Book Of A Lifetime: The Viceroy of Ouidah, by Bruce Chatwin

Chosen,Bernardine Evaristo
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:33

By rights, I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.

The Viceroy of Ouidah tells the real-life story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, a white Brazilian who became the most powerful slave trader on the West African coast in the 1800s. He was born into poverty in the wild north-east of Brazil, his wanderings led him to the port town of Ouidah in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, notorious for its thriving slave-trading enterprises and human sacrifice. Da Silva marries a local girl, screws countless others, and spawns progeny whose multi-coloured descendents, over a century after his death, still gather yearly to honour him at a requiem mass in Ouidah.

The story is ripe for fiction - an avaricious slave trader up against a couple of bloodthirsty kings with a fondness for human skulls as furniture, ornament and crockery. But it's the telling that is magnificent. The beautiful, succinct prose is so incredibly visual, vibrant and visceral that to read it is to drown in sensory overload: "Silver fish glittered in a sauce of malaguetta pepper"; "Dom Fancisco's wardrobe, held together by its paint surface alone, lasted until 1957, when it collapsed, revealing a wreckage of whalebone stays and shreds of black taffeta that fluttered upwards like flakes of carbonised paper". While his linguistic gorgeousness evokes atmosphere through place and objects, Chatwin's characters are summed up in a few loaded words: "Mama Wéwé sat another sixty years in the curdled odour of rotting brocade"; "A dazzling set of teeth froze the words in her throat"; "He was a tall sinewy man with dry red eyes, automatic gestures and the bonhomie of a seasoned slaughterer".

Chatwin's rendering of the Kingdom of Dahomey is not as imperial as Conrad's Congo in Heart of Darkness, but there are echoes: "Gradually Africa swamped him and drew him under. Perhaps out of loneliness, perhaps in despair of fighting the climate, he slipped into the habits of the natives". Only a non-African could have written this book; it is Africa viewed from the outside: clammy, lethargic, filled with emotional torpor and inexplicable weirdness. That said - white, black, African, Brazilian, no one escapes the author's fascination with treachery, immorality and the grotesque extremes of human behaviour.

Chatwin died aged 48 in 1989, before I could worship at his feet, but I did visit da Silva's shrine in 1992. He's buried, as he is in the novel, in the family compound in Ouidah. I was shown around by one of his beige-skinned, grey-eyed descendents, who was unashamedly proud of his slave-trader ancestor. Remarkable.

Bernardine Evaristo's novel 'Blonde Roots' is published by Hamish Hamilton

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