Narrative Style: First person recollection
Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre travel.
Synopsis: Gide wishes to discover Africa, to go to places that have barely been discovered, to witness new landscapes and people. He travels through the Belgian Congo as it then was and makes observations about the colonial system that prove to be politically important.
There were a couple of reasons for picking this book. At first, I was going to read one of Michael Palin’s travelogues, a couple of which have been bought for us. I don’t do much in the way of reading travel writing so there wasn’t much to choose from on my shelves. I could have picked a Bill Bryson up, sure in the knowledge that I would like it but that would seem to defeat the point of this being an Eclectic challenge. All the same, I wasn’t really looking forward to reading the Palin, enjoyable as the accompanying tv series were. Then I inherited a lot of books and this Gide was among them. I’ve wanted to read Gide for a while and I was also curious as to what it would be like for him travelling through Africa at the point in history. Even then, this remained till the very last. I kept putting off picking it up.
I don’t know why. It was exquisitely written. Gide has a novelists eye for detail and his descriptions of the landscape are often quite poetical. He describes their hardships and delights unsparingly and doesn’t flinch from his own stupidity or embarrassment. He is clearly knowledgable about plants and insects which he also describes in detail.
This isn’t the main interest though. Seeing Africa through the eyes of a white, privileged man gave a strange image of the times. Gide is clearly a reasonable and intelligent man and he treats the natives he meets with respect and even though he is prone to calling them simple, he allows them a dignity that I imagine was lacking in a most of the dealings between colonialist and colonised. He spends long hours teaching Adoum, one of their entourage to read and is genuinely bereft when he has to leave their company. He disapproves of the way the blacks are ripped off by the colonists and is always fair, sometimes paying a higher rate than they would normally get. He suggests that the exploitation of those working to produce rubber was akin to slavery. Indeed, on publication, the book influenced anti-colonist movements and inspired reform.
Alongside this, is Gide the hunter and Gide the butterfly collector. It seems strange to our sensibilities that whenever a new animal is spotted, the first recourse is to the gun. Indeed, they succeed in shooting a hippopotamus which they then skin and cut up, parts of which turn the whale boats they are in into abattoirs with blood running over the boards. Gide has a curious mind and is clearly excited by each new butterfly or insect that he sees. Unfortunately for the creature, that usually meant that its fate was sealed as it is then killed and preserved.
Overall, this was interesting as a historical document as well as a travelogue. The map at the front of the book is now completely different and you can’t help but wonder exactly how different the landscape and the people would be, if you visited today.