Monday, September 06, 1999

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I want to talk to you this morning about a remarkable and very important novel by Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (published just last year; a paperback version will be out in October). This novel is ambitious and overtly political, and in my opinion almost without shortcomings. Overtly political novels are often unjustifiably trashed by critics as propagandistic, meaning that the writer dares to have a political worldview that is not pro-US and pro-capitalist. Let me hasten to add that there is a lot of political fiction that is not good, primarily because (like art of all kinds) it simply is not well done, not well crafted art. Characters are invented to play parts, represent waxen views; they are pushed around from the sidelines by the author. I think of the hopelessly sentimental and overly optimistic novel by Maxim Gorky, Mother, written to herald the so-called Marxist rebellion in Russia.

I think there are real dangers and difficulties in writing overtly political fiction. Good (not even to say great) fiction demands character development and a genuine story (or dramatic line). Think of the great political writer Nadine Gordimer. Her characters are utterly intriguing (remember, for example, A Sport of Nature), and the story literally pulls one along, though who could doubt that they are reading about South African economic policy, about economic exploitation, about the economic price of racism and sexism, about imperialism of the worst kind. Sartre, and other left-existentialist writers did less well, but again primarily because the plays and novels are not, in the end, great art.

As an aside here, I think Simone de Beauvoir is right in her novel The Mandarins to insist that all art is political. Written as an account of a group of artist-intellectuals in Paris right after the end of World War II, the question that comes up over and over as they discuss how to exist, how to be as artists and humans in the world they find themselves in is: Should art be political? Many forms of a purist position come up as these people agonize over the question—the general argument being that politics (even ethical issues) somehow sullies art, compromises it. Art must be for its own sake; any admixture with a message is corrupting. Taken to its extreme, the absurdity of this position is obvious, the emptier the art, the more artful it is.

The group de Beauvoir describes in her novel is quite political, most having been directly involved in the resistance movement, many of them Marxists. They see clearly that ‘pure’ art is not without politics; it bears the politics of the status quo; it merely diverts attention from what needs to be seen. This is just the kind of art Plato feared, using honeyed words to charm and mesmerize. Art can of course be a diversion, but if it is just a diversion, something has gone wrong. The function of art is to show things as they are—to “bring being out of concealment”, to disclose,
to dis-cover. Clearly, sexism, racism, tyranny must be a part of art; art that does not see and register these things is not the better for it.

But, so far I have said almost nothing about Kingsolver’s novel. She wants to tell us Americans, who so desperately need to be told, what is happening now in Africa, in what has been called the Congo—what is now happening, what has happened in the last twenty or thirty years, even what has happened for the last century and more. I admire her courage as an artist for taking this on! Some could see it as audacious that an American woman would take on the task of giving us the story of political oppression in the Congo. But she does it in such a clever and ‘humble’ way. The novel is really the quilted together story of four children, daughters of a super-zealous and selfrighteous missionary father, with four or five interludes of overview narrative from the mother. The eldest daughter, vain and beautiful and blond, is the perfect product of Americana; she never thinks to look beneath the surface of the wants/needs she has, for lipstick and sweatersets and boyfriends. Her incredible ignorance about the world and world politics, and the smug patriotism that accompanies it, is quite a mirror of a huge segment of Americans.

The next two daughters, however, are neither ignorant nor shallow. Both, in their own (and quite different ways) are intent on looking beneath surfaces, in seeing and understanding the incredibly different environment they find themselves in. The story of these two girls is so interesting in itself that one could forget how much Kingsolver is telling us through them. Kingsolver develops these two characters in such clever ways that she invites us into another observation/quandary—seeing the world as it is can lead one to activism; it can also lead to cynicism, even when it is more-or-less the same world seen.

Even the baby-daughter, a five year old, gets her chapters. And even here Kingsolver is able to use the clear-eyed perspective of a child to reveal the world to us, the world of racism, the world of religious blindness.

I haven’t spoken yet of what the book has to say about religion, about evangelism, about finding Christ. But you can imagine that Kingsolver will reveal much of what is dangerous and obfuscating about the other-worldliness of much of religion; and she displays the absurdities, the smug ethnocentricity and selfrighteousness of chosen-people religions. One of the twin daughters, Leah, we witness moving from a position of utter ‘righteousness’, dedication to her father and the brand of southern-Babtist-Christianity that explodes from him, to a rejection of righteousness in favor of what is right, and to a life of political struggle. The other daughter, Ada, sees through both her father and his religion much earlier; precocious, but treated almost as retarded and choosing not to speak, she is the most astute critic from the beginning, the one who most clearly sees things as they are. Though her comprehension often entails not action but despair, a kind of saintly withdrawal from the dirt and jumble of the world.

I don’t want to give away much more of the book than I have, but let me read just one (I think) profound passage. Anatole, an African man who, unlike almost all the rest of the village, befriends this unfortunate family of missionaries tyrannized by the husband-father, cautions Leah at one point not to read events, either catastrophes or fortunate events, as teleological, as god-determined warns her against this dangerous mis-seeing of the world. He puts it finally in these words,
Don’t expect God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion. It will only make you feel punished. I’m warning you. When things go badly, you will blame yourself.
Having said this much in praise of the novel, I have to add that it has weaknesses. The project is a huge one, and Kingsolver makes the mistake that many novelists make when they try to cover too much time. The first four hundred pages of this long novel cover a period of about a year and a half--all four girls giving us an account of their lives in a small African village. The development of character is strong, the story interesting, the political asides clear and in the flow of the narrative. But Kingsolver, understandably, wants to talk not only about 1960 and the events shaping up in the Congo that led to the election of Patrice Lumumba, she wants to talk about world reaction, the role of the US, of the CIA, in the overthrow and murder of Lumumba. About the western hunger for cobalt and rubber and diamonds that led to creation and support of ruthless puppet governments. And I’m glad she did all of these things. I am one of the ignorant Americans who needs to know a little about history. Still, she tries to tell us in one hundred and fifty pages how the lives of these sisters unfold, and there is a sense that she is trying to wrap things up, finish the stories. Just as I had been immersed and carried by the story in the first four hundred pages, I felt some distance and wanting to get the story over with in the last one hundred and fifty.

How important is this flaw? I don’t know. You read the novel and decide for yourself. This is a novel that you need to read.

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