The book behind the blockbuster: C.S. Forester’s The African Queen

African Queen cover

The African Queen

C. S. Forester

Back Bay Books.   1984.  256 pgs.

Other books I’ve read by C.S. Forester:  None!!  But, there are more on the Guardian 1000 list so I will be reading them soon and reporting back.  If they are good as this one, what a treat that will be.  Forester was a famous and prolific author, noted for the Horatio Hornblower series and for his many screenplays.

Guardian 1000 Challenge:  War and Travel titles.

First of all, if you read this book (you should!) you must try as hard as you can to erase the images of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart from your mind.   Of course in all book-movie comparisons the typical complaint is that the movie misses so much of the internal dialogues and insights into the characters.  This is certainly true in comparing Forester’s masterpiece and the equally masterful and wonderful movie version made about 20 years later.  They are equally great, but in such different ways.

The book centers on the characters of Rose and Charlie — how they came to find themselves in 1914 Congo and how fate throws them together when the Germans wreck Rose’s missionary brother’s mission, and round up all the native parishioners.  Rose’s brother falls ill from fever and dies.  Charlie, a skilled mechanic and operator of the African Queen — a mail and supply flat boat operated by a Belgian mine company — helps Rose bury her brother and takes her on board the African Queen.  Rose, consumed with hatred for the Germans and determined to do her “bit for England” hatches a plan that involves taking the African Queen down river to a large lake which is patrolled by a German gunboat.   Charlie humors her for a bit, without any notion of following along:  the river is unnavigable due to rapids and confronting a German gunboat with the African Queen is insane.  The story of how Rose persuades Charlie to go along with her plan, its actual implementation and their growing relationship comprise what I would consider “Adventure” with a capital A.  Two unlikely heroes, daunting odds, physical danger and a readily identifiable enemy  — these are the classic elements of adventure.

So, I mentioned the differences between the book and the movie.  First of all, Forester’s Charlie and Rose are not Bogart and Hepburn.  They are not glamorous stars.  These are really ordinary people — Charlie is a lowly, unambitious mechanic who drinks a bit and speaks with an unintelligible Cockney accent.  Rose is an uptight, repressed woman who is well into the old maid stage of life.  Yet together they become so much more.  Through Rose’s encouragement, Charlie blossoms into a brave adventurer and a heck of a good engineer.   In the light of Charlie’s admiration and attention, Rose becomes a completely different woman.

Second, there is an appealing quality of earthy reality in the book that the movie just can’t replicate.  Rose and Charlie’s love affair is rather explicit for a book written in 1935.  You can actually smell the stink of the river mud and hear the ubiquitous whine of insects.  Both Charlie and Rose get malaria.  The rapids — which in the movie seem over fairly quickly — go on for days in the book and they are scary!!!  These people could die at any minute.  If I had any complaint with Forester is that I just wonder how realistic it was that Rose navigated the rapids…..but I don’t want to give anything more away.  The book’s ending is so much more ambiguous and satisfying than the movie, which in contrast wraps up the strings on the story neatly.

This was a great book.  Enjoy it, enjoy the movie — just keep them separate.

I love him, too. But he’s not really Charlie! Picture source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_African_Queen,_Bogart.jpg

Change is hard: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart cover

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

Fawcett Premier (paperback) 1959 192 pgs, including Ibo glossary

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation Titles

This slim paperback has been on my bookshelf forever; whenever I glanced at it I heard a nagging whisper:  “This is a book you should read.”  I finally did so the other weekend and am so glad!  But before I get to my review, time for a bit of an announcement.  I’ve decided to challenge myself:  I’m going to attempt to tackle the Guardian newspaper’s 1,000 best novels.  This 2009 list of best novels was controversial at the time it was published in the U.K.; I remember lots of angst over what was on it and what was not.  Why am I taking it on at this time?  A couple of reasons:  it’s big and bad (1,000 books to read!!!).  It’s chock-full of titles I want to read anyway, and I see a lot of familiar friends I have read already (yay!).  Last, I want some structure in my reading.  Of course, I’m going to continue to read, and blog about, random books I feel drawn to that are not on the list.  However, I’m pleased to report that  I can get started on the challenge because Things Fall Apart heads the Guardian 1,000 list’s “State of the Nation” category.

Things Fall Apart, is the “seminal African novel in English.”(1)  It ranks as the first novel written by an African that depicts native life and culture in a serious, positive manner.  Achebe received criticism for writing this ground-breaking work in English instead of his native Nigerian Ibo, but he explained that standard Ibo, which was written down and transliterated by European missionaries is a heavy and wooden thing that  “…can not sing.” (2).

The story is set at the beginning of the 1900’s and depicts traditional village life experiencing its first encounters with British colonials and Christian missionaries.  The main character, Okonkwo, is a strong, successful village leader.  He is deeply ashamed of his father:  a gentle, musical near-do-well.  In response to these feelings, Okonkwo takes a ruthless, brutal, and manly approach to life.  He completely dominates his family group, administering harsh beatings to his three wives and especially his eldest son, Nwoye, at the slightest mistake or sign of weakness.  Okonkwo is a strict adherent and enforcer of all traditional cultural practices, for good or for bad.  For example, he participates in the judicial killing of a child hostage, despite the boy’s friendship with his own son.  He ruthlessly insults weaker men, earning an admonishment and a warning from the village priest.  His joy is to take his place as a man of influence and importance in the village; he serves as an egwugwu — a masquerader who impersonates one of the village gods, and also as an elder consulted during bride price negotiations.  In Okonkwo’s defense, he is brave, incredibly hard-working and paradoxically, a protective, though abusive, father and husband.  For example, he seeks priestly help for a wife who suffers from frequent still-births, and shows indulgence for a favorite daughter, albeit frequently wishing that she had been born a boy.

After the killing of the child hostage, Okonkwo’s fortunes begin a steady decline.  A series of disasters, several involving the arrival of British missionaries and colonial authorities, completes the fateful cycle — which many critics of the novel have likened to a Greek tragedy.  Ironically, Okonkwo’s life ends in a shameful manner, hearkening back to his father’s memory that Okonkwo had worked so hard to obliterate.

This is a beautiful, and a horrific read.  Achebe infuses his work with wonderful language including many Igbo parables and fables.  His characters speak with a lyric, elegant phrasing.  For example:  “I do not have the mouth to tell it, ” states one of Okonkwo’s wives, describing a recent beating received at his hands.  There are laugh-aloud moments, such as when the cunning villagers eagerly give away part of their “Evil Forest” (where the bodies of suicides or sufferers of shameful diseases are dumped) to Christian missionaries for the purpose of building a church, and then wait hopefully to see how long it will take for the usurpers to be killed by the gods.  It is horrific in that it describes what it must feel like to have every aspect of your culture sabotaged by an implacable and inexplicable force.

As usual, I want to try to apply some lesson of this book to my own life.  I was struck by the theme of change, and how Okonkwo denigrates women’s stories.  In traditional culture, small male children could stay in the women’s huts to listen to the wonderful stories and parables that mother would tell.  But they would reach a point where they should begin staying in their father’s hut to learn about battles, killings, and the politics of village life.  Okonkwo shames and punishes his son, Nwoye, for wanting to listen to his mother’s stories a bit too much.  I was thinking how in the face of change, we need all our stories to stay flexible and resilient.

(1).  Washington State University Study Guide:  http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/anglophone/achebe.html.  Accessed 4/1/12.

(2)  Wikepedia article:  Things Fall Apart, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Things_fall_apart.  Accessed 4/1/12.