Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monkey Business

William Boyd could justifiably claim to be the greatest British living novelist, but he is strangely unfashionable compared to his contemporaries, such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, possibly because he wields his intellectual power so lightly, both in prose and life. Incredibly self-effacing for someone so talented, he possesses few of the attributes normally associated with major literary figures, but he may well be the writer of his generation most likely to be remembered.

Admittedly, he is a difficult writer to classify with a prolific body of work including eleven novels, three collections of short stories and numerous screenplays. He is a comic writer, but not exclusively so; he is a satirist, but not on a grand scale; he is a historical novelist, but only up to a point. Three of his novels have adopted the format of a life story (the memoir The New Confessions, the journal Any Human Heart and Nat Tate: An American Artist, a fake biography that conned the pretentious New York art scene).

"Don't call me scarf-face"

Perhaps most significantly, he is a British writer, but he has strong roots in Africa. Indeed, he was born in Accra, attending schools in Ghana and Nigeria. The African connection links Boyd with an earlier generation of British writers who had directly experienced that continent, so it is no surprise that Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene are often cited as his influences. Boyd made good use of his “memories of an amazing time in an amazing place” when writing about his experiences there in his early, darkly comic novels A Good Man In Africa and An Ice Cream War.

Boyd repeated the trick of producing an excellent story (largely) set in Africa with Brazzaville Beach, in which primate researcher Hope Clearwater makes a shocking discovery about the devastating cruelties of apes and humans alike. The young ecologist is alone, far from her family in England, as she contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on, you guessed it, Brazzaville Beach. Here, she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her past and the only chance she has of moving forward is to grasp some hard and elusive truths: about marriage and madness, about the greed and savagery of the scientific community and, most of all, about what compels seemingly affectionate creatures to kill for pleasure alone.

"Books Etc"

This is a novel that can be enjoyed on many levels: vividly created characters, a sense of time and place, a gripping multi-layered plot and thought-provoking ideas, including scientific and philosophical theories. On one level, the intellectual narrative is rich and intricate, but on another it remains accessible to all readers as pure entertainment, because it slips by like a good, old-fashioned adventure story. Boyd is a truly accomplished storyteller, so the juxtaposition of Hope’s observations of the chimps with life in the camp, war in the emerging nation, the cut-throat world of academic research and her personal history make for a compelling read. It’s a book containing many challenging notions, but the author never forgets to entertain. His prose is rich and evocative, as can be seen in the book’s first sentence:

I never really warmed to Clovis – he was far too stupid to inspire real affection – but he always claimed a corner of my heart, largely, I supposed, because of the way he instinctively and unconsciously cupped his genitals whenever he was alarmed or nervous.

Clovis, of course, is a chimpanzee ...

Brazzaville Beach consists of three separate narratives, though they are really three episodes of one story – the life of Hope Clearwater. The first describes her former marriage to John Clearwater, a brilliant, but psychologically unstable mathematician, whose failure to make progress in his academic research gradually drives him mad. The second strain, taking up the bulk of the novel, features an older Hope working as an anthropologist in an African national park called Grosso Arvore, where she immerses herself in her research in the hope (geddit?) that this will afford her the emotional distance needed to heal the wounds of her shattered personal life. Unfortunately, her discovery of the violent nature of the chimpanzees that she is observing brings her into conflict with her employer, Eugene Mallabar, whose own work paints a far more peaceful picture, plunging Hope into another crisis which threatens not just her professional career, but her life. Flickering in the background is a long-running civil war, which also impacts Hope, as she is captured by the guerilla leader, Dr. Amilcar. During the third section, Hope reflects on the events of her life while recovering in a beach house on Brazzaville Beach, examining the complex circumstances that brought her there for evidence of her own innocence or guilt.

"Winner of Clive James lookalike contest"

The threads on Hope’s failed marriage and her chimpanzee research both centre on the quest for knowledge and the mania that can result from its pursuit. Indeed, the book’s introduction contains a quote from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and the book tackles some of the core questions of Man’s existence. Hope explains the thrill of seeking scientific advancement:

In her work she was achieving something irrefutably concrete. However recondite, however parochial, she was adding a few grains of sand to that vast hill that was the sum of human knowledge.

It takes the charismatic Dr. Amilcar to warn Hope of the dangers of academic obsession, which has already sent her husband mad, as his glimpses of mathematical truth became ever more hard to pin down:

The pursuit of knowledge is the road to hell. You think that if you know everything you can escape from the world.

The book conveys a very clear message about the harsher and more sinister side to Man’s character, drawing several strong parallels between the chimpanzees’ violent behaviour and the conflicts surrounding Hope. Most obviously, this refers to the massive egos, petty jealousies and underlying tensions within the scientific team, but there are also allusions to the civil war taking place in the African country. At the same time, it reveals that the apes’ society is more human-like than anyone had previously suspected, as the usually gentle chimps engage in organised aggression, deliberate cruelty and other remarkably human acts. They even resort to cannibalism and you could argue that Hope herself is subjected to “academic cannibalism”, as her discoveries are stolen by the senior professor. Unlike many other books, in no way does this one attempt to romanticise animals, partly based on the assistance received from Jane Goodall, the famed primate researcher, but possibly also mindful of Tennyson’s description of Nature as “red in tooth and claw”. Similarly, when the thin veneer of civilisation is stripped away in the jungle, it is clear that Man has to accept that he does indeed possess a dark heart.

"A well-known vigneron and sometime author"

The book is filled with mathematical and scientific metaphors, attempting to match John Clearwater’s chaos theory research to the vagaries, indeed the chaos, of Hope’s own life:

The if clauses would go backward through my life toward the day of my birth, tracing my personal route through the forking paths of happen-stance and whim, my selections, willed and unwilled, from the spread deck of infinite alternatives and chances that the world and time offered.

Of course, Robert Frost expressed this just as eloquently:

Two roads diverged in a yellow road, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Each chapter begins with a passage printed in italics dealing with her husband’s groundbreaking work in a way that relates to the narrative, e.g. turbulence theory as Hope’s marriage becomes more, er, turbulent; catastrophe theory as it disintegrates. Although the book includes much esoteric science, the complex details are very well explained (“like a considerate host showing a guest around his house”, according to the New York Times) and it is fascinating to see how accurately these manage to convey people’s emotions.

"Off the top of my head"

Much of the book’s power comes from the clever intertwining of the different narrative strands. This is a challenging structure, yet both stories complement each other. In fact, the effect is to increase the considerable suspense of both tales, as thematic echoes are created between them. The mental collapse of Hope’s husband finds numerous parallels in the breakdown of relationships between the two rival groups of chimps. Boyd weaves the material together in captivating fashion partly through his usual impeccable research, but manly from his gift of pure storytelling.

Another literary device Boyd uses to distinguish the narratives is to alternate between different perspectives and tenses. Hope’s time in Africa is written in the present tense from the first person perspective, so you can slip into her mind and listen to her thoughts. On the other hand, the account of her marriage is written in the past tense in the third person, as if she were a stranger, emphasising how far removed from the past she wants to be.

"Buoyed by his success?"

In many ways, Hope makes a good feminist character: determined, but not pushy; intelligent, but no pseud; often conflicted about what the best course of action is; and sometimes mistaken. Her struggle for respect, both in her professional field and her personal life, lies at the heart of her deeds. She is a very realistic character: strong, while most of the men are weak and flawed. Although she does not really know what she wants, she defines herself by what she does not want: an ordinary, dull and dependent life. Boyd is one male author who is able to convincingly write from the point of view of a woman, having also included a memorable female character in The Blue Afternoon.

All the characters that surround Hope are beautifully crafted, most evidently her tortured husband who finds inspiration digging ditches in unusual places and her Egyptian lover, a mercenary pilot who flies sorties against rebel army groups. Equally noteworthy are the likeable rebel leader, her enigmatic project leader and his frigid wife and her charming academic advisor. Despite the focus on scientific ideas, there are many humorous moments, such as tiny airplanes powered by horse flies and a rebel army composed of a volleyball team.

"Plenty of grey matter"

Brazzaville Beach is a profound meditation on what makes us human, an extraordinary parable about mankind, which is also an immensely entertaining read – with a bit of chaos theory thrown in for good measure. At one stage, Hope recalls a famous philosopher suggesting that there are three questions that every human should ask himself. These are answered by her husband as follows:

What can I know? Nothing for sure.

What ought I to do? Try not to hurt anyone.

What may I hope for? For the best (but it won’t make any difference).

So, even this fanatical mathematician came to realise that the pursuit of knowledge may be very worthwhile, but it keeps you from what matters most, namely knowing about yourself.

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