Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Viceroy of Ouidah — Bruce Chatwin — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 22, 2008

Good writers tend to get addictive. And if they are especially as good as a Bruce Chatwin, readers stand very little chance. I have completed reading Chatwin’s “The Viceroy of Ouidah” over the weekend — once again I witnessed his wonderful ability of dousing readers in engaging narrative and taking them into worlds they have never been and most probably they will never be. To me it is atleast one of the many purposes of writers, books and writing i.e. help people experience life vicariously. On this count, I would rate Chatwin as one of the “most complete” (if I am allowed to use that expression) writers I have come across.  That it is quite an extraordinary and unique talent stares in the readers face within the first few pages of reading any of his books. I can say that with a  bit of temerity having come across his other books like “What Am I Doing Here“, “On the Black Hill” and ” The Songlines

The Viceroy of Ouidah” is the story of the birth, rise and decline of Francisco da Silva (Dom Francisco) an ordinary man from Sao. Salvador.de.Bahia in Brazil who makes his impressive fortunes through slave trading and agriculture in the African Kingdom of Dahomey. Dahomey is ruled by an unpredicatble king whom Dom Francisco befriends and for a long while makes his fortunes by keeping the king happy. It is the king who bestows the title of ” The Viceroy of Ouidah“. Falling out of the king’s favours and also changing attitudes to slave trading lead to disastrous consequences to Dom Francisco leading to his death in extremely pitiable conditions. The chances of making an escape to his native country of Brazil also stand reduced as he is branded as a criminal who has made his fortunes through slave trading. The changing postures of colonial powers like the French, English and Dutch also strengthen the historical forces against Dom Francisco. This biographical sketch is narrated as a recollection of one of his surviving daughters Mama We’we’ (Eugenia) who herself is on her deathbed and is approached by Dom Francisco’s living survivors — who long for the lost grandeur and who still entertain the belief that fabulous riches that their founder made are still available somewhere and that may be Mama We’we’has some clue to finding them. Both the grandeur and wealth are irredeemably lost. Yet the yearning and hope remains

As a biographical sketch “The Viceroy of Ouidah” is bettered by any number of similar sketches of traders/businessmen/buccaneers who have made their fortunes through foul (or fair) means. So what is so captivating about this book? I think there are a few aspects which I would call singularly Chatwinisque

First, Chatwin comes completely alive in his observation of his surroundings and portrays them in a heartwarming manner. If human minds had a capability of auto projecting pictures as they went reading prose, I am certain Chatwin’s prose would produce the clearest pictures than the prose of any other writer that I have known. It is an uncanny ability to get into the skin of ones surroundings, people, settings so very deeply and then make the subsequent descriptions so very objective that one is left gasping at this clarity of depiction

Second is Chatwin’s prose. Extremely lucid yet economical. There is not a single word employed that is excess and not needed in describing a scene. Consider some of Chatwin’s descriptions : “Their cottons were printed with leaves and lions and portraits of military dictators. They hauled themselves into the teak pews… At the Credo, the ladies sighed, heaved their thighs and go to their feet. Letters, lions and military dictators rustled and recomposed themselves”

“Their skins cracked in the harmattan (an atlantic wind), then the rains came and tambourined on their caladiums and splashed dados of red mud up the walls of their houses”

At thirty she was an old maid, but after that her appearance hardly changed: The Slave Coast takes its victims young or pickles them to great antiquity” 

The book is littered with many such brilliant descriptions and passages

Third Chatwin employs this descriptive prowess to evoke a bygone era and a thin sliver of history in a very fascinating and haunting way.

The only complaint that I have against “The Viceroy of Ouidah” is that it is too short a book and can be completed in a couple of sittings

Despite these wonderful abilities and varied output, I am left with the impression that as a writer, Bruce Chatwin is not in the popular recall of many a reader across the world — on this front I will be more than happy to be proven wrong

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