The White Masai, by Corinne Hofmann, trans. Peter Millar

Desires and delusions of an African fantasy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In fact, the picture tells a pretty accurate story. Some years ago Hofmann, a businesswoman who owned a clothes shop in Switzerland, visited Kenya with her boyfriend. On a ferry in Mombasa, they spotted a Masai warrior wearing only a short red loincloth. Hofmann fell hopelessly for the warrior, Lketinga, developing a passion she describes as love but which sounds like overwhelming sexual obsession. In her recollection of that first encounter, she is frank about the attraction she feels to his "wiry muscular build" and "undoubted masculinity".

Another woman might have permitted herself a momentary fantasy before getting on with her holiday, but Hofmann single-mindedly sets about meeting, courting and marrying the tall stranger. Her obsession survives even their dispiriting early sexual encounters, during which she discovers a bewildering number of Masai sexual taboos, including one on kissing.

Indeed, as Hofmann's bizarre wedding photograph suggests, it is hard to imagine two individuals with less in common. Most of her expectations have to be put aside as she and her warrior-husband go to live in a Masai village, where life is frighteningly hard. While she does her best to adapt, it is hard not to feel that throughout her marriage she remains essentially unchanged, a European woman playing at being the wife of an African warrior.

What is striking about the book is a kind of double vision on Hofmann's part: she is a brilliant observer, recording minute details that bring her husband's village to life, while appearing myopic about the larger picture. She is not the first European woman to find herself entranced by the alien other, as embodied by a handsome man, but she seems unaware of the extensive literary history of such cross-cultural attraction. Nor does she spend much time analysing the power relation between herself and her husband, in which his physical advantages are cancelled out by her money, education and confidence.

Lketinga is, of all the people described in the book, the most opaque, and it is hard not to feel sorry for him - and for Hofmann herself, as her dream crumbles and she realises she must leave Kenya for the sake of her own health and that of her baby daughter. Whatever Hofmann lacks in self-knowledge, she is a talented writer, describing in unflinching detail the consequences of a passion that combines elements of a holiday romance with troubling fantasies about the noble savage.

Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by Penguin

Comments