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A postcolonial novel: The eye of the leopard

11 March 2011

The Eye of the LeopardThe Eye of the Leopard by Henning Mankell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I’ve heard a lot about in the past few years is postcolonialism. There’s also a lot of talk about postmodernism and postmodernity, but I’m told that that is not really relevant to Africa and that postcolonialism is the thing. And apparently the book to read about postcolonialism is Orientalism by Edward Said, but whenever I look for it in the library someone else has taken it out.

But this novel is set in postcolonial Zambia, at least in part, and got me thinking about the nature of colonialism and the postcolonial condition.

Henning Mankell is probably best known, to English-speaking readers at any rate, for his detective novels featuring the boozy melancholic detective Kurt Wallander of southern Sweden. This is very different, though actually about a third of the book seems to be a slightly reworked version of another of Mankell’s books, A bridge to the stars. That is a sort of Bildungsroman, about a woodcutter’s son growing up in the north of Sweden, and befriending a woman who had been disfigured by a botched nose operation. In this book there are flashbacks to that, and the protagonist, Hans Olofson, travels to Zambia to fulfil an ambition of the disfigured woman who died — visiting a mission station that had been founded by a Swede in the remote north-western part of Zambia.

Olofson feels alienated from the moment of his arrival, and makes his way to the mission station, spends a couple of days there, and then leaves again. He takes up an invitation to stay with some white farmers he met on the train, and ends up staying in Zambia for eighteen years. But Zambia, seen through the eyes of an alienated Swede, is a nightmare place. Moving in the circles of white farmers who were struggling to adapt to the postcolonial milieu, he comes to see the blacks through the eyes of the white farmers, and most of the blacks they encounter are their employees, who find whites as inscrutable as the whites find them. But because Olofson is Swedish, he also has a somewhat more detached view of the white farmers, and is therefore an observer of the relations between the people around him, and tries, somewhat ineffectually, to establish better relations when he finds himself in the position of being an employer.

And I found myself repelled by the view of both black and white people in the book. Were black people in Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s really like those protrayed in the book, or was it simply because they were being seen through the distorting lens of the white bwana mentality? And were the whites really like that? And then I thought, yes, to some extent the whites were. My mother had cousins who lived in what was then called Northern Rhodesia, and I remember one of them telling us that her husband, when walking down the pavement, used to press burning cigarettes into the necks of black people who didn’t scuttle out of his way into the gutter quickly enough (to her credit that was one of the reasons she gave for divorcing him).

I remembered when I was a student at the University of Natal in the mid-1960s, and the Rhodesian students were generally far more racist than the South African ones. When Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia in 1964, every student from there (and they were all white) was given an independence celebration kit, with a small Zambian flag, a record of the national anthem (“Stand and sing of Zambia, proud and free” to the tune of Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika) and various other goodies, and they were given money to organise themselves an independence party, so that even those who didn’t like the idea of blacks running the country had a jolly booze up to celebrate. Some of them, probably the majority of them, probably came from families like the white families depicted in the book. So yes, the colonialist attitudes were there, even in a postcolonial society.

I’ve never been to Zambia, though I have occasionally met Zambians in other places, but the book implies that black people are like all over Africa, at least when seen through eyes of the white employer class. And most of the white people and black people I’ve known haven’t been like that. But if you look at certain web sites, yes, you can find that such attitudes are still fostered, even in South Africa.

In that period in South Africa there was also an influx of whenwes from newly-independent Kenya, who were given large chunks of time on the radio to tell us what a marvellous job the National Party was doing in running the country and keeping the blacks in their place, unlike Kenya. And their attitudes were probably pretty close to those of the whites depicted in this book.

I found this an immensely sad book, and the protagonist seemed to have had a very sad and lonely life. Since Mankell has written another very similar book, I wonder if it isn’t semi-autobiographical. And I wonder what picture Swedish people reading it will get of Africa. And it is about a postcolonial society, though I wonder if it is a full and accurate reflection of the postcolonial condition.

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