Tracing a modern Kurtz in the Congo
Deni Ellis Béchard's captivating, autobiographical novel, White, combines a high-stakes plot with self-examination.
January 21st, 2019
The novel’s depiction of the confusion and violence of the Congo is entirely convincing according to reviewer Paul Headrick.
by Deni Ellis Béchard
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018
$19.95 / 9781772012088
Reviewed by Paul Headrick
Nothing is unusual in a novelist drawing material from life, and usually the best reading strategy is to ignore such connections, but in the case of a new novel set in the Congo, White, doing so might be a mistake, for the connections are so specific, including the narrator’s name: Deni Ellis Béchard.
The narrator of White has a dramatic CV: freelance war reporter, novelist, and memoirist. It’s a background that closely matches the author’s, even down to the contents of their memoirs.
Béchard’s non-fiction memoir (Cures for Hunger, Milkweed Editions / Goose Lane Editions, 2012) explores his difficult relationship with his bank-robber father.
The narrator in his novel says, “I’d published a memoir about my youth, about my father’s criminality, and the way a son grows into his father’s shadow.”
Narrator-Béchard (we’ll call him “Deni”) is returning to the Congo as the novel opens; but whereas before he covered a war there (as did author-Béchard — hereafter “Béchard”), now he’s in search of a story of crime and corruption in the world of nature conservation. He plans to chase down a secretive, rogue conservationist, Richmond Hew, and write an article exposing him. Hew is famously successful in establishing park reserves, but also notorious for his manipulations, his violence, and his ugly exploitation of his power.
An epigraph from Heart of Darkness and several allusions make Hew’s resemblance to Kurtz unmissable. More important, however, is Deni’s confusion on more than one occasion when others bring up Hew’s name; he hears “Hew” as “you” and briefly thinks it is he himself being discussed. Deni, we are invited to see, is in search of his own identity in the Congo, and surely all the parallels and the shared name suggest that Béchard is engaged in a similar search, through the writing of the novel.
The title announces the novel’s interest in race, as does an intriguing plot element introduced in the opening pages. On his flight to the Congo, Deni meets Sola, a woman who tells him the story of a girl, one of Kinshasa’s street children, who appears to be white but insists that she is black. The girl claims that a demon has stolen her colour, that she has no parents, and that she “crossed the ocean on the blade of a knife.” Deni’s search for Hew is delayed by his attempt to track the girl down and by his developing relationship with Sola. He also shares the tale of the white-black girl with a Congolese pastor who acts as an ambiguous guide to Deni, challenging his privilege and his assumptions — perhaps demons really do exist.
The novel’s depiction of the confusion and violence of the Congo is entirely convincing. The suspect motivations of the northern interlopers there and the many barriers to their understanding recall the political-psychological territory that Béchard explored effectively in Into the Sun (Anansi, 2016), which is set in Kabul (and which also examined the relationship between one of the expats and his frightening father). Violence can erupt at any time. People may turn out to be something other than what they seem. All relationships, especially intimate ones, become intensely fraught.
The physical and psychological pressures on Deni mount as he leaves Kinshasa and sets out in search of Hew. He can never be certain who to trust or what to believe. One of the major accomplishments of the novel is the handling of the characters that he meets, several of whom aggressively question his sense of what he knows about the Congo and also himself. They’re believable individuals, not just representations of what to Deni is the “other,” but they do serve a political purpose, exposing some deep assumptions about race and colonialism.
Despite a high-stakes plot and a setting that for many readers will be exotic, the most attention-getting feature of the novel is its voice. One of the markers of Deni’s flamboyant style is the unusual simile (and here the distinction between narrator and author becomes difficult, for the style is typical of Béchard’s other fiction as well): “He encroached on our circle of light like a night creature testing a boundary”; “She displayed her freckled cleavage in a long green dress, as if nature had cleverly sent a white Dryad to steer the general toward the deliverance of black people’s forests”; and “He was animated now, rubbing his knuckles against his palm, as if to purée the information he was conveying, afraid I’d fail to digest it.”
The first of these conveys the hesitancy in the man outside the circle and perhaps Deni’s condescension to the “creature,” but the second, though it won my admiration, had me imagining that Béchard clothed the woman in green because of the opportunity for the simile, not a good thing to be imagining if I’m supposed to be thinking about character. The last made me wonder what the figurative elaboration added to the picture of a man rubbing his knuckles against his palm, a telling enough image on its own.
Béchard’s virtuosity with descriptions can become somewhat fussy. From the opening pages of the novel, we have “her skin a shade lighter than gold, almost flaxen”; “her irises were nearly sepia, with a thin bright rim of black”; and “He possessed a defining roundness that seemed almost muscular.” After the almost flaxen, nearly sepia, and seemed almost muscular, it’s a relief to come to “A stout woman with a yellow perm.”
Deni’s descriptions of his mental states also demonstrate Béchard’s stylistic talents. Here’s a typical example:
Then there was a brief spell of stillness: an awareness of the electrical tension between my skin and the air, of the unceasing flicker of uncoalesced thoughts in my brain, and of muted incomplete impulses to action at the base of my skull and along my spine.
There’s a real pleasure to be had from these flourishes, connecting interior life to physical sensations. But as they accumulate, along with the imaginative similes and elaborate descriptions of characters’ appearances, what’s conveyed most powerfully are not Deni’s sensations or the qualities of things described, but, rather, his distance. Little strikes Deni with such force that he can’t muster up an elegant descriptive response.
A twist in the plot accounts for the existence of the manuscript we’re reading and shows Béchard to be aware of the way in which his high literary style can diminish the novel’s sense of urgency. The self-awareness is welcome, and it’s also consistent with the intelligence of the novel as a whole, its sophistication in its handling of race, colonialism, and male violence. This sophistication includes the treatment of Deni’s encounter with Hew, its frightful aftermath, and the surprising resolution of the mystery of the street child.
But the problem of narrative voice remains. I wanted to be moved by Deni’s eventual confrontation with the complicated truths about himself, but in the end, even when he is brought to extremes, I remained as distant from him as he seems to be from all experience, and I was not moved, just impressed.
Paul Headrick is the author of a novel, That Tune Clutches My Heart (Gaspereau Press, 2008; finalist for the BC Book Prize for Fiction), and a collection of short stories, The Doctrine of Affections (Freehand Books, 2010; finalist for the Alberta Book Award for Trade Fiction). He has also published a textbook, A Method for Writing Essays about Literature (Thomas Nelson, 2009; 3rd edition 2016). Paul has an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught creative writing for many years at Langara College and gave workshops at writers’ festivals from Denman Island to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Recently he was a mentor for the graduate fiction workshop in The Writer’s Studio at SFU.
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