Henderson the Africanist King – A review

Not really a review of Henderson the Rain King, the book by Saul Bellow, but just some reader’s notes.

The novel: a short description
Eugene Henderson is a wealthy, 50-year-old American. A goofy character, inspiring compassion, and irony, too,  he is a man without real qualities, who sets for a journey which seems too big for him. He travels to Africa, meeting local tribes and looking for himself, even though if in his somewhat superficial way. Still, at times, he is capable of deep reflections. In another continent, so far from home, he is willing and able to give space to a more thoughtful part of himself once again.
Henderson travels with Romilayu, an African guide, and the first tribe they encounter are the Arnewi.
Here he almost casually wins a fight against their leader hence becoming a sort of beloved authority. In exchange, he tries to solve the tribe’s problem: frogs are swimming in a cistern with drinking water, and cows can’t drink it because it’s not considered pure enough. The consequence is that these cows are dying of thirst.
“I’m kind of an irrational person myself, but survival is survival”, Henderson tells the Arnewi prince who doesn’t see any solution to this problem. To Henderson, instead, the solution is clear: getting rid of the frogs.

“I’m kind of an irrational person myself, but survival is survival”: Henderson’s practical mentality

He fabricates a bomb to kill all the small animals but ends up accidentally blowing up the cistern and spilling the water. He leaves the village in disgrace.
Later on, Henderson and Romilayu get to another tribe, the Wariris. Here Henderson is bound to become the Rain King when he, almost by accident, demonstrates his strength. As a result, he befriends the old king Dahfu but finally, and to wrap it up in two words, he will run away again and go back to America.

Henderson, the character
To some respects, Henderson is the prototype of many American characters, people we’ve seen in cinema and about whom we have read in books: good-spirited folks with a penchant for adventure, a lot of money, no particular practical talent but a sort of simple, goofy sympathy. In other words, the opposite of serious, romantic characters such as the Great Gatsby. With Henderson, Bellow introduces an element of unexpected, irreverent fun also thanks to an interesting use of the language. For example, when, talking about the frogs which he definitely wants to wipe out, Henderson says: “I told those creatures: just wait, you little sons of bitches, you’ll croak in hell before I’m done”.

Henderson is a very interesting, well-built character. Some other quotes easily demonstrate how carefully crafted he is.

“Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness, too”.

This reflection, at page22, perfectly describes Eugene Henderson in one of his thoughtful, whimsical phases.

“I am probably the worst waiter in the world. I don’t know what it is but I am no good at it, it does something to my spirit.” (p.115)
Sometimes Henderson’s account also gets incongruous. As, for example, when after breaking his dental bridge in the middle of Africa (even if we don’t get to know exactly where) he tells the reader the entire story of how he got the work done.

“I have always argued that Lily neither knows nor likes reality. Me? I love the old bitch just the way she is and I like to think I am always prepared for even the very worst she has to show me”.

Albeit sometimes profound, Henderson’s voice often ruins every poetic ambition or aspiration: it’s just his voice, he’s no poet.

Africa in the novel
Henderson goes “to Africa” with a friend who just got married. His approach to the country his very superficial, though. They simply travel “to Africa”, without a further specification, at first. Then we discover that they are in Egypt but soon Henderson leaves the couple to start his own journey.
Africa is not a real place in Bellow’s novel, he had not even set a foot there. What somewhat disturbed me is that he describes “Africa” very generically and often using stereotypes, representing it as a wild and distant place, sometimes even as a non-existing land which, though, exists. To this regard, it is impossible not to think about Said’s Orientalism, a representation of the other deeply rooted in our conventions and common sense. In this specific case, I would talk about Africanism because Africa is represented as a generically exotic place perfectly matching the reader’s expectations more than the reality.
Africans too are sometimes described as very distant and sometimes with a considerably negative emphasis, like if they didn’t really where part of the same human context as the character or even of the writer. Probably that’s just the product of the age in which Bellow wrote the novel when Africa was considered as very far and very different. Anyway, the effect is certainly negative in the novel, because it shows at the same time a distance from the places which Bellow is trying to describe and the objectification of the people who live there.
To those who read the novel at the time of publishing, though, this shouldn’t have appeared as strange as it can sound today because it was probably close to the general, mainstream, Western conception of the continent.

The verdict
To some extent, Henderson the Rain King is a great novel, often funny, at times profound, and with a very interesting main character. The writing is extremely good, too.
The last part of the book, though, is way too long and can easily get boring. Furthermore, it suffers from an objectifying approach to Africa.

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