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Authors on Africa, from Heart of Darkness to The Heart of the Matter

For Africa Day, Eileen Battersby selects 13 classic novels set in Africa but written by outsiders, including several Irish authors

Meryl Streep in Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, which revived interest in the 1937 memoir by Karen Blixen or Isak Dinsen in which it was based. It drew on her experiences running a coffee-plantation in Kenya, at first with her husband, then on her own. An eccentric Danish aristocrat may not seem the most likely chronicler of life in Africa but she is a natural storyteller, blessed with a precise, elegant and commendable flair for ironic epigrams

It’s the light, it’s the heat that hits you with the force of a punch to the chest, it’s the menaced turn and stare into the eyes of an animal more interested in eating you than having its ears rubbed; it’s the fact that the stick upon which you are standing is actually a snake. Have you ever had sunstroke? And those mosquitoes you encountered in Spain? Forget them – their much larger cousins live in Africa. As for sunsets, they are very quick. What draws non-African writers to Africa? The vast spaces, the silence, the wildlife, the colour, the heat and the guilt, the white imperialists who left devastation, grief, anger and disease. Writers go in search of mystery and intrigue; unsolved puzzles, affirmation of sense and the meaning of life. If any place on earth remains capable of inspiring works of imagination it is Africa with all its wonders and horrors and vibrancy.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)

Recognised as one of the major texts of high modernism, Conrad’s most famous book is based on a journey up the Congo River which he undertook in 1890. Chinua Achebe denounced Conrad as “a bloody racist” yet this book attacks the greed and cruelty of the European imperialists who raped Africa. The enigmatic, deranged Mr Kurtz is not a hero; he is a monster symbolising ruthless Western man on a colonial rampage.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948)

Scobie, the laconic, displaced anti-hero of this compelling 20th-century morality play set in wartime Sierra Leone is a sympathetic study of a good man in torment. As ever Greene’s clear-eyed sense of place confers an atmospheric immediacy on the narrative. More than a decade before he wrote this novel, Greene set off on a bizarre trip to Liberia. The experience almost killed him and it also produced an atmospheric travelogue, Journey without Maps (1936). It is interesting that as soon as anyone mentions Liberia, the next comment made is invariably a reference to Greene’s astute reportage.

The Day of Creation by J Ballard (1987)

The human imagination rarely comes more active than that of Ballard, who appears to have a dreamscape permanently screening wonders in his fabulous brain. Yet another Ballard crazy, a doctor of course, Mallory arrives in a parched, diseased, dying hell location somewhere in central Africa, near the border of Chad and Sudan. Within six months he has no patients so he decides he needs a project. Almost immediately the most obvious plan comes to mind – he wants to bring water to the region. His dream consists of a fantasy about a third Nile, the way to make the Sahara flower. The yarn of yarns, of course it is insane, which makes it a terrific read.

The Darling by Russell Banks (2004)

One of America’s most consistently underpraised writers, Banks confronts imperialism and its ugly legacy. He considers Liberia as a country waiting to explode. After a century of being exploited by the US, it is being run by a corrupt elite who control the military. Into this time bomb comes the central character Hannah Musgrave, a privileged Harvard dropout whose antics have placed her on the FBI’s most-wanted list. In Liberia she marries a politician but irreconcilable differences divide her from her African husband. It is an outstanding novel, as earnest as anything Banks has done, and he certainly castigates colonialism.

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

An intense love story dictates the action but this is an assured, even masterful third novel from a sensitive, intelligent and psychologically astute writer. The Belfast-born Bennett summons the Belgian Congo in all its postcolonial chaos and corruption just before independence. Bestriding the stage is the ambivalent Patrice Lumumba, a gifted Lucifer who may well have swaggered out of Paradise Lost. It is a great story but the genius lies in the prose. In common with his countryman Eoin McNamee, Bennett is simply a brilliant writer.

Commissar Connell by JM O’Neill (1992)

Born in Limerick, one-time London publican and theatre manager, the great O’Neill, author of Duffy is Dead and Canon Bang Bang, also worked as a bank official in various places including Ireland, England, Nigeria and Ghana. His feel for Africa never left and when he turned to writing in his mid-60s he made impressive use of it. Commissar Connell is the story of a mysterious Irishman gone native who does several things including founding a leper colony. The search for him begins. With shades of Graham Greene: it is Africa. “The sun was getting up fast now; the glare was blinding, heat bounced off the iron ground ….Noise enveloped the crowds; a sullenness, lowered heads and eyes as they scarcely made way for him.”

An End to Flight by Vincent Banville (1973)

Irish writer Banville, author of many thrillers and children’s books, spent four and a half years in Nigeria as a teacher working with the Igbo people and this evocative novel is based on the war which erupted in a part of southeast Nigeria briefly known as Biafra between mid-1967 to early 1970. The story is about a lonely man named Painter, who could have easily stepped from the pages of a Greene novel. This is a sensitive, brilliantly-described novel and astute in its reading of moods and responses. The war in Biafra was “full of noise and fury and high-flown proclamations of defeats and victories, but at the centre it was hollow. It was a small, mean war, and the appearance and the sound of the guns caused more destruction than the actual shells that they fired….In the beginning the dream of nationhood had hovered bright and steadfast, and perhaps the leaders still believed in it, but now after almost a year of the reality of war the people saw the dream for what it had become…” It is the story of a quest for salvation which at best is merely an enfeebled survival. One of the most consistently undercelebrated great Irish novels – and it is about Africa.

The Counsel at Sunset by Gerald Hanley (1951)

Set in a colonial outpost in Ethiopia, it observes a man of integrity being faced with a difficult decision or a far easier one that he cannot accept. Hanley (1916-1992), who left Ireland at the age of 19, loved Africa. He also wrote The Year of the Lion (1953), which is an account of a year in the life of Jervis, a young white settler. His coming of age is achieved when he manages to kill a lion which had been killing the settlers’ cattle before it began savaging the humans. Jervis kills the lion and his life begins. The vanishing world of tribal Africa is increasing marginalised by the white man’s new one of roads, cigarettes and politics. Hanley also wrote film scripts but his passion was Africa. Possibly his best book is Warriors and Strangers, a mix of polemic and memoir which offers an insight into the old, vanished Africa which he knew, loved and to an extent has immortalised.

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen or Isak Dinsen (1937)

This draws on her experiences running a coffee-plantation in Kenya, at first with her husband, then on her own. An eccentric Danish aristocrat may not seem the most likely chronicler of life in Africa but she is a natural storyteller, blessed with a precise, elegant and commendable flair for ironic epigrams. She wrote in English. Stylistically, think Anita Brookner and you would not be too far off. There is a sadness about this memoir with its awareness of a world which is changing and also her romance with a big game hunter who died, which ensures it lingers in the memory. The plantation failed and she returned to Denmark. Sydney Pollack’s movie version in 1985 encouraged a revival of interest in the book.

On the Gold Coast by Evald Flisar (2010) translated from the Slovene by Timothy Pogacar

Author of the recently published My Father’s Dreams, Flisar is an original and this very funny and barbed picaresque follows six deeply neurotic Europeans through west Africa as they each seek answers by which to live. Their guide is a travel book written by an author who has disappeared leaving only the unfinished manuscript of his final, unfinished book – which is also set along the same route. Nothing is quite what it seems, least of all Africa itself in a narrative which soars upon thematic ambivalence.

A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd (1981)

With a sackful of nods to Greene, Boyd has fun with this comic romp featuring diplomatic life in west Africa. An Ice-Cream War (1982) was marginally more serious and was set in east Africa during the Great War. Boyd is comfortable with Africa as he was born in Ghana. One of his most ambitious novels, Brazzaville Beach, also set in Africa, explores the origins of human and animal violence.

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin (1980)

Loosely based on the life of a white Brazilian, Felix de Sousa, who became the most powerful slave trader in what is now Benin, Togo and parts of the Volta region of Ghana, this is an extreme slice of violence and ideally suited for making a bonkers movie – which was made. Its inclusion here is mainly for its curiosity value. However daft the book may seem when compared with a seminal work such as Conrad’s, it does draw on the horrific violence perpetrated against the native populations.

African Silences by Peter Matthiessen (1991)

The book every Africa-lover wants to live, never mind read. In 1978 and again in 1986 this most human of American visionaries travelled through Senegal, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Zaire and the Central African Republic to monitor the fate of West African wildlife, particularly that of the forest elephant whose ivory was beginning to replace that of the larger bush elephant as a target for poachers. It is a travel book and a spiritual journey but also a polemic as he makes clear the plight of the many endangered animals and the difficulties encountered by those attempting to protect them. His love for the elephant is palpable: “Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with; yet its passing – if this must come – seems the most tragic of all….There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, an ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peak, great fires, and the sea.”