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Norman Rush was co-director of the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983 and wrote "Whites"
Norman Rush was co-director of the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983 and wrote "Whites"
GRACE ABOUNDING IN BOTSWANA
Date: March 23, 1986, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 7, Column 1; Book Review Desk Byline: By Leslie Marmon Silko; Leslie Marmon Silko is completing a novel about the Southwest. Lead:
WHITES By Norman Rush. 150 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $14.95. A CHILDHOOD spent on the Laguna Pueblo
Reservation in New Mexico brought me to the conclusion that the third world is not just poor, developing nations. The third world is any place dogs roam freely, howl and bark all night, and defecate and breed on the streets. Last autumn in southern China I discovered that the Chinese understand what dogs are good for - good for lunch, good for dinner, and tasty with noodles and greens. The way the Chinese explained it, European colonialists used to feed their pet dogs while Chinese starved. Plains Indian tribes had good dog recipes too, until Christian missionaries arrived with their sentimentality for their pets. Text:
Dogs and attitudes toward them reveal a great deal about the values of a culture. In ''Whites,'' an admirable collection of short stories set in Botswana, a nation that shares a border with South Africa, Norman Rush shows that he understands this. Mr. Rush was co-director of the Peace Corps in Botswana from 1978 to 1983. In ''Official Americans,'' Carl, a middle-aged State Department official stationed in Botswana, has his personal and professional life virtually destroyed by barking dogs that belong to his neighbor, the powerful Minister of Labor. He is beset by a maze of conflicting values and his own weakness and lack of conviction. When a local police commander recommends an arsenic compound for the dog problem, Carl is sure that this is commonly done but is uncomfortable with the directness of the Botswana approach. But nights of lost sleep take their toll and he consults Ione, a colleague's wife who passes the time dabbling in the occult.
Ione is a spiritual shopper, moving from one belief or cult to another. Contemporary American culture seems to offer her no more than this. Ione knows that something peculiarly American rejects commitment to any belief. Absence of real commitment is what's attractive about overseas assignments, she says: ''It's because it isn't our country and we can't help what happens. We can offer people advice and we get paid for it. . . . Hey!, but we're not responsible for what happens if Africa goes to hell, because we've done our best.'' She persuades Carl to try a local shaman who claims to have a cure for dogs that bark all night. When he undergoes a ritual in which he is given a series of cuts on his back, Carl first experiences ''the sensation of conviction. The ritual felt real to him for the first time.'' But Carl lacks the courage to keep this conviction. He panics, assumes the ritual wounds are infected, and attempts to hide them from his wife and the doctors. Carl does all the wrong things, treats himself with antibiotics and nearly dies. But his confusions over the legitimacy of the shaman's ritual and his moment of conviction are resolved. Barking dogs next door are less likely to spoil a night's sleep again; the antibiotics Carl took were ototoxic, and have left him deaf in one ear.
The ''new'' Africa Mr. Rush reveals in his stories is full of contradictions. It is a cross-cultural hybrid that grew out of African independence and ancient tribalism, but also out of hundreds of years of white colonialism and apartheid both official and unofficial. But many of the cultural elements Europeans shoved down African throats have lost their charm for whites. In ''Bruns,'' an anthropologist from Stanford University goes into the bush to study indigenous nutrition, but learns ''the sad fact is you go into the middle of nowhere and people are eating Simba chips and cornflakes and drinking Castle lager.''
Where different tribal cultures once coexisted with only sporadic raiding or battles, the danger of genocide now looms. After all, black Africans have had intensive instruction from European colonialists, the best teachers of racism and genocide. In ''Thieving,'' the narrator suffers because of de facto apartheid still operational even in the ''new'' African nations like Botswana, which gained independence in 1966.
''Whites'' is about disillusionment and loss of conviction. Whether it was the Peace Corps in Botswana or Vista volunteers on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in the 1960's, a sizable portion of a generation set out with great enthusiasm to share what they believed was valuable: white America's wealth of information and technical resources. The failure of American idealism and technical resources that Mr. Rush describes in these stories, and the subsequent disillusionment - both national and personal - are second only to the Vietnam War in their continuing impact on the direction of American foreign and domestic policy today. Mr. Rush's whites can no longer tote the ''white man's burden'' because they can't even lift themselves - their loss of conviction is so profound.
Mr. Rush attempts to articulate what Americans or whites in general may be able to salvage where the legacies of apartheid and colonialism make it almost impossible to live and remain decent human beings. His characters struggle to maintain a connection with the world, always hoping for even a small measure of grace. Most whites in Mr. Rush's Botswana are too weak to grasp the considerable opportunities Africa offers them. Occasionally his characters manage to secure a little personal integrity, but only at great cost. Carl is deaf. Mokgalagadi, the narrator in ''Thieving,'' is crazed. In ''Bruns,'' the anthropologist narrates with such icy detachment that she might as well be reporting from Uranus.
A middle-aged American woman in ''Instruments of Seduction'' becomes a seductress, a choice that's hers, a role in which she is not just going through the motions or fooling anybody. Only this woman, and a dentist, Frank, in ''Alone in Africa,'' manage to grasp the possibilities for personal salvation Africa offers them despite all its contradictions and ugly colonial legacies. By choosing the profession of sexual seduction, the woman makes wonderful use of Botswana's ''certain atmosphere of allusion to death.'' She not only fashions a sense of self and identity that keeps her humanity intact, she also manages to realize how the terrifying atmosphere of Botswana can actually be used to deliver her from isolation and loneliness. FRANK, the dentist, actually has Botswana's bounty of generosity, intelligence and vitality rain down on him in the person of Moitse, a woman who comes and proposes to be his maid while his wife is out of town. The voluptuous warmth of all that is good in Botswana is offered to this man as a simple gesture of kindness, an offer of comfort that is both humane and wise. Yet Frank must make the choice. All the arguments, the inhibitions he could succumb to, must be swept aside. In the end, there's probably still enough grace available in Botswana alone to save us all. All that's required is the vision to see it and the courage to open the door.
The cynicism and self-loathing, or worse yet, the self-righteousness that often appear in fiction about whites in the third world are a dead end, whether the writer be black, ''colored'' or white. It isn't just whites who must face up to moral and political failures in the third world today, Mr. Rush seems to be saying. ''Whites'' is an admirable beginning; because the longer stories work best, I hope he will deliver us a novel soon. The world could use a few more books from human beings like Mr. Rush. A COUNTRY BEGINNING WITH 'B'
In 1978, Norman Rush and his wife of 21 years, Elsa, volunteered to work for the Peace Corps in Africa. The only problem was which country to sign up for. ''We both have French in our backgrounds,'' Mr. Rush said in a telephone interview from his home in New City, N.Y. ''They originally had us slated for Zaire. But we turned that down for political reasons - we didn't want to live in a kleptocracy.
''We were then slated for Benin, but in the final round of interviews we ended up at the Botswana desk, since both start with 'B.' We had a positive feeling about Botswana as a country that was democratic and worthy, so we signed up.''
Over the next five years, Mr. Rush and his wife lived in Botswana's capital, Gaborone, overseeing all the Peace Corps programs in the country, traveling throughout southern Africa and taking in a wealth of impressions that were to form the background for Mr. Rush's first collection of stories, ''Whites.''
For Mr. Rush, the decision to go to Africa was sparked by ''the promise of adventure, of going to a part of the world we hadn't seen and were interested in.'' Reared in the San Francisco Bay area, Mr. Rush was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, and served nine months of a two-year sentence for draft resistance at the Federal prison in Tucson, Ariz. Released on parole, he attended Swarthmore College, where he majored in modern European history. After college he worked as a rare-book dealer in New York, and then taught history and English at Rockland Community College, writing fiction in his spare time.
''I wasn't able to do any actual composition of stories while I was in Africa,'' he said. ''What I did was to accumulate an immense quantity of notes and ideas. I was overwhelmed by the cultural and emotional ironies of the situation, and returned with cartons of undigested material. When I arrived I started with the top of the first box I brought back.''-Mark A. Uhlig
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