What, in the name of the muse, is John Updike, that elegant chronicler of blue-collar Pennsylvania and Northeast suburbia, doing in Africa? He is searching for a novel, and, on reflection, the territory of his search should not be as surprising as it at first seems. In the “Convoy to West Africa” section of his In Search of a Character, Graham Greene hints at the enticement that “the black unexplored continent the shape of the human heart” has long held for writers. Major English language novelists from Evelyn Waugh to Greene, from Hemingway to Saul Bellow to Paul Theroux, have found within the physical, moral, and human landscape of this vast territory a liberating force for the literary imagination. Bellow has said that the African setting of Henderson the Rain King served, at that point in his career, as an inhibition-breaking, imagination-provoking stimulus, and a reading of that exuberant novel will underline his point.
Did Updike also succeed in his search? The answer has to be a resounding yes. The Coup is a dark comedy about the Dark Continent, a witty, ironic, ingeniously plotted novel that combines an acute knowledge of its West African setting and a sarcastic but accurate portrayal of current international political tensions with a fablelike story that becomes thoroughly convincing in the telling. Add the vivid writing that is Updike’s personal trademark, and this book has to be ranked as one of Updike’s better novels. The story concerns the short but eventful career of a would-be Marxist-Muslim dictator, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû, who is never quite successful in his attempts to wield power. Ellelloû, who may be the most completely realized character that Updike has created since Rabbit Angstrom, is an engagingly honest fellow who admits that he suffers from “ambivalences,” and his ambivalent nature and career set the tone for the novel.
The Coup is a novel of opposing ideas battling for control of a fictional, sub-Saharan, Third World country that Updike has given the Biblical name of Kush. The opposing ideologies are of two types: one political and the other cultural or moral.
The political battle leads to a showdown between Ellelloû and his Minister of the Interior, Michaelis Ezana, but its catalyst, of course, is the obligatory struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two “superparanoids,” for influence over the development of Kush. Ellelloû, a devout Muslim given to quoting the Koran on almost any occasion, sees the Russian-American conflict as one between “freedom from disorder” and “freedom from inhibition.” Hating such trashy aspects of American culture as junk food, rock music, and drug permissiveness, all of which he sees as an affront to Allah and his own Islamic orthodoxy, Ellelloû becomes a halfhearted Marxist, allowing the Russians to build missile bases. The more sophisticated and cynical Ezana is the opposing halfhearted capitalist, gravitating to the Americans because he is more interested in the development of his country’s meager resources than he is in its spiritual potential.
Though the political battle is mainly a contest between the philosophies of Ellelloû and Ezana, the cultural conflict pits Ellelloû, to his sorrow and disgust, against all of his people. The influence of “America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut” has a strong pull upon the people of Kush, threatening to ruin the Colonel’s dream of a pure Islamic state. Ellelloû likes to wander among his fellow citizens in disguise—as a gum vendor, a messenger boy, and an orange seller, among others—to discover what is really going on in the streets and on the nomadic trails. He is often disconcerted by what he sees and hears. A brief blast of rock music from an unknown source can cause him to send his soldiers on a systematic search for transistor radios, cassette players, and hi-fi systems. Ellelloû’s odd method of intelligence-gathering often gets him in trouble because very few of his people have ever seen a photo of their leader. Several of the novel’s best comic scenes are developed from the basic situation in which a disguised Ellelloû suddenly finds it necessary to try to prove his identity.
The two major creations of the novel are Ellelloû and his country. Both, like the novel itself, are combinations of reality and fable. Ellelloû is, in various ways, both larger-than-life, as befits a legendary dictator, and very ordinary, leading to his aforementioned “ambivalences.” Kush, though a fictional creation with its own boundaries and special features, is a thoroughly researched composite of several of the Sahel countries of West Africa. The physical aspects of its arid, empty landscape, as described by Updike in some of his most beautiful writing, are obviously accurate, but the geography has been manipulated somewhat to aid Updike’s careful, circular plot. Both Kush and its...
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