A Keene Valley Yankee in Liberia

Hannah Musgrave is a white American Marxist radical who, to escape the pressure of being on the FBI’s most wanted list, comes to Africa and, in a convergence of audacity, geography and chimpanzees, to Liberia. The Republic of Liberia is a place of 111,370 sq km that borders the North Pacific Ocean, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire. ‘Years of fighting’, says the CIA, ‘coupled with the flight of most businesses, have disrupted formal economic activity.’ To make fleshy the bald, unreal economy of a statement like that is part of Russell’s project; but also, and this is the subtler point, to reflect back in his confiding vessel the eyes of ourselves as lookers.

This is a story that usefully, and humanely, presents modes of control, from the harrowing cutting off of body parts to the invisibly instilled assumptions about comfortable values. The brutal history of military coups; the 1979 ‘Rice Riots’, growing desperately out of President Tolbert’s ten cent-per-pound sales tax on rice; the whole history of Liberia’s coming into being, when, in 1825, Americans shipped over freed black slaves because they were not sure what else to do with them: these are fascinating and important. As Hannah, in her typical mundanity of expression, comments, ‘my personal connections to the events remained tangential. I was like an asteroid passing through the furthest shifts of the Liberian planetary system.’ Russell is hacking, however awkward that may be, to get through to something more than a mere cosy cosmic vicariousness.

The prose is frequently clumpy, without nuance and, sometimes, simply inaccurate. The reference throughout to Hannah’s father as a meaningful ‘Daddy’ is risibly clumsy, as is the exchange between flaccid ‘Mother’ and rock-hard daughter which runs: ‘I read everything I can about Liberia […] I just read a novel by Graham Greene that was pretty depressing, to tell the truth’[…] ‘That’s Sierra Leone, Mother. And a long time ago.’

The author Russel BanksRussell is more effective in the swift, elegant narratives of escalating violence that occur late on in the book. The portentous tone, which does posit glimpses of exciting futures to be worked towards, finds in its simple causal statements an exhalation. Hannah’s final berating self-evaluation is a crucial and surprising re-positioning which, because of the modesty of her farm life in Keene Valley (from where the narrative is relayed to us in the present tense), does not feel tacked-on. It is an interesting manoeuvre because it appears to refuse the validity of telling the story just told. It results in a kind of flat non-feeling akin to the inertia that is felt watching the events of September 11 that are referenced. It is the virtue of semi-fictional representation, and a particular asset of this book, that a character can enlighten us of terrible facts, making us simultaneously aware of the sickly nature of the parading of untethered reactions, and of the underlying affiliations and structures to which we adhere.

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