BLACK ULYSSES by Jef Geeraerts
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Africa is Dutch writer Geeraerts' domain, and his first book translated here, Gangrene, was an equatorial gumbo of checkerboard sex. Black Ulysses is more level and intriguing. Told first in a drumming, primitive, native style, then Europeanized in the second half, narrator Gregoire Matsombo's story is terrifying. A Congolese medical assistant administering a hospital right after the Belgians leave, he's forced to flee into the bush when he botches an operation he was never qualified to do in the first place. With him he takes six crates of penicillin, which allows him to practice in the jungle quite comfortably, treating venereal disease and charging high fees in either cash or barter. He has a car that doesn't run, reads Reader's Digest (""we unanimously decided that it was the magazine for intellectuals""), and upholds a reverence for the slain Lumumba. But when another patient dies on him, and the dead man's family almost beats him to death, Matsombo must take refuge in the protection of the Army (one of the many armies spawned by the civil war); now obligated, he rises in the military ranks and gets quite good at discharging his duties, most of which involve mass human slaughter. And when he gets the chance to embezzle huge sums earmarked for medical supplies, he does so, escaping to the luxury and calm of Spain. What V. S. Naipaul artfully and chillingly suggests--the menace that hangs like smoke over the newly independent ex-colonial countries--Geeraerts makes gruesomely specific: this is a very ugly book, seeded with racism that swings back and forth from the patronizing to the honest. Half ventriloquistic, half cynical, the exact point Geeraerts is trying for is uncertain: Matsombo's capitulation to amorality is shocking--but little more than that. At its best, then, a gripping chamber of horrors; at its worst, a sort of political pornography that cheats us by offering nothing more than titillation.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1978
Publisher: Viking