Huge chunks of this 1974 novel by Botswanan author Bessie Head were entirely incomprehensible to me. But in between those chunks were bits that I found interesting—glimpses of the main character’s life and the odd off-kilter insights of her mind. Because so much of the novel traces the main character’s descent into madness, it’s entirely possible that it’s not meant to be understood in any conventional way. Her mind is throwing ideas at her. Sometimes those ideas form a pattern and have a sort of sense to them. Sometimes they don’t. And always it’s a battle for her to work out which ideas are real and reliable and which must be abandoned.
The novel, which I understand is to some degree autobiographical focuses on Elizabeth, a biracial woman from South Africa who has brought her son to live in a Botswanan village called Motabeng. Elizabeth has visions centered on two men. The first, Sello, is a priest-like figure who attempts to teach Elizabeth about good and evil but who is eventually caught up in battle with a Medusa figure. The second, Dan, is all id. He surrounds himself with women, each of whom he uses and discards, taunting Elizabeth all the while.
Most of the book, particularly the first half, which focuses on Sello, is consumed with Elizabeth’s visions. Wading through these visions is a challenge to any reader, but I often wondered whether my lack of background in African literature and politics caused me to miss references that would enrich my understanding (or allow me to understand the material at all). I was at times able to pick up bits of prose that I found interesting or insightful. For example, there was this discovery that Elizabeth made as she listened to Sello:
It was the kind of language she understood, that no one was the be-all and end-all of creation, that no one had the power of assertion and dominance to the exclusion of other life. It was almost a suppressed argument she was to work with all the time; that people, in their souls, were forces, energies, stars, planets, universes, and all kinds of swirling magic and mystery; that at a time when this was openly perceived, the Insight into their own powers had driven them mad, and they had robbed themselves of the grandeur of life. As Darwin had perceived in the patterns of nature: ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
She was talking to a monk who had used an unnatural establishment to express a thousand and one basic principles as the ideal life because, in the heat of living, no one had come to terms with their own powers and at the same time made allowance for the powers of others.
I can’t say I followed every bit of her train of thought here, but this idea of how the individual relates to the wider world seems significant. Each person has powers and a choice of how to use those powers, to nurture or destroy, for self or for others. And those choices touch others’ lives.
We see this awareness of community in the way the people of Elizabeth’s village, along with Peace Corps volunteers from around the world, draw their collective knowledge together to figure out how to plant and maintain a garden. The success of their planting depends on the soil, which must be carefully tended. And when a crop does well, decisions about using and selling the crops are important. All the pieces—and the people—are important to making the system work. The last half of the book, which offers more glimpses of the world outside Elizabeth’s mind, show us what the community can be, even in its imperfections.
There’s a lot more going on in the book. I’m sure papers could be—and have been—written about the attitudes toward gender, sex, and sexuality in the book, as well as about race, colonialism, and mental illness. Her visions are full of imagery that I feel sure has meaning I didn’t see. It’s a rich book, possibly too rich for me.
I sometimes see people say they just want to know whether a blogger enjoyed a book or not, or whether a blogger would recommend a book. With a book like this, I don’t think it’s possible to say. I’m not sorry I read it, but I didn’t love it and am unlikely to ever make books like this a cornerstone of my reading diet. I don’t know that it enriched my reading life that much, although I do find value in trying out books that aren’t quite for me, and I’m glad to know a little something about a major African author like Bessie Head. I can’t recommend it, but I can’t disrecommend it either. It comes down to what you’re looking for, and only you can know the answer to that.