Kingsolver’s narrative indictment of colonisation: The Poisonwood Bible

I have written about Barbara Kingsolver’s (and other figures’, such as Salman Rushdie’s) novelistic art here before and even referred to The Poisonwood Bible cursorily — but recently the effect of colonisation on the inhabitants of certain continents (in this case Africa) has occupied my attention afresh. Hence this post, specifically on Kingsolver’s masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible (Harper 1998) (difficult as it is to write anything cogent on it in such limited space) – if you are still able to read in this age of selfies and rampant media narcissism, read it; you won’t be sorry. I should note that Kingsolver wrote this novel on the basis of personal experience of the Congo, hemce the aura of authenticity in which the narrative is bathed.

As the title of the novel suggests, the theme involves the poisonous effect that the Bible — or rather, what it represents for a certain fanatical mentality — could have under certain circumstances, in this case on people who live precarious subsistence-economy lives in the African jungle of what used to be the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, after independence, and more recently the Democratic Republic of the Congo). ‘Poisonwood’, in the Congo, is a plant that leaves horrible, suppurating sores on the hands and arms of people who touch it inadvertently; hence, as adjective qualifying the Bible as symbol of western culture, it makes of it (the Bible) a metonymy of the poisonous effects that western culture has had on those cultures unfortunate enough to have it imposed on them.

A synoptical sketch of the narrative will have to do, without all of the finer nuances regarding multi-perspectival presentation of different subjects’ experiences of the ‘same’ events, as employed by Kingsolver in a highly original manner. In the late 1950s a fiery Baptist preacher (overflowing with evangelical fervour) from Bethlehem, Georgia (USA) and his family of five women — his wife and four daughters — arrive in the Belgian Congo (just before Independence) to replace the former minister of religion (a Catholic) in the village of Kilanga. Nathan Price, the preacher, gives it his all, so to speak, in trying to convince the village Congolese of the advisability to switch from the worship of their local gods to that of ‘Tata Jesus’, and moreover, of the importance of being baptised in the nearby river – an ill-advised thing to do, considering that there are crocodiles in the river. Small wonder that the Kilangans regard Nathan with suspicion: does he perhaps want to feed their children to the crocodiles?

Nevertheless, the villagers are prepared to give ‘Tata Jesus’ a try, but strictly in pragmatic terms, that is, to test whether he is better than the local deities at warding off the many evils that threaten them on a daily basis: hunger, wild animals (including ubiquitous venomous snakes), drought, and so on. When a particularly severe and prolonged drought strikes, the result for Tata Price’s efforts is predictable. To condense severely, the fortunes of the Price family go steadily from bad to worse; from trying their best to survive, African style, through the misery of the drought, the threat to themselves brought by Independence (and Nathan Price’s refusal to leave the Congo, despite their sponsors’ advice to do so), the disastrous ‘mass hunt’ to provide food for the starving villagers (in which Leah Price, one of twin daughters, controversially participates as a hunter, having been taught to handle a bow and arrow by a Congolese friend), and the subsequent flight of Orleanna Price and her surviving three daughters (one having succumbed to a mamba bite) from the village in torrential rain.

What exactly happens to Nathan Price (who stays behind), to each of the daughters and to Orleanna subsequent to this final crisis I shall not divulge in detail, lest I spoil things for prospective readers. I rather want to focus on the sheer force of Kingsolver’s implicit (and explicit, albeit in a fictional context) criticism of western countries such as Belgium and America, hell bent on extracting everything of value to themselves from African countries such as the Congo, regardless of the wishes of the African people, and of the disastrous effects of their political and economic interventions on these indigenous people.

Here I should remind readers that, although the central characters of this harrowing (but beautifully told) tale are fictional, the Congo in which they find themselves most of the time is the real, historically existing country, of which Patrice Lumumba was the elected leader, for a relatively short time, after Independence, before chiefly American meddling had the effect of replacing him with the corrupt, kleptocratic Mobutu (Sese Seko), who became one of the worst dictators in African history. Both Lumumba and Mobutu, as well as other historical figures feature in Kingsolver’s book, which respects the flow of historical events as the backdrop of her ‘not completely’ inverted Bildungsroman. ‘Not completely’, because some characters, notably Leah, her twin sister Adah, and their mother, Orleanna, gain wisdom through their trials and tribulations, even if, in the case of the latter, it is interwoven with an unavoidable degree of insanity, brought about by her virtually indescribable suffering.

Kingsolver is relentless in her indictment of western colonisation, not merely in the territorial sense that obtained during Belgian King Leopold’s sustained ‘rape’ of the Congo — so memorably represented in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, too. More pertinently for our own era, however, her indictment also pertains to western interference in the domestic affairs of other countries for the sake of gaining access to their mineral wealth (Iraq comes to mind), and for ideological reasons such as ‘keeping communism at bay’ (whether it is/was in the Congo or in Vietnam), regardless of the terrible suffering inflicted on indigenous people.

All of this is made very concrete in the novel, in her account of the inhuman manner in which American agents disposed of the elected leader of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, replacing him with a monster, namely Mobutu, of ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fame, where millions of dollars were dished out to two boxers while his people starved. Nor does she spare the rod in her account – against which the narrative events unfold – of Mobutu’s reign of terror, where every Congolese suspected of possibly (by a long shot) posing a threat to his corrupt rule of self-enrichment, was summarily arrested and either executed or imprisoned under unspeakable conditions. The point is, however, that the West made this possible, shamelessly pursuing its own interests at the cost of those of the indigenous people of the Congo/Zaire — which it is still shamelessly doing. There is a memorable passage, near the end of the book, where Leah, who married her childhood Congolese friend and multilingual teacher, Anatole, reflects wryly on her life and her culture’s culpability (p. 594-595):

“The sins of my fathers are not insignificant. But we keep moving on. As Mother used to say, not a thing stands still but sticks in the mud. I move my hands by day, and by night, when my fever dreams [earlier she contracted malaria] come back and the river is miles below me, I stretch out over the water, making that endless crossing, reaching the balance [a reference to an event when she had to balance a precious cargo on a boat]. I long to wake up, and then I do. I wake up in love, and work my skin to darkness under the equatorial sun. I look at my four boys, who are the colours of silt, loam, dust, and clay, an infinite palette for children of their own, and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether.”

Needless to stress, the last four words should not be understood literally, but representationally; that is, as a reference to what ‘whiteness’ represents, namely (for a long time) a powerfully dominant, relentlessly exploitative ideology, which has brought nameless suffering to millions of people in the world. Not all ‘white’ people adhere to this ideology. And Leah’s words are more of a statement of faith than of fact; would that it could be so.