The seeker in Saul Bellow’s fiction is no Ulysses, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Gulliver, Huck Finn, or Ishmael. He is the philosophical clown, the innocent American, and adventurous discoverer of a spiritual quest that begins with the knowledge that “man’s character is his fate” and ends with the realization that “man’s fate is his character.” Eugene Henderson is a tremendously comic figure, oversized in physique, great in his appetites, obsessed by the demands of an “I want, I want” that clamors without appeasement within him. He is fifty-five years old and has a violent temper; he has more money than even his eccentric needs demand, a second wife, and an assortment of children. He turns his home into a pig farm, learns to play the violin, and acquires a reputation for drinking and crude manners. When he tries to sum up his life, it is, as he says, a mess, a fact he realizes without knowing the reasons for it. When he can no longer face himself, his family, or his past, he flees to Africa with dreams of becoming another Dr. Grenville or Albert Schweitzer. Africa, as Henderson sees it, is an empty and secret land, the last outpost of the prehuman past, a land unmarked by the footprints of history.
With a native guide, Romilayu, he arrives in the land of the Arnewi, where he engages in a ritual wrestling bout with Itelo, the champion of the tribe. Even in that remote place, however, he cannot escape his past; he remains a millionaire, a wanderer, a violent man looking for peace and happiness. The queen of these gentle people tells him that his malady is the grun-tumolani, the will to live instead of to die. Accepted by the Arnewi and courted by the queen’s sister, Mtalba, Henderson plans to cleanse the tribe’s sacred cistern, which is infested with frogs. His homemade bomb, however, blasts away the wall of the cistern, and the water seeps into the parched earth. Rather than face the consequences of this disaster, he runs away.
Henderson next turns up among the Wariri, a more warlike and savage tribe. The king is Dahfu, a ruler considerably more educated than his subjects, for he studied in a missionary school and can speak to Henderson in English. While watching a tribal festival, Henderson is moved to lift the statue of Mummah, goddess of clouds, after several of the Wariri have failed to budge the massive idol. His act of strength, he soon discovers, is sacramental. When a sudden downpour follows, he is acclaimed as the new Sungo, or rain king, of the tribe, and he is compelled to put on the green silk drawers of his office. Henderson, elevated to a post in which he becomes a scapegoat for the capricious rain goddess, is no better off than he was before; he is as much governed by ritual as King Dahfu, who will rule only as long as his powers of procreation last. When those powers fail, he will be strangled and another ruler selected.
In the end, Dahfu is the means of Henderson’s salvation. In an underground pit, he keeps a pet lion, Atti, a creature hated and feared by the Wariri because they believe the beast has bewitched their king. As Dahfu continues to postpone the ritual capture of the wild lion supposed to contain his father’s spirit, the chief priest and the king’s uncle plot against him. Under Dahfu’s tutelage, meanwhile, Henderson learns to romp with the lion and imitate its roars. Dahfu tells him to act the lion’s role and to be a beast;...
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recovery of his humanity will come later.
Dahfu’s lion cult impresses Henderson. His failure has been his bullish or piggish attempt to alter the world around him, to kick back when he feels that he has been kicked by fate. Instead he must alter himself; in particular, he must cure himself of fear by thinking like a lion, by imagining the lion at the cortex of his brain and making himself over as a lion. In spite of his crushing failure with the Arnewi, he learns two things that help him in his daily lion lessons. First, although a man when struck is likely to strike out in revenge (as the Wariri but not the Arnewi do), pure virtue can break the chain of blows. The Arnewi, principally Mtalba, the aunt of Prince Itelo, who was once the companion of Dahfu, are virtuous but cowlike as a result of loving their cows; hence their virtue is not for Henderson. Second, he has been confirmed in a sense of his own worth by Mtalba, who oozes the odor of sanctity and is prepared to marry him. The demanding voice of the “I want, I want” within Henderson becomes the roar of the lion as Dahfu instructs him that a human is still an animal, but that it is possible for him to be a lion and not a pig.
The king’s final lesson is that of courage in meeting death, which Henderson has always thought the biggest problem of all. When Dahfu is killed while trying to capture a wild lion, possibly through the chief priest’s conniving, Henderson flees the Wariri to avoid becoming the next king, and he returns with a captured lion cub to America. The last glimpse of Henderson is at the airport in Newfoundland. He is playing with a little boy, the child of American parents, who speaks only Persian. Dahfu and his lion have done their work. Henderson’s spirit is finally at home in the animal housing of his flesh.