June 1, 2003 - Chicago Sun-Times: RPCV Norman Rush has new novel on Botswana

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Botswana: Peace Corps Botswana : The Peace Corps in Botswana: June 1, 2003 - Chicago Sun-Times: RPCV Norman Rush has new novel on Botswana

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, June 02, 2003 - 9:54 am: Edit Post

RPCV Norman Rush has new novel on Botswana

Read and comment on this review from the Chicago Sun-Times on RPCV Norman Rush's new novel on Botswana. Rush was co-director with his wife, Elsa, of a Peace Corps project in Botswana. Read the review at:

Expats in quicksand*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Expats in quicksand

June 1, 2003


Norman Rush takes his time and makes the most of it. Fifty-eight years old when he published his first novel, Mating, Rush had already led a rich and varied life. He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, taught college English, sold antiquarian books, and was co-director with his wife, Elsa, of a Peace Corps project in Botswana. His first novel, drawing from his African experience, won the 1991 National Book Award for fiction.

After 12 years, Mortals not only serves as a sequel of sorts to Mating (with that novel's charismatic Nelson Denoon returning in a lesser role), it broadens the scope of his fiction while going deeper into the human dynamic of a country in the midst of profound upheaval. As the third volume in Rush's Botswana trilogy (launched with the story collection Whites in 1986), this 700-plus-page epic offers a detailed, nuanced and ambitious social tapestry that interweaves a comedy of manners with the tragic implications of politics, class and race.

The heart of Mortals is its portrait of the 17-year marriage of a private college's English department head, who works undercover for the CIA in Botswana, and his younger wife. As expatriate Americans who have made a new life for themselves in Africa, Ray Finch--the third-person narrator--loves the more innocent Iris without qualification, idealizing her in a manner that quickly strikes the reader as unbalanced. She is, he insists, "the most beautiful white woman in southern Africa, outside of the movies, and someone getting more beautiful, not less." His frequent descriptions of her physical attractions read like borderline pornography by an English professor.

Though Iris declares an equal ardor for Ray, he senses restlessness in her. It has become harder for him to keep track of her whereabouts, and she seems more concerned with his, as if fearing he might stumble into something he shouldn't. He resists the temptation to turn his espionage skills on the woman he adores, but he becomes increasingly suspicious that she is having an affair.

Iris had lived a sheltered life before marrying this man 10 years older than she, and she is starting to ask what attracted them to each other beyond her appearance. He's hardly flattered when she tells him she was drawn to him because he looked like Woodrow Wilson (and admits that she still has little idea how the size of his genitalia compares with other men's).

Where Ray sees their life of white privilege in this black country as idyllic, Iris has more empathy for those who want change and might benefit from it. A Milton scholar, Ray knows that "Paradise" comes from the Persian for "walled garden." Iris has come to see those walls as a prison she needs to escape.

This unsettling period in Ray's life mirrors the mood of the country as a whole. Set in the early 1990s, a decade after Mating, Mortals shows southern Africa in the midst of upheaval. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War has shifted the balance of power between whites and blacks in Botswana, opening the doors to alliances and insurrections. It was once so much easier for Ray to define his role in opposition to an enemy and it has become harder to know where the enemy lies. He knows he is losing his bearings, both in his marriage and in the political future.

"Everything was changing around him, for the worse, for the worse, and he was to blame, not for all of it, for some of it, he was," writes Ray, a reserved man who prides himself on verbal precision but who has obviously become a prime candidate for either a mid-life crisis or a nervous breakdown.

As changes in the espionage hierarchy further undermine Ray's stability, the arrival of a pair of charismatic interlopers complicates the plot (perhaps overcomplicating it) and pushes him over the edge. He intuitively distrusts Dr. Davis Morel, a chiropractor who comes to Africa bearing free-thinking propaganda and attracts a strong female following (including Iris, Ray fears.) He senses a kindred spirit in Samuel Kerekang, a civil engineer with a passion for Victorian poetry, who has returned to his homeland as a populist reformer. Yet Ray's CIA handler insists Kerekang is the threat who must be monitored while Morel is harmless.

Ultimately, Ray discovers neither of them is what he had suspected, and that even his wife is different from the person he had thought he loved. Can his marriage survive the loss of illusion? Can his adopted country? Or is Ray "existing in some kind of illusion, the illusion that everything was real around him"?

As Rush proceeds from the most minutely detailed domestic realism through the surrealism of Ray's madness into a resolution worthy of Samuel Beckett, Mortals envelops the reader in a manner that modern fiction too rarely attempts. The novel could conceivably have been 100 pages shorter, but no one caught in its sweep will want the experience to end.

Former Sun-Times reporter Don McLeese contributes to Book magazine and other publications.

FICTION: Mortals by Norman Rush Knopf. $26.95.

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