Friday, March 4, 2011

Book 51, Suriname: “Oroonoko” by Aphra Behn

I tried at first to get find some indigenous Dutch writing from Suriname. No dice! So instead, let’s use an early modern colonial text that’s hot in the fields of women’s and cultural studies.

(I may in fact have read this before and forgotten most of it. I was reading a number of androgynous 17th century gals in college for my own edification: Margaret Cavendish, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Catalina de Erauso, Madame de La Fayette.)

Frankly, this book’s bloody strange. A novella written before the age of the novel; a first-person narrator who describes the horrors of slavery and understands nothing about it; even the sexes of the tigers slain by Oroonoko change sex mid-paragraph – these are what the academics call slippages, signals of the competing agendas in Behn’s 77-page yarn.

A guide for the perplexed: Oroonoko is a prince royal of Coramantien, a trading post in what is present-day Ghana. Because Behn knows next to nothing about Africa, the details of his heroic life here are based on medieval romances a la Orlando Furioso: i.e. they bear utterly no resemblance to historical/anthropological fact.

However, he gets captured as a slave and sent to Suriname – and here’s where things get truly interested. Behn had actually lived in this territory with her former husband, so she can describe the native and colonial habits and flora and fauna with some accuracy – there’s even mentions of Inca-style quipus among the indigenous tribes, and a sequence describing an electric eel.

Behn arranges her tale so neither Oroonoko nor his beloved consort Imoinda have to suffer the back-breaking work of enslaved labourers: the European townspeople actually take to them kindly instead upon discovering their noble origins, inviting them regularly for coffee and discoursing with them on Ancient Roman history (I do not kid: there’s a section where they discuss Hannibal).

But certain details are precisely the things you couldn’t make up: the proud scarification marks on the Africans, the imposition of slave-names, the refusal to convert to Christianity, the automatic assumption that any child of an enslaved woman must also be a slave, the escape into the mountains, the savage tortures and executions that awaited those captured.

Behn – and even Oroonoko himself – are pretty cool with the institution of slavery for lesser mortals. He even offers his sympathetic master 300 slaves of his own in return for his manumission. But the horrors of the tragic ending – seriously, it’s grosser than the way Beowulf amputates Grendel – ultimately prove how the author understood something terribly wrong with this institution that allowed us to dehumanise others, to claim men as objects regardless of their dignity.

Puzzling book. Man, we’re dealing with a craploud of books about slavery, aren’t we? Mary Prince, Cambridge, the Arrivants, and then this.

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Representative quote:
And why, said he, my dear friends and fellow sufferers, should we be the slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart, this would not animate a soldier’s soul. No, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards and the support of rogues, runagades that have abandoned their own countries for raping, murders, theft and villainies.

Next book: Léon-Gontran Damas’s "Pigments – Névralgies", from French Guiana.

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