Friday, October 9, 2009

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn


Oroonoko is a 17th century novel about an African prince who falls in love, is betrayed and is eventually sold into slavery in the colony of Surinam. It is one of the earliest English novels written by a woman, and one of the first novels to include a positive black protagonist. And, the best thing about it? It isn't really boring. I say that because I tried the old-old English novel thing before with Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years - BO-RING! It was like, what if you took a first-person novel, and removed all semblance of human emotion from the narrator? It was interesting to read, but NOT an interesting read. At the time I figured this was simply it's age - people hadn't figured out how to write novels yet. Well,  apparently, Mr. Defoe should have gone, say, 40 years back in time and taken some lessons from Ms. 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had fewer giants to stand on teh shoulders of (she had to be giant all on her own) and that there are things that feel outdated and incomplete, it also means just some of the information feels...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.

10 comments:

Nymeth said...

This is one of those times when I read one of your posts, think it's awesome, and yet can't find anything interesting to say. So the sole purpose of this comment is to say "awesome", I guess :P

Jason Gignac said...

Thanks, Ms Nymeth - an awesome from you says a good deal to me :).

Amanda said...

Don't ever tell me again that you never add anything to my TBR pile, okay?

Misty said...

One of my professors gave me a copy of this (she did her thesis on Behn) and I've yet to read it. It's just sitting on my shelf, looking at me accusingly. Oops.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - I'm glad you're interested in it :)

Ms Misty - I'd love to read the plays, now (The Rover, etc). Apparently, this one was adapted into a play (though by a man), and that was the only way people knew it for a long time, because Ms Behn's work was mostly lost, isnce it was considered too vulgar.

Lula O said...

Great review Jason, but I'm really struggling with that picture.

Jason Gignac said...

It is a very ugly picture. That was drawn by William Blake, actually, who was a strong anti-slavery advocate. He drew to show the savage barbarism that was being practiced against the slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean. Because Oroonoko is tortured and then hung at the end, the image is often associated with the book.

Julie said...

I'm simply amazed by your review of this book. You have said a lot of things that I would be able to think on for days on end. Very thought-provoking and sad.

Jason Gignac said...

Thanks Julie - it is a very sad topic, that's for certain :/

Jena said...

I was supposed to read this for an early Brit lit class in undergrad, but we never got to it. Although, after reading your review, I'm surprised we didn't read it in my graduate class Early Women Writers. She was mentioned, but I don't think we read even a sentence Behn wrote.