We Africans like de Gaulle. He reminds us of the giraffe, of the gods that no longer visit us.
Many splendid books have come from the pen of this American writer (who died eight years ago this month), none finer than this monograph on the fictional African kingdom of Kush. The Kush of Félix Ellelloû, our cultured and self-serving narrator, is certainly fictional, although Kush has a real history in the Upper Nile region, a fact which most readers forty years ago would not have bothered to verify (perhaps no better are the readers of today, who would limit their curiosity to the trappings of a single intergalactic search engine). And Ellelloû, “short, prim, and black … produced, in 1933, of the rape of Salu woman by a Nubian raider,” has an almost mystical sense of his value to us and the annals of great men and their evil deeds. His tale is well-known to students of literature: that of the talented, educated, artistic, and yes, at times, brilliant mind who just so happens to have his all his iron fingers in the political cake. Philosopher-kings are what we used to call these individuals (we moved on at some point to the hilariously oxymoronic “enlightened despots”). But by now we have witnessed and shuddered at the fall of so many first-rate minds to the rosy couplets of their own Machiavellian romanticism that we yearn for the simple man whom money and power could never change; indeed, one wonders whether a truly first-rate mind would bother with such stupidities. Then we remember endless legends of great men and women wanting more and, in their avarice, losing their souls. But let us return to our half-Nubian, half-Salu.
The Coup does not boast nor need a discernible plot. It is the memoirs of a great man, now no longer great (usually the only time such individuals can stop to reflect). One might ask whether a reader might expect a violent overthrow of a government in these pages, and the response would simply redirect the reader to the word "memoirs." The only people who write about coups are victims or failed rebels; the results of successful coups are included in the newly amended constitution. Our man in Kush has plans and musings, which usually biomagnify as he meanders the large halls of his few superiors. In addition to the school-mandated French and Arabic and a smattering of other languages for cosmopolitan effect, Ellelloû is distinguished by his mastery of English, acquired stateside at, in no small irony for the era, a certain McCarthy College “deep in the reign of Dwight Eisenhower.” He is at his ministerial best when left to consider in smiling disdain the details of simpler existences. He walks outside and beholds “the clay of the square … accepting yet another day’s merciless brilliance”; the sand around him and one of his mistresses “was strange, black and white like salt and pepper, and at moments seemed an immense print of page too tiny to read”; and a Kush drugstore becomes:
Like a witch’s hut of murky oddments hurled to infinity by omnipresent mirrors, even mirrors overhead, circular suspended convex mirrors which foreshortened into dwarves the slack-faced toubab sons and daughters as they shuffled along these artificially cooled aisles like drugged worshipers selecting a pious trinket or potion from the garish variety of aids to self-worship.
He is a proud Muslim and husband to four wives. He has served in the army and attained the rank of Colonel, a title which seems to merge into his surname. He cavorts with an array of operatives, agents, visitors, and government officials with the hackneyed sarcasm of the majority of raconteurs forced to chat with lesser lights and surprised when, on occasion, one of these dim bulbs actually says something worth remembering. He thinks constantly and aloud about God and hopes the favor is returned. By his own humble estimation, he has much in common with his Creator:
What can be purer than non-existence? What more soothing and scourging? Allah’s option is to exist or not; mine, to worship or not. No fervor overtops that which arises from contact with the Absolute, though the contact be all one way. The wall of pale-blue tiles echoed the repose and equilibrium within me, a silence never heard in the lands of doubt and mockery.
An option is one way of looking at it. And these lands of doubt and mockery? We only hear about them when Ellelloû needs a strawman for his Marxist rhetoric, which is scattershot and insincere, and somehow not in conflict with his faith.
For all his faults, Ellelloû (likely patterned after this leader, Updike's exact coeval on a six-month delay) has more than glorious talent wasted on totalitarian aims. He can also triage any group of frauds, con artists, and aspiring thinkers into the necessary pigeonholes. One such figure is his professor at the Government department of McCarthy College, Frederic Craven:
In that sinister way of American intellectual men, he had grown handsomer with age, his boyishly gaunt figure filling out without ceasing to be essentially youthful; kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago, he had created in time a kind of vertical harem of undergraduate mistresses, whom graduation disposed of without his even having to provide a dismissive dowry.
Small, prim, dark Ellelloû finds his counterpart across the seas, a man whose teaching load includes “U.S. vs. USSR: Two Wayward Children of the Enlightenment,” a man who insists on addressing Ellelloû as “Hakim Félix” as if he were a Russian boyar. Why then are we not surprised that it is Ellelloû, not his instructor, who seems to be the congenial man of letters we trust with our imaginations? “I hope,” says the young African, “you will forward my parting regards to Mrs. Craven,” to which Updike rejoins one of the finest lines in English literature. There is also the matter of that titular putsch. But I think you know how that will end.