BETWEEN TIDES, by V.Y. Mudimbe, translated from the French by Stephen Becker (Simon & Schuster: $18; 160 pp.) All the ingredients are here for one of Graham Greene’s God-haunted thrillers. In a nameless Central African country torn by revolution, a black priest feels compelled to choose between the Catholic Church and Communist guerrillas. The church proclaims a universal faith but is also part of the colonial system; the guerrillas aim to destroy that system, but their brutality and intolerance confound the priest’s dream of “a purer social order, in which God’s face will not be that of a banker.”
This brief novel by V.Y. Mudimbe (“Before the Birth of the Moon”) falls short of the Greene standard, however, for several reasons. It’s so tightly compressed, almost telegraphic, that even a translation by a stylist of Stephen Becker’s caliber can’t yield much descriptive power. Greene’s novels traded on their exotic settings--the Africa of “The Heart of the Matter,” the Mexico of “The Power and the Glory"--but Africa is humdrum for Mudimbe; the exotic place for him is Italy, where his priest, Pierre Landu, studies theology.
Mudimbe can’t be blamed, of course, for the cultural bias of the American reader. Nor for the fact that “Between Tides” first appeared in 1973, when Marxism, for many in the Third World, still seemed a viable alternative. Even now, this book throws light on the “liberation theology” movement among Catholics in Latin America.
But Mudimbe is responsible for his narrator, Landu, who is less a character than a hollow space filled with ideas. The ideas in Greene’s novels are like knives twisted in people’s guts. In Landu’s case, ideas are like bats that squeak in his head and flutter across the cave-openings of his eyes. During his stint with the guerrillas, he witnesses battles, is tempted by women, kills a wounded enemy soldier and faces his own death, but we see very little of this through the screen of his introspection. Mudimbe no doubt intended Landu to be a lost soul, alienated by his intellect and totally humorless, but he also must have meant for us to care about him more than we do.