“Mating”, by Norman Rush
I’ve just finished reading this book.
It was first recommended to me in 2003 by a traveling American ophthalmologist whom I met in Lhasa, and whose name escapes me just now (I’m feeling too lazy to dig around in my Tibet notebooks). But I only got around to reading it recently.
I liked it.
And it happens to be apt for comment here since it involves an anthropology student who is finalising fieldwork in Africa. The author, Norman Rush, is no newcomer to Africa or anthropology, since he was head honcho of the Peace Corps in Botswana (where this story takes place) for something like 3 to 5 years between the late 70s and early 80s. As I understand it, the story takes place sometime in Botswana during the early 80s.
Without more ado, the basic storyline. However, I do not wish to re-summarise what has already been aptly summarised, so herewith a very brief synopsis offered by the publisher and reproduced by the good people at that wonderful Chicago emporium, Powell’s books (ok, so I’m feeling too lazy today to write my own summary – it’s my blog, I make the rules),
The narrator of this splendidly expansive novel of high intellect and grand passion is an American anthropologist at loose ends in the South African republic of Botswana. She has a noble and exacting mind, a good waist, and a busted thesis project. She also has a yen for Nelson Denoon, a charismatic intellectual who is rumored to have founded a secretive and unorthodox utopian society in a remote corner of the Kalahari — one in which he is virtually the only man. What ensues is both a quest and an exuberant comedy of manners, a book that explores the deepest canyons of eros even as it asks large questions about the good society, the geopolitics of poverty, and the baffling mystery of what men and women really want.
There are various points of entry for a comment on this book. From a literary point of view, the deliciously pedantic originality of the voice of the main character appears to have caught the eye of various reviewers; from the viewpoint of volunteers or people involved in international development, it also holds some pretty insightful characterisations of the worlds that they seek to inhabit; from the POV of an anthropologist, it cannot be said to be about anthropology, but certainly offers descriptions and reflections that will strike a chord with many of our confrères. Since these last two groups (dev people and anthros) are not really represented in the available reviews on mainstream websites, it is to their/our interests that this post is directed.
And since I am feeling rather lazy, I will simply sit back and fling a few quotes from passages that reflect just a little bit of the manner in which Rush represents his budding anthropologists’ descriptions of the expat reality she is observing:
There are more whites in Africa than you might expect, and more in Botswana than most places in Africa. Whites accumulate in Botswana. Parliament works and the courts are decent, so the West is hot to help with development projects: so white experts pile in. Botswana has almost the last hunter-gatherers anywhere, so you have anthropologists and anthropologists manque like me underfoot. […] And then Botswana is a geographical receptacle for civil service Brits excessed as decolonization moved ever southward. These are people who are forever structurally maladapted to living in England. […] They’re interesting from the anthropological standpoint, but there are too many of them. Then you have white cooperants and volunteers, a hundred in the Peace Corps alone.[…] And then there are the missionaries.
I think I tend to exploit missionaries, which I really have to not do if I’m going to be negative toward them behind their backs.
I think one of the things that I find so appealing about some of these passages are the timeless quality of some of the processes and personae that Rush evokes. To say nothing of their ubiquity (yes, the above applies, with some obvious differences, to Vanuatu in 2008). But then there is also the undisguisedly mordant self-presentation of the narrator herself, in respect of the expatriate society which she observes.
I needed a métier, but the right métier. Then I knew.
I would be a docent, presenting Botswana as an institution with obscure holdings. It was clear I was perfect for addressing a true need. Whites in Botswana needed to feel they had come to an exotic place. After all, they were in Africa. But Botswana is frustrating. Gaborone was built from the ground up in the nineteen sixties, and except for the squatter section along the Lobatse road, it looks more like a college town in the American Southwest than anything else. There’s no national costume. In the villages cement block structures with metal roofs are driving out the mud and thatch rondavels. For entertainment in the towns you have churchgoing, disco, karate exhibitions, ballroom dancing competitions, beauty contests, and soccer. The interesting fauna are in the far north, unless an occasional ostrich or baboon excites you. Except for the fantasy castles of the rich and the diplomatic corps in Section Sixteen, housing in Gaborone looks neither modular nor pitiful. The culture looks familiar but feels alien. The Batswana are not what you would call forthcoming. They murmur when they talk to whites. They have a right to be sick of whites and to show it a little. They want to be opaque at the same time that they’re working on their English and ordering platform shoes from South African mail order houses. The Batswana won’t invite you to dinner, so another avenue of enlightenment is closed to whites. Batswana will without fail accept your invitations to dinner, although they frequently won’t show up. Meal reciprocation is not in the culture. This puts whites off […] There are barriers. Americans suffer the most. They come to Botswana wanting to be lovely to Africans. A wall confounds them. Behind it is something they sense is interesting. I could help them.
Neither the author nor the reviews that I have looked at deny that much of what passes for descriptions of Botswana have to do with descriptions of foreigners in Botswana. Hence, there is very little on the people and mores of Botswana itself; although they do show through, even if through the perceptive filter of the white female anthro student. The absence of indigenous African voices is not due to lack of interest or diligence from Rush, in fact, I think he quite honestly never set out to write African voices into his book; somehow I suspect he would never have felt qualified to do that. So he focuses on what Euroamericans might think they perceive, as in the following passage:
Europeans will go into villages in Africa and not infrequently see people not at work at anything discernible, not doing a task or hurrying en route from one task to another. There is what to us looks like lavish standing around, alone or in silent groups, people sometimes but not always leaning against a tree or a wall in a sort of self-communing state. And then you have the ultrarural population, people on cattle posts tens and hundreds of miles from anywhere, without amusements of any kind that you can imagine other than listening to Springbok Radio or Radio Botswana if they’re lucky enough to have a radio. When you see them these are not depressed or unhappy people, or bored people, insofar as anything like that can be determined from the outside.
That wonderful expression, mi stap nomo, inevitably comes to mind.
In sum: I recommend this book. Highly so. Of course it has a few dents here and there, but it never really fell flat. To end I found it very satisfying indeed. Have a look at it. Or, better yet, if you already have and you think the above opinion may be a bit loony, let us know.