African Silences

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Peter Matthiessen has made a reputation as a brilliant novelist as well as a renowned naturalist writer. In AFRICAN SILENCES, he chronicles his expeditions in 1978 and 1986 through western and central Africa. On his 1978 journey, Matthiessen accompanied primatologist Gilbert Boese through Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast. Matthiessen perceptively surveys how the wildlife of these regions struggle to survive against overwhelming odds. After leaving the Ivory Coast, he continued on to Zaire, where he searched for the rare Congo peacock. While primarily concerned with the natural world, Matthiessen cannot resist the urge to comment on how brutal the governments of these various countries are.

In 1986, Matthiessen returned to central Africa. He joined ecologist David Western, who was in the area to study the small forest elephant of the Congo Basin. The author relates his encounter with the Mbuti pygmies in the Ituri Forest. He finds them to be a joyful group of humans. Matthiessen is at his best in the description of the natural environment around him and its inhabitants, and in relating his harrowing experiences in such unpredictable settings. His sense of wonderment helps to counterbalance the depressing state of affairs in which comtemporary Africa finds itself. Creatures such as the elephant, the white rhino, and the gorilla have become endangered because they have had to compete with humans. Poaching may be on the decline, but Matthiessen is quick to point out that a bulging human population and the destructive farming techniques that they employ have made it almost impossible for wildlife to coexist. AFRICAN SILENCES is a poignant—if not complete— portrait of western and central Africa. Hopefully, it is not too late for the powers-that-be to alter their present course and save the African wilderness for both the wildlife and the human population.