Book Review : Two Sides of a Flawed African Fable

Times Book Critic

The Rape of Shavi by Buchi Emechete (Braziller: $12.95)

In her imaginary tribal community of Shavi, the Nigerian writer Buchi Emechete has created a peaceable kingdom that is Rousseauvian in both senses. Its social equity is worthy of Jean Jacques, and solemnly comic faces peer through the grasses, recalling Henri.

The Shavi were once enslaved to fretful neighbors whose kings used them as human sacrifices. Finally, they walked away, 110 days across the desert, to a lake where they set up their own kingdom. It was forbidden to kill, oppress or humiliate anyone. The Shavians died from periodic drought, and a Shavian could also die from shame if he or she misbehaved so far as to earn the contempt of the others.

Rigor made them gentle, not harsh. In neighboring communities where they went to trade their cattle, they were called "the shy ones," and their king, at the time of the story, was called Patayon the Slow. He made as few decisions as possible, made them very slowly and would always listen to an argument. "Shavi prided herself on being the only place in the whole of the Sahara where a child was free to tell the king where it was that he had gone wrong."

Conviction From Artfulness

"The Rape of Shavi" is a fable that recounts the ruination of this small African society by voracious white interlopers. That the theme is familiar is no criticism; fables do not depend upon originality but upon the freshness and imagination with which their inhabitants are invented. They draw their conviction not from the conviction that shapes them but from the artfulness.

In portraying her innocent community, Emechete is very artful indeed. The book begins with a scene in which King Patayon, who is about to take a ninth wife to celebrate the end of the latest drought, is pressed before his council by his first wife to make her a compensatory gift of a cow. The rhythms, the stresses, the silences are awed and beguiling at the same time, yet seem absolutely right. Emechete--and this is her point--sees a magical grace in the reality of African tradition, and she succeeds in conveying to us, strangers, both the grace and the reality.

The council scene is ended by the crash landing of an airplane. A half dozen whites--lepers, the Shavians surmise and then, seeing there is no mottling, albinos--stagger out. The Shavians are uncertain whether they are divine messengers or humans. On the first assumption, they treat them with a certain wary hospitality; after a while, convinced of their humanity, the hospitality turns to kindness and affection.

The whites are a party of Western scientists and technicians who, convinced that a nuclear holocaust is about to occur, are fleeing England on their plane which they call the Newark. (New Ark, that is.)

It is a high-strung, not to mention far-fetched conceit; and Emechete doesn't have the means to make it work. Her mastery of her Shavians contrasts with her awkwardness with the whites. Had she treated them outright as cartoons, as the portents and oddities that the Shavians take them for at first, this would not have mattered. But she attempts to enter into their minds and feelings and this, paradoxically, makes them all the more stick-like. It is the difference between seeing Mickey Mouse on the screen and having somebody in a Mickey Mouse suit come to your party.

Airplane Fuel From Dates

The whites are a mixed bag of idealists and scoundrels, but in the end there is not much difference between Flip, the scientist who wants to teach technology to the Shavians, Ronje, who rapes a young Shavian girl, and Mendoza, who is a businessman and profiteer. They receive the ministrations of their hosts at first with suspicion and then with uneasy gratitude. It is hard for Westerners to deal with kindness, Emechete observes nicely. They join the Shavians in their labors and feasts, but their main effort goes to repairing the Newark and distilling airplane fuel from dates, a notion that works no better as fantasy than it would as fuel. Eventually, they fly back to England. With them go a collection of hard crystals with some of the properties of industrial diamonds, and Asogba, King Patayon's son.

Back home, Flip returns to his research job in the arms industry and forgets about his interest in helping Shavi. Mendoza sets up a consortium to market the crystals, and Asogba returns to Shavi, equipped with guns and jeeps, to become Mendoza's supplier and the oppressor of his people. He drills the young men into an army, raids neighboring communities and insists that his countrymen give up farming in favor of crystal gathering. Before long, the crystal market collapses, the profiteers leave and Shavi remains decimated, ruined and repentant.

What we have is a lopsided fable. It is not that the Shavians are noble and the whites monstrous; that is what fables are for. It is that the Shavians are finely drawn and the Westerners very clumsily. It is a duet between a flute and a kitchen drain.

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