Thursday, January 5, 2012

Missionary Mayhem in "The Poisonwood Bible"

“We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under out feet.” 

I’ll get right to the point: this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It may be a 500-plus-page behemoth, but it’s near perfect in every way.

At its core, “The Poisonwood Bible” is the story of five women, a wife and her four daughters, and the ruler of the family, Nathan Price, the husband, father and Baptist minister. It’s 1961 and Nathan Price decides that his family must leave their home in rural Georgia and move to a remote village in the Congo jungle to share Jesus with the locals.

The village, Kilanga, is a tiny smattering of thatched huts buried deep in the darkest part of Africa, so remote that it is unimaginable to a Western mind like mine. The only way into the village is by propeller plane, and the only man who can fly the Price family in and out also moonlights as a diamond smuggler. What the village lacks in charm, food and clean water it makes up for in snakes, mosquitoes and parasites. And war, both local and international, is on the horizon. If it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, well, then Barbara Kingsolver does a damn good job of setting the scene.  

The scope of this novel is ambitious indeed. It spans three decades and the entirety of the African continent, and all the warzones, graveyards and floodplains therein. Portions of the novel are also set in the United States, when Orleanna Price, the mother, and some of her daughters return from Africa. The narrators rotate between Orleanna and her four daughters: Rachel, who is the oldest at 17; Leah and her disabled twin Ada, who are in their mid-teens; and Ruth May, who is five. Kingsolver weaves together these different narrators, times and settings into a true work of art. With such high aspirations, Kingsolver actually delivers. The book flows smoothly from one narrator to the next, and each one of the Price women have a distinct and unique voice.

In the early 1960s, the Belgian imperial kleptocracy in Congo is being challenged by a surge of nationalism. Patrice Lumumba is gaining popularity, and his message of anti-imperialism and self-determination reaches even to the depths of the jungle. The Belgians are leaving, and change is coming.

The convergence of family and political upheaval is integrated seamlessly into the story. The shifting political stage creates a rift between Nathan Price, the pro-Belgian self-appointed savior of the lost people, and ordinary Congolese who are trying to understand what it might mean to actually govern themselves.

Rachel, the oldest and most cynical of the Price girls, doesn’t see the sense of Lumumba’s rise. “So Mr. Patrice will be the Prime Minister of the Congo now and it won’t be the Belgian Congo anymore, it will be the Republic of Congo. And do you think anybody in this hip town we live in is actually going to notice? Oh, sure. They’ll all have to go out and get their drivers’ licenses changed. In the year two million that is, when they build a road to here and somebody gets a car.” After all, with no food, water, money or infrastructure, can independence actually exist in a meaningful way?

Of course, anyone who knows anything about Congo and international relations knows the powers that be (Belgium, America, multinational mining corporations, diamond-hungry white mercenaries) would never let the Congolese figure out this answer on their own. Congo is one of the most mineral-rich places on the planet, and the Western powers refuse to give it up to a bunch of nationalists. Kingsolver does a terrific job of accurately portraying the rise of Lumumba, the hope he inspires in the Congolese people, and his subsequent demise at the hands of the CIA death squads.

Against this backdrop, the Price girls are just trying to survive. Whatever childish notions of life the Price girls had coming into Congo are dismantled by the bitter realities of life in the Congolese jungle. Leah writes: “… in Congo there’s only two ages of people: babies that have to be carried, and people that stand up and fend for themselves. No in-between phase. No childhood.”

And in this harshest of worlds, Orleanna and her daughters must do without the love and support of Nathan Price. Possibly one of the most despicable fictional characters I’ve come across, Nathan Price prides himself with undertaking his god-given duty of converting the savages. He rules his family with that good Old Testament brutality. He loves doling out orders, but loves punishment even more. Nathan Price has a supercharged Protestant punishment fetish, and in his mind suffering is nothing more than a reward for doing god’s work. Yet, when he is thrust into the jungle, he is both unable and unwilling to act like a man and provide for his family. He doesn’t hunt or cook, and seems fine with his wife and daughters starving to death as he rampages around the village upsetting everyone with his firebrand speeches. His wife and daughters resent him for all his chest pounding and male dominance, while he neglects the most sacred of his duties: caring for his family.

As I wrote earlier, this is a 500-page book, and a proper literary analysis would require thousands and thousands of words. So here are some of high points: malaria-induced insanity, families breaking up and reforming, murder, green mambas, Mobutu, diamonds, more murder, love between American girls and locals, and some of the most beautiful descriptions of motherly and sisterly love I’ve ever read.

My grandparents were missionaries in Kenya for more than a quarter century. My mother and father worked as missionaries in Ukraine, and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins have conducted missionary work in places like Uganda, Yemen and Albania. So the ethical complexities and moral quandaries of Western missionary work are not new to me. I myself am writing a novel based on my experiences at a missionary boarding school in Germany. As an agnostic, I’ve always struggled with idea of a Americans (particularly white and male) spreading narrow religious customs to other nations and indigenous cultures. It seems impossible to separate religious conversion from Western imperial dominance, especially in a place like Congo that has been raped by foreigners for centuries.

While I’ve spent years thinking about these issues, “The Poisonwood Bible” is clearly the best analysis of these moral and ethical complexities. As Orleanna puts it, missionaries are, “messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”

After finishing the last page of this massive novel, I only wanted more. I cannot give this novel any higher praise than that.

1 comment:

  1. The quote at the top is said by Adah, not Leah.