Judy Lloyd reviews …

Livingstone’s Funeral

by Landeg White


 

Landeg White writes about Africa with all the knowledge and wealth of experience that his years of scholarship and familiarity with the country have given him.  Set in the fictional state of Zambwali, the book is a tapestry of stories which begins with an account of Livingstone’s funeral narrated by Major Geoffrey Clunies-Rowland, the ancestor who links many of the subsequent characters in the book. The bringing-back to England of Livingstone’s body from Africa, or rather, a ‘four-foot parcel of dry bones’, the heart and lungs having been removed and buried in the dust he loved, propels the novel on a  trajectory in which the stories are ‘endlessly complicated’. After this event, in White’s view, the doors were opened to explorers, missionaries, prospectors and all those colonisers who sought to exploit Africa’s spiritual and material wealth.

Livingstone’s Funeral (Cinnamon Press, 2010) is not written through traditional means of a plot that unfolds by the actions, speech and thoughts of the characters:  instead, White uses various stories which sometimes overlap, but not always. He uses diverse means to tell his account: letters, diaries, enquires, interviews and even a film script; these are the means, for White, when people ‘do a lot of explaining’.  After the account of the funeral, the novel does follow a chronological sequence of events in the course of pursuing the fate of  Zambwali as it moves from colonialism to a dictatorship, not that the novel is a straightforward post-colonial account drawing attention to the ways in which the project of colonisation exploited its subjects. It is more subtle than that and points to the ways in which the colonisers and colonised subjects are yoked together as, by the end of the journey, the ancestors of some of the cast of characters come to England to live and study.

At the heart of the book is the story of Maria, a student in Brighton who spends a dull Christmas with her grandmother in the country. Having spent her grant on an African carving in a Brighton shop, she is astonished to find a similar carving in the house of her grandmother. She also discovers that the letters from Caroline, letters which had been carefully preserved through generations, were not from whom she had always assumed was her great-grandmother, but someone who was not a relation at all. Maria thus begins a journey which takes her to Africa in search of her true identity and traces the network of connections which brings together the disparate narratives of this complex novel. Maria, at the end of this epic tale, reveals that she ‘had a sudden vision of families traced through the female line and spreading everywhere through the women’s genes’, uniting people who cared for neither nation or tribe but our common inheritance.

Much of the writing of the various stories is rich in poetic imagery. White is a poet, and the descriptions of the African village and the way people live display the depth of knowledge which White has accumulated over the years. The most amusing and accessible story is that told through the letters, already mentioned, from Caroline to her good friend Hortense as she accompanied her husband Geoffrey Clunies-Rowland to settle in Chinde to work in administering tax collection. As she adjusts to colonial life with its jealousies, secrets and Governor’s dinners, she confides to her friend that Geoffrey has been doing rather more than collecting taxes as he made his tours of inspections of the outlying villages – he has fathered a number of children with women living in these villages, three boys and a girl. Caroline, far from being a typical colonial wife, embraces these children and insists they are acknowledged and provided with education. Interestingly, Caroline informs her friend that she herself has become a Muslim, since they can have four wives, and ‘I’ve become the fourth. What a fate for a suffragette’.  Maria, the girl, is sent back to live with Rowland’s mother in Ludlow and grows up a mixed-race child in the depths of the English countryside.

The structure of the novel is certainly innovative; the stories, as already mentioned, do not necessarily overlap or even join up. Complex in itself, the book seeks to address complex issues on a journey that ultimately pieces together networks of people whose relationship to each other is not always obvious.  The reader has to work hard and it took a second reading before this reader began to understand all the connections the book is making. Interspersing the relatively accessible human stories with official reports, a film script, poetry and song sometimes has the effect of bemusing the reader and preventing the making of any links however tenuous.  Thought-provoking, Landeg White has written against the grain of many stereotypical notions of colonial rule: though as a novel it does not entirely hang together as a satisfying work of literature, yet there are sections containing beautifully fresh, poetic and atmospheric writing.

If the aim of post-colonial scrutiny is to explore how the world can move on to mutual respect, it is through the realisation that we are all ultimately bound by the complex networks that are our common inheritance, something with which this rich book is actively engaged. Maybe we are all out of Africa.

© Judy Lloyd, 25 July 2010

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LANDEG WHITE was born in South Wales. He taught at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad, where he was chief arranger for a steel band, and at the University of Malawi, from where he was deported in 1972. He subsequently taught at the University of York where he joined the Centre for South African Studies, becoming Director in 1984. Here he wrote two Mozambican histories, the history of a village in Malawi, a study of southern African praise poetry and an anthology of African oral poetry (co-authored with Jack Mapanje). Since 1994 he has lived in Portugal where he teaches at the Universidade Alberta (Open University) and has published a number of collections of poetry.

JUDY LLOYD has worked variously as an assistant to Roman Polanski, as a Citizens Advice Bureau advisor, and in a book shop whilst bringing up three daughters. She gained a first class honours degree through the Open University and then an MA at Essex in Oral History before being awarded a PhD (2006) from UCL. She currently enjoys life in London.

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