Black Ulysses (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
Jef Geeraerts’ first novel, Gangrene, won the prestigious Belgian State Prize for its literary and stylistic quality and for its wrenching portrait of a white colonial administrator governing an African village. This sudden praise also brought with it a storm of controversy. The novel was seized by the Minister of Justice and was put to trial for allegedly being bawdy and obscene. The added publicity sealed the success of Gangrene and it became a European bestseller, much to the chagrin of the Minister of Justice’s office. The subject Geeraerts has brought to light, beginning with Gangrene and now in Black Ulysses, has been part of the author’s actual experiences as an assistant administrator in the Belgian Congo; the violent emergence of the Belgian Congo as a nation is forcefully illuminated in Black Ulysses.
Many quite understandable but highly regrettable aberrations have occurred in modern history as a result of lack of planning when power changes hands. Such has been the case in the Belgian Congo, where there are constant reminders even today of colonial refusal to back out gracefully from Southern Africa. The early 1960’s saw the final vestiges of Belgian control of the Congo crumble; the fight to fill the void began immediately, accompanied by an onslaught of atrocities across the land. Black Ulysses, written in stark and grotesque prose, relies on raw imagery which appeals to the reader through the nostrils, through the gut. The novel is repeatedly repugnant and apocalyptic. In vivid detail, African life as experienced by both the European colonialist and the native African is shown to be shockingly brutal. Geeraerts presents an uncompromising portrait both of European corruption and negligence in leeching off Africa, and of the black man’s confused, fearful, hateful response to the circumstances in which he finds himself in his own territory.
The cultural clashes in the case of the Congo have left scars—some prominently visible, others hidden for years, carried around and left festering only to manifest themselves at a later date. Calm periods, therefore, enjoy a false security. It is difficult to measure adequately the damage done to a race of people who have been trampled, stripped of their traditions, and forced to conform to European bureaucratic and moral customs. As a European author who has lived and worked in Africa, Geeraerts has witnessed his share of broken lives and group behavior that passes into the realm of madness. His novel is designed to elicit disgust; and no heated room, comfortable chair, nor fluffy headrest can provide safe sanctuary from his searing images. A lesson is to be learned, and the reader turns each successive page only to be bombarded with raw evidence of what man is capable of doing to his fellow men when pushed to inhuman limits.
Comparisons can be made to other authors who have sought to describe incisively the evil in the environment and the evil within man, and the causes and the aftershocks of such evil: notably Jerzy Kosinski, V. S. Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad. Each in his own way has created a body of literature that is both brutal and instructive. The passages in Kosinski’s Blind Date concerning the Manson murders make uncomfortable reading, but are essential to the lesson the author wishes to illustrate; Kosinski uses the scenes to make the point that there is a fragile balance between man and his environment which keeps the fabric of society intact, and which, when shaken, can easily lead to senseless brutality. Black Ulysses graphically dramatizes the flaw of inhumanity (and thus the ultimate culpability of the hero) that dwells within each man. The Caribbean setting in V. S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas also dwells with corruption and revolution. Forces overwhelm the individual participants; and their natural response to them, if not death, is rage. Likewise, in Black Ulysses the desire for power has destroyed the rationality of both native and European alike. A powder keg has been lit, and people’s lives are manipulated through fear and ignorance.
Probably the one work most comparable to Black Ulysses is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Both works depict the Belgian Congo jungle, with its heat, disease, fever, and hidden death. Just as Marlow in Heart of Darkness describes colonial exploitation, so Grégoire-Désiré Matsombo, the “black Ulysses,” gives the reader in frank detail the conditions under which he attempts to survive and to avert inevitable evil. Both Marlow and Matsombo search for an explanation of the inhumanity surrounding them.
(The entire section is 1915 words.)
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