missionary—especially if she seems to defy the concept of the British lady. She is not wanted and tells Justin, “I often feel as if I don’t belong anywhere.” But unlike Justin, her conflicts are internal as well as external.  She must decide who she is.And that may be the hardest quest of all.
       When Justin tells her he experiences the same feeling of alienation, what he is really revealing is how little he understands her, how far from Kwai he is in really sharing Vera’s plight. For although Justin wants to belong, his wish is a response to external reality and not some deep psychological uncertainty. It could be realized simply if not easily solved.  He has no identity crises: “Oh, I have all the right bloodlines, but I spoiled it all by deciding to come here and serve in my present capacity.” He is increasingly drawn to Africa but he feels very much an Englishman.  In contrast to Vera, he is not striving for self-definition as well as belonging. He still hopes that at some point he will be able to buy land and become a farmer, and if that happens he will be easily reunited with the white people who now look askance at him. Because unlike Vera he is not self-analytical, he does not recognize what he would sacrifice by giving up police work for being a coffee plantation owner. As a policeman he fights for justice and thereby seeks to bring a more civilized life to the natives, however questionable his views might be.  As a farmer he will be extracting hard labor from them and also violating the Africans’ usual customs.  Early in the book, Strange Gods describes the Kikuyus setting out to work in the coffee fields of the Scottish mission  Some of them pondered “the strange fact that this land on which their forebears had lived practically since the dawn of man now belonged to representatives of a foreign god.”  The men were particularly resentful, since "before the coming of the white men, they had not had to do fieldwork at all.”  This is a complicated description of the changes in the natives’ lives because it would be a true challenge to any defense of cultural relativism. Women do the backbreaking work and in the name of being ready to spring to action to defend them, the men sit around waiting.
     Because Justin’s world is made up of stark antitheses, reconciling opposites is what is necessary for him.  Very little internal conflict is part of his equations. Money would simply resolve his problems, although, again, it would not be easy for him to obtain some. As a result of what is actually a reductive view, he also could never see Vera as neither or both. His perceptions of her oscillate between  the young woman who lacked the delicacy a well-bred lady should possess and nurture, or someone he could more easily approve of, “that African-born graceful figure” in which there “lurked a real English—no, a Scottish girl, after all.”  Justin does not know what to make of Vera or of his attraction to her: “She was not a predatory woman looking  for nothing but pleasure.  Neither was she a prim and proper English girl who would faint at the slightest provocation.” Nor was she reluctant to hold “opinions with which he could never agree,” amazing him “by frankly expressing them.” His solution concerning Vera is the same pragmatic one that at least in theory would allow him to unite himself with other English settlers by becoming a farmer rather than a policeman and therefore socially acceptable. He would marry Vera and make her unequivocally respectable by that very act. Very early on Vera understands what would be necessary to make her attractive to Justin; she would have “to make herself into the kind of girl” he wanted.  It is a reality that she later becomes increasingly reluctant to ponder. What is sad to the very end of Strange Gods is that because of their strong sexual attraction to each other, neither Vera nor Justin looks across the wide gulf that threatens to separate them.
     It is paradoxical that it is precisely because of his strong sexual frustration in the settlement and his even stronger physical attraction to Vera that Justin underestimates the part played by nature itself in her upbringing.  Like the mother rhino, Vera’s parents were watchful of dangers to her, but she had had only native children as playmates, and from them she had learned early about sex and specifics no proper Scottish wife might ever know, even after marriage.  
     At the beginning of Strange Gods, Vera sneaks out of her house to join her brother Otis on a safari.  She had been prevented from being part of the excursion into the wild because she was at an age when she must be the Scottish gentlewoman ready to be courted by and married to a man her parents would approve.  Such a proper lady would not be drawn to the wilderness.  But Vera is and she already knows the untamed quite well.  She therefore understands what the sound of a lion’s roar means, that it is the climax to its mating.  The very sound triggers her own sexual awakening and evokes thoughts of Justin.  Soon thereafter, the body of her uncle is discovered and her father must tell Vera’s mother that her brother has been killed; he is described as knocking on his wife’s not their bedroom door.  The occupying of separate bedrooms does not necessarily indicate any lack of physical intimacy between the Reverend McIntosh and Blanche. But the contrast between the lion’s roar and Vera’s response to it on one side, and McIntosh’s reticence on the other appears significant. Is it just that he hates being the bearer of such bad news or does the separate rooms suggest something very different in assumptions about marriage between what Vera hopes for and what she might actually experience if she were to fulfill her parents’ hopes that she marry a British gentleman.
     None of this discussion is meant to suggest that for Alfieri there is some kind of clear dichotomy between the “natural” natives and the repressed British settlers. To the contrary, to repeat McIntosh on the subject, the natives are capable of more restraint than is often revealed by the white settlers. The Kikuyus too—as well as other tribes—confront an ongoing fight against the destructive forces of the natural world. They too must find ways to avoid being overrun by nature.  To do this they had to create a culture consistent with this ongoing struggle.  In Strange Gods, they have their own rituals, their own laws, their own codes of behavior, and their own methods for keeping nature at bay (for example, their ways of healing). Whereas the natives have witch doctors, the British have European trained physicians in their settlements.  But lest this be thought an invidious distinction, the skilled doctor in this mystery, Vera’s uncle, is so deficient in any moral sense that in no way is Alfieri elevating him above the native accused of his murder.  It is worth an aside here to note that modern scientific researchers study the healing methods of natives such as the Kikuyu to create their own effective pharmaceuticals.
     To understand that the Kikuyu had a culture is also to recognize that it was not just land that the British colonialists appropriated. In that sense, the witch doctor Gichinga Mbura, while not a sympathetic character and while perhaps as concerned with his own reputation as the good of his people, is not entirely wrong to excoriate those who try to weaken native traditions. To patronize the natives and their culture is to perpetuate the myth of the white man's burden.  How can an author such as Annamaria Alfieri respond to this without a large dose of rhetoric in her novel. Fortunately, she avoids didacticism even by inference. Instead she gathers a group of interesting and complex characters whose interaction cannot be reduced to any simplistic ideas of right and wrong. Readers who know the history of Kenya or who have perhaps read Robert Ruark's Something of Value know what is coming and may read Strange Gods with a vague unease.  For them the opening lines of Blood Tango could have new meaning if Argentina’s name were changed:  “Trouble was closing in on [the British Protectorate of East Africa]—like a huge jaguar . . . with blood in its eyes and mayhem in its heart.”  They might imagine Vera and Kwai defying all conventions and exchanging a fond embrace.  But it would be a gesture before parting.
     Other readers of Strange Gods will close the book content that if justice has not completely triumphed, romance has. But even they will sense that there is more of the story to tell. 


Visit the author on her website: www.annamarialfieri.com

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