12 June 2007

Whiteman by Tony D'Souza

I went into Tony D'Souza's first novel, Whiteman, with bunches of biases: We had taken a marvelous story of his for Best American Fantasy, I have been following pretty closely his dispatches from Nicaragua about the Eric Volz case, and his editor is Tina Pohlman, for whom I have tremendous respect. The one negative bias I had toward the book is that (for various, complicated, contradictory reasons) I judge stories of middle-class white people in "exotic" settings more harshly than I do other sorts of stories. (And yet at the same time I am fascinated by such stories.)

For me, then, Whiteman accomplished a lot -- soon enough, I was so thoroughly drawn in by its narrative voice and particular details that it became, in many ways, just another book for me, one on which none of my biases had any effect while reading.

Whiteman is an episodic novel with a first-person narrator named Jack Diaz, who works for a relief agency called Potable Water International and lives for three years in a village in Ivory Coast. Each chapter is a pretty much self-contained short story, but the stories build off of each other, with many common characters and references to events in other chapters. The structure is basically linear, but not entirely, and the play of event and memory throughout the narrative gives the whole a rich texture.

What a reader makes of the novel depends very much on what they make of Jack Diaz. He's certainly no saint, and many of the story's events (good and bad) stem from his lust, recklessness, or both. He seems to have arrived in Ivory Coast hoping to be some sort of savior, but his time in the village quickly disabuses him of this fantasy, and he becomes obsessed with the seemingly unbridgeable gulfs of culture and expectation between himself and his friends and neighbors. At times, he is infuriatingly self-absorbed; at others, remarkably insightful. He ends up feeling that most of his efforts were futile, that though he certainly changed, he wasn't able to effect much change beyond himself. And yet it's clear that he did have an effect on his village and a few villagers in particular, though these effects were hardly predictable or scripted, and resulted as much from the fact of contact as from his individual personality.

There is often an egomania to do-gooder characters -- they want to have an individual, particular effect on some group they perceive as downtrodden or oppressed, and if they have such an effect then they feel powerful and saintly, and if they don't have the desired effect, or everything goes wrong, then it's still all about them. One of D'Souza's real accomplishments is to write a story from the perspective of a white American living outside his own culture who neither saves nor ruins the culture with which he has contact. There is contact, and change certainly results from it, but it is the ragged, complex change of real life.

The prose style of Whiteman is notable in that it is mostly straightforward, but sometimes takes on the tone of a folktale. Sometimes this effect feels awkward and even forced, but often it works well, giving us a sense of some of the differences not just between Jack and the villagers, but the villagers and people from the cities. The novel subtly evokes the diversity of the peoples and landscapes of Ivory Coast -- each village is its own little world, with its own customs, assumptions, prejudices, and sometimes even languages, and D'Souza impressively (and mostly quietly) shows the distinctions between and among villages, and distinctions between and among villages and cities.

Jack becomes fluent in the Worodougou language of the village he lives in, and the way that the villagers communicate to him is often through proverbs. This allows the villagers a certain amount of power in their conversations with him, because they can exploit ambiguities, but it also shows a gap in the perception and habits between Jack and the people he lives among. It is not, though, an unbridgeable gap -- by the end of the novel, Jack can recite and create proverbs with nearly as much skill as his friend Mamadou. For a while, he revels in being no longer a "whiteman", but a black African with white skin. The illusion does not last, though, and Jack escapes Ivory Coast when the political situation becomes dangerous. Because he can. Because he is from elsewhere.

At times, Jack excuses some of his bad behavior by letting it fall into the gap between his identity and the culture of the Worodougou in particularly and Ivory Coast in general. He tends to want most of the power in his relations with women, and is repeatedly surprised and annoyed when women decide to follow their own wills and create their own fates. It's easy for him to write these things off as being cultural misunderstandings, or even the manipulation of his naivety, but there isn't a noticeable difference in his misunderstanding of the intentions of a white American relief worker from his misunderstandings of Ivory Coast women. He is blinded sometimes by his Romanticism,sometimes by a certain sense of male entitlement. He's not so much macho as he is just hapless, and so his struggles are surprisingly endearing for someone who is, again and again, a schmuck. But he's not just a schmuck, either, and the depth of D'Souza's characterization of Jack is one of the things that makes the novel so interesting.

Whether written by native writers or not, many novels of countries such as Ivory Coast -- countries that have experienced extremes of violence, turmoil, and injustice -- differ from Whiteman in that their focus is on the violence, turmoil, and injustice. Certainly, none of that is hidden from us in D'Souza's novel, but it is not the core. The core is the story of the village, of its people, customs, history, tales, and idiosyncracies. This is what finally makes Whiteman such a worthwhile novel: it offers a vivid portrait of a particular place, and that portrait is filtered through the perceptions of a person alien to that place who comes to know it well. We as readers (assuming we're not Worodougou) are able to experience some of the joys and difficulties of growing familiar with a culture different from our own, and because Jack's personality is drawn with such care for detail and complexity, we are soon relieved of needing to agree with all his judgments and interpretations, and so we are drawn into the narrative as active interpreters rather than passive receivers. A fine accomplishment, it seems to me.


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