An 80s rape-fest
This is my book from Mali for my world books challenge, and I looked forward to reading it, because you don't find much historical fiction set in pre-colonial Africa. Too bad it reads like it was competing with the instigators of Gamergate for some maximum misogyny prize.
Segu begins in 1797, in a flourishing city-state of the same name in what is now Mali, and follows the men of the Traore family for over half a century. It is a volatile time in West African history: traditional practices and animist beliefs are losing ground to Islam, further complicating tensions between the various kingdoms; coastal areas are dominated by the slave trade; European trade and, later in the book, missionaries are beginning to make inroads as well. The story begins with a patriarch before shifting focus to follow four of his sons for most of the book; toward the end, a couple of grandsons become key characters as well.
The story begins ponderously, and ends so abruptly, in the middle of a battle, that I am not entirely convinced my edition isn't missing a chapter or two at the end, but in the (substantial) middle section, Condé does show some storytelling skills. There are plenty of dramatic happenings here, as befits the dramatic time period. The story is heavy on detail, and if at times the exposition is a bit clumsy, the book does give a sense of a time and place most people know little about. It certainly rebuts the idea that there was nothing going on in Africa until the European powers arrived; the most prominent conflict here is between Islam and traditional religion, and the book portrays a developed, changing culture quite apart from European influence (which, in the book, is minor). As for the writing, aside from constantly poking the reader in the eye with exclamation points, it isn't bad.
And then we get to the rape. Within the pages of this book, the unsuspecting reader will find:
- One of the brothers, seeing an attractive female slave, pounces on her, drags her to the privy and rapes her repeatedly. In response, she falls in love with him.
- Another brother, as a mercenary, rapes numerous women, and in particular, chases down an 11-year-old girl who insults him and initiates a gang rape of her. In response, she falls in love with him.
- Yet another brother, as a grown man, organizes the kidnapping of his 14-year-old girlfriend, because he's afraid that if given the choice, she wouldn't agree to elope with him. He's also secretly sleeping with her mom.
- The final brother dies before getting the chance to rape anyone, but to add some rape to his storyline, the author introduces us to a male ex-slave who has been "turned gay" by being raped repeatedly by men. Because apparently rape not only makes you fall in love, but changes your sexual orientation so you can get more of the same? He now hates himself and is shunned.
Even when no one is actually committing rape, the book dedicates itself to shoehorning in rape imagery even where it makes no sense: " `One day you'll come to Segu. You've never seen a town like it.... Segu is surrounded by walls, like a woman you can possess only by force.'" And of course the male gaze is so overwhelming that a ripe fruit can't be mentioned without being compared to a nubile teenage virgin. Other assorted passages from this book:
A consensual sex scene: "He held Romana in his arms and satisfied her desire to be possessed."
A new female character is introduced: "Lady Jane.... was reaching the age when a woman's charm is at its height. Another few years and the inexorable moment would come when her flesh would begin to sag, blurring the oval of her face and the firmness of her breasts.... But for the time being she was perfect!" This is of course all we need to know about Lady Jane.
"Diemogo signaled for her to be silent, but not unkindly, since a woman is never mistress of what she says, especially when she is suffering."
"Women! What could you do with them? What did they want? What lay behind their beauty and docility, those traps to imprison men? .... Wasn't it enough for them to know that no man is grown-up to the woman who bore him? That, apart from the shared game of appearances, no man is strong against the woman he loves and desires?"
Since the author is in fact a woman, one assumes she doesn't actually espouse these opinions, but it is impossible to tell from the text. There is not a single complex or interesting female character in it. They function as embodiments of sex and motherhood rather than actual people, and when we do drop into their heads, it's only to hear about how much they care for some man, who has of course mistreated them. (Ironically, even the woman referenced in that last quote is only asking for recognition for her child, so it seems that being a sex object and mother is in fact enough for her.) Did the author (who first published this book in 1984) believe, consciously or not, that serious literature requires misogyny? Or ought this instead be viewed as a misandrist work, since the men in it are so vile? But then, is making half her main characters rapists in fact misandrist, if none of her women mind being raped?
Having arrived at that disgusting question, I have nothing further to say about this book. Back to the library with it, and good riddance.