Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Middle Passage — Charles Johnson — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 27, 2008

Some recent comments of Horace Engdahl – permanent secretary of Nobel Committee, on American literature stirred a minor controversy in literary circles on both sides of the Atlantic. He called American literature insular, isolated and in some sense self absorbed and not engaging enough with the bigger world outside. Given my limited reading of any literature (leave alone American literature) I could not comment on the truth in these observations. However, this prompted me to turn my attention onto  some contemporary American literature. As an approach to selecting books by contemporary writers from US,  I immediately looked at the prominent prizes for literature in the US to check if I had any books in my inventory that have won these prizes. While there are multiple prizes, the two most prominent ones appeared to be The National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize. A quick stock taking showed that I have with me four National Book Award Winners i.e. The “Shipping News” by Annie Proulx, “Ship Fever and Other Stories” by Andrea Barret, “Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Middle Passage” by Charles Johnson. I picked up Middle Passage for reading – partly attracted by the touch of east in its title and partly to check if Engdahl’s comments held any water

Middle Passage is a powerhouse of a book from the word go. Set in the 18th century, it is the tale of Rutherford Calhoun a newly freed slave (manumission is the word) from Illinois who to escape the pressures of an impending marriage and cutthroat creditors steals himself onto Republic – a slave trading ship. What starts as almost a funny, boisterous adventure (that one gets to see in the typical sea stories) quickly transforms into a poignant story of horror, ruthlessness, cruelty, cannibalism, mutiny and the consequences there of. Republic is led by an extremely well educated but ruthless captain Falcon. Falcon is funded by three rich and ruthless American business men one of whom is Papa Zeringue who is also directly linked to the creditors of Calhoun. Actually Papa Zeringue is the one who forces Calhoun into what initially appears to Calhoun an unacceptable marriage to Isadora Bailey. Falcon leads the ship to a remote African coast to pick up a cargo of Allumseri slaves who are highly prized in the US markets. The cargo also includes a strange and mysterious being which from the perspective of Falcon is the most precious of the bounty. It is on the return journey that the crew mutinies against the captain and in the process the control of the ship goes into the hands of the slaves. Most of the original crew perish on their return journey and finally in utterly horrifying conditions the living members of Republic are saved by an American ship – Juno. Juno is owned by Papa Zeringue one of the original financiers of Republic who is about to marry Isadora Bailey. The return of Calhoun and nailing of Papa Zeringue for slave trading enables his marriage to Isadora. Although the novel concludes in a fairy tale ending, the experiences in the immediate previous pages leave the reader more with sigh of relief at the ending of the gruesome ordeal and leave little room for celebration of a happy ending. That in sum is the plot of Middle Passage. So what is the appeal of this book?

There are many aspects of Middle Passage that I found quite impactful. First and foremost is the verbal energy that Charles Johnson brings to his descriptions of characters and settings —- carefully imagined and superbly marshalled observations which have an arresting effect on the reader. Consider two of the brilliant descriptions……. one introducing Captain Falcon…

“his elbows splashed on the leather arms of the chair, and as his gaze crossed mine in the crepescular cabin light, as I saw his face, I felt the skin at the nape of my neck tingling like when a marksman has you in his sights, because the master of Republic, the man known for his daring exploits and subjugation of the coloured races from Africa to the West Indies, was a dwarf. Well, perhaps not a true dwarf, but Ebenezar Falcon, I saw, was shorter even than the poor, buggered cabin boy Tom. Though his legs measured less than those of his chart table, Captain Falcon had a shoulder span like that of Santos, and between this knot of monstrously developed deltoids and latissimus dorsi a long head rose with an explosion of hair so black his face seemed dead in contrast: eye sockets like anthracite furnaces, medieval lines more complex than tracery on his maps, a nose slightly to one side, and a great bulging forehead that looked harder than whalebone, but intelligent too – a thinker’s brow, it was, the kind fantasy writers put on spacemen far ahead of us in science and philosophy. His belly was unspeakable. His hands , like roots….. He was famous, In point of fact, infamous. That special breed of empire builder, explorer, and imperialist that sculptors loved to elongate, El-Greco like, in city park statues until they achieved Brobdingnagian proportions” … 

the other… looking at New Orleans through the eyes of a newly released and eager for life free citizen

“New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from Southern Illinois — a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau — that I dropped my bags and a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue in a whispered “Here, Rutherford is the home” So it seemed those first few months to the country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then atleast to steamy sexuality. To a newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in the muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee amd Mexican oil. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for the enjoyment. Mulattos coloured like magnolia petals, quadroons with breasts big as melons — women who smelled like roses all year round. Home? Brother, for a randy Illinois boy of two and twenty accustomed to cornfileds, cow plops and handjobs in his master’s hayloft, New Orleans wasn’t home. It was Heaven”.

In my view this is masterly and deeply affecting

The dialogue too is pregnant and carries a contextual punch and irony that staggered me as a reader. Once I was into the book, I felt compelled to read further on. It was as if somebody held me by the scruff of my collar and led me down the pages

The brief but powerful brush strokes on the socio economic picture of slaves and slavery in the US makes for some outstanding reading.  Johnson‘s eye for detail is superb and reflects a lot in his descriptions of the seafarers and their lives.  Johnson’s research into the finer details of ships, sea, life on sea and the conditions of sailors supplemented by his own rich imagination seem to pay off. Consider the following

But there’s not a civilised law that holds water”  Falcon’s smile flickered briefly — “once you have put to sea” ….. “The sea does things to your head, Calhoun, terrible unravelings of belief that aren’t in a cultured man’s metaphysic. We ate tallow first, then sawdust, stopped up our noses and slurped foul water from the pumps before barbecuing that Negro boy.” Falcon added sadly – I thought “he was freshly dead of course, crushed by a falling mast. He tasted …. stringy”

These strong narratives are so well knitted into the story telling that the overall tapestry comes out utterly convincing

Through the book Johnson brings out the philosophical orientation of the Allumseri tribes and I found those thoughts to have strong echoes of Advaita and very similar to what I read in Herman Hesse’s Sidhartha…..“The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allumseri vision of Hell” (Who sees variety and not the Unity wanders on from death to death — Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad).  Even the title “Middle Passage” sounded quite Buddhist. It is only after a little bit of research on Charles Johnson, that I came to know that Johnson converted to Buddhism and practiced it earnestly. The place where the book takes a flight from this world to the otherworldly is when Johnson describes the mysterious character as “Self” and it is here that the book did not appear to be coherently knitted or should it be interpreted as a writers latitude to lead the reader into a metaphysical realm? I could not make that out

If Middle Passage is to be held as a sample to test against the comments made by Horace Engdahl, it appears that his commets fail on all counts .i.e. the book is neither insular nor isolated. Yes, it is limited to specific aspects of Afro- American experience but even through this microcosmic world Johnson tries to touch upon the universality of the macrocosmic world that we live in. Notwithstanding these academic squabbles about literature, Middle Passage, has been a wonderful, moving and excellent read. Of more important import to me is that I got introduced to another wonderful writer and look forward to reading his other books like “Oxherding Tales

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4 Responses to “Middle Passage — Charles Johnson — A review”

  1. youlanda said

    i completely agree. this is a wonderful text. johnson uses a metafictonal approach to telling his story which elevates the novel to a purely magical realm of unbelieveable events intermingled withe the reality of the “middle passage”, leaving the reader in a bewildered teance

  2. Hehe I’m literally the only reply to your great read?!?

  3. If only more than 93 people would read this..

  4. Hehe I am literally the first comment to your amazing article.

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