Friday, October 9, 2009
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
Because, again, this story wasn't boring! It was plotted, and mobile, and despite it's length (VERY short) the characters are sympathetic and interesting. Following Oroonoko is an emotional, instead of an intellectual experience, and the end - abrupt, cold, and tragic, feels sickeningly casual in a very powerful, intentional way.
Now, here's the thing - this novel is old. Not only does this mean that Aphra Behn had fewer giants to stand on teh shoulders of (she had to be giant all on her own) and that there are things that feel outdated and incomplete, it also means just some of the information feels... hrm. Well, grossly inaccurate is the word. In fact, a little condescendign, in context of today. Which was actually a really interesting thing about reading this book. Ms Behn lived in Surinam for a while as a British spy (she had a really fascinating life!), but had never been to Africa - and even if she had, this was a time when most of the world was still a mystery, where 'reliable' sources of research reported back total balderdash on new places. The Africa and South America in this story, then, is very much a part of her imagination more than a part of geography. And her handling of African people even more so.
But that was what was so interesting! Africa was so foreign to Behn that, in spite of shortly meeting slaves during her stay in Surinam, it was like another planet, and Africans truly another 'race' in a sense that we can't understand any more. Behn knew bits and pieces, but most of her depiction of Africans was the result of two simple facts in her mind: 1) People in Africa are much different culturally than People in Europe and 2) Human beings everywhere are the same, and can be great or terrible, noble or cruel, without having any particular race. This makes Oronooko a horrible representation of history, but a beautiful representation of the protospirit of racial equality. The book isn't perfect even at this - there's still a bit of a feeling of condescension, a sort of 'oh, those dear AFrican people, they can be noble too!' But the nobility of the idea that she expressed shines through and is still powerful over all the intervening years.