Expected Publication: June 10, 2014
Do you ever read a book and feel like maybe you’re not getting it, or it’s just not for you, or you’re reading it at the wrong time and maybe if you read it some other time you’d like it more? I felt that way quite a lot as I read O, Africa!
Marketing for the book describes it thus: “Moving from the piers of Coney Island to Africa’s veldt, and further to the glitter of early Hollywood, O, AFRICA! is an epic tale of self-discovery, the constraints of history and prejudice, and the stubborn resolve of family and friendship in the face of tragedy.” Quotes on the back cover call it a comedy.
What to make of this book? As I read it, I felt like the tone kept shifting. One minute it was stylized nostalgia (a bit fluffy and cartoonish), the next it was raw and dark, then it was a sort of ugly and off-putting comedy, and then it was pulling away to make bigger philosophical statements—some more profound than others. It certainly is, as the marketing promises, an ambitious novel, and I can see it engendering good conversation among readers. Still, I can’t quite say that I enjoyed it.
That the brothers’ fascination with movie making is sparked by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is huge. You could say that they are in some ways trapped by the views of their time, and the book ends with the statement that the brothers “try to forgive themselves at last for being in concord with their era,” but the sexism and racism in the book still make me uncomfortable. I have read plenty of books in which characters experience sexism and racism. I think the problem here is that the author’s own voice paints characters and situations in sexist and racist ways.
A lot can be forgiven when a book has great characters. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really like any of the characters in O, Africa! Maybe I would like them more if they were drawn with greater depth and subtlety. Even the most appealing among them, like King Mishi, aren’t quite successful because they feel like caricatures. Intimate relationships among characters are developed mostly in terms of sex and power, and the reader doesn’t see much beyond that.
Admittedly, some bits (for example: Micah raving that he’s been “subjected to a hot shave,” or thugs busting out in what is essentially a song and dance number) are funny—if sometimes ludicrous and/or offensive. But when one character says, “When audiences laugh, it’s never wrong,” I have a feeling the author is acknowledging that sometimes maybe it IS wrong.
The book does make some fine if not earth-shattering comments on the dangers of cultural imposition and the expanded reach of powerful media and new technologies. I appreciate the points about the nature of film and time, and despite one plot element that I found hokey, I was satisfied with the ending.
So, final analysis? There’s a lot to chew on, but it doesn’t always taste very good.