Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Today’s library feature highlights two books on Africa – one, the memoirs of an early explorer; the other, a unique coming-of-age story of a young colonist in Kenya.

Mungo Park was an 18th-century Scottish medical man who was bitten by the exploration bug shortly after he completed his medical studies, making his first journey as ship’s surgeon to Sumatra in 1793. In 1794, he volunteered to take the place of the late Major Daniel Houghton of the African Association, and, under its auspices, embarked in the following year on a mission to discover the course of the Niger River. The results of that journey were published as Travels in the Interior of Africa in 1799; my copy, incidentally, is the Folio Society edition, published in 1984, with an introduction by John Keay.

Park made his way up the Gambia River to the British station at Pisania, where he picked up guides and as much intelligence as he could, then struck off into the interior. Among many adventures and hardships, he was held captive by Ali, a Moorish chief, for several months. He finally escaped, with his horse and compass, but it wasn’t long before he encountered Ali’s men who had been sent to bring him back – or so it appeared:

“Looking back, I saw three Moors on horseback coming after me at full speed, whooping and brandishing their double-barrelled guns. I knew it was in vain to think of escaping, and therefore turned back and met them; when two of them caught hold of my bridle, one on each side, and the third, presenting his musket, told me I must go back to Ali…In passing through some thick bushes, one of the Moors ordered me to untie my bundle, and show them the contents. Having examined the different articles, they found nothing worth taking except my cloak, which they considered as a very valuable acquisition, and one of them pulling it from me wrapped it about himself…I therefore earnestly begged him to return it, and followed him some little way to obtain it; but, without paying any attention to my request, he and one of his companions rode off with the prize. When I attempted to follow them, the third, whom had remained with me, struck my horse over the head, and presenting his musket told me I should proceed no farther. I now perceived that these men had not been sent by any authority to apprehend me, but had pursued me solely to rob and plunder me.”

Park did finally find the Niger, and is generally credited as being the first white man to see it. He was delayed on his return journey for some months by illness, and when he did get back to Scotland, where it was thought that he had perished, he was given a hero’s welcome. Travels is an honest, straight-forward recounting of his dangerous expedition, in an era in which Europeans were eagerly trying to fill in the blank spaces on the map of Africa.
* * *

We jump ahead a little more than a century to Kenya in 1913, where a six-year-old girl and her mother are making the trip to the coffee farm that had been started by the girl’s father. “We set off in an open cart drawn by four whip-scarred little oxen and piled high with equipment and provisions. No medieval knight could have been more closely armoured than were Tilly and I, against the rays of the sun. A mushroom-brimmed hat, built of two thicknesses of heavy felt and lined with red flannel, protected her creamy complexion…We were going to Thika.”

The Flame Trees of Thika, by Elspeth Huxley, is a remarkable account of growing up in British East Africa in the first quarter of the 20th century. The book combines a natural, unaffected lyricism with the rare ability to recall the perspective of childhood, leading to the creation of a truly enchanting memoir.

Here, Huxley describes the outcome of a hunting party’s successful kill of a leopard that had been raiding the local livestock:

“Nervously, I touched the leopard; the flesh was warm, it seemed impossible that anything so splendid, so magnificently made and so instinct with life should be lying there drained and empty. I fingered one of its great pads, large as a plate, rough as sandstone and yet springy and yielding, and ran a hand down the great sweep of its flank, built for speed like the flank of a race-horse; I could feel hard sinews under a silk-soft skin and sense perfection of design, not a single wasted molecule of tissue, nothing in excess, nothing lacking, nothing ugly or misshapen, the whole thing moulded by its purpose into a miraculous yellow engine of speed, ferocity and skill. Why did it have to be dead and useless, the agents of putrefaction at work already in its clotting blood? I knew the answer that satisfied my elders – it had failed to respect their property, their goats and calves and dogs, but it was a beast so much finer than the miserable goats it preyed upon…that for a moment, as I touched the leopard, that answer seemed ridiculous; rather one would have offered goats as tributes to a creature so imperial.”

Huxley’s father left the coffee farm for military service in WWI, but he survived that experience and the family returned. Huxley wrote a sequel - The Mottled Lizard - which covers the years up to 1925 (an equally good book). Of interest to mystery fans, Huxley wrote three first-rate crime novels, featuring her fictional policeman, Superintendent Vachell: Murder at Government House, Murder on Safari, and The African Poison Murders. Huxley was, in fact, a rather prolific author, having written upwards of thirty books. I only know the five mentioned here, but they are extraordinarily good reads which gave me much pleasure – as (I hope) they will you.

No comments: