Saturday, December 09, 2006

By C.S. Forester

Once everything was right with the world, everyone knew their place, and there was broad agreement about how things should be. People had their problems for sure, but they were nothing unusual, they just come with the territory. Then some outsiders show up and turn it all upside down. White is black and black is white. The secure is filled with danger and only the unknown offers hope. Some days are like that.

The Sky and the Forest is about one of those days and the events that follow it. Loa is the chief of a remote village in central Africa. He is a god to his people, he has the power of life and death over them. Any woman he pleases may be his bride, though Musini has the privilege of being the mother of Loa’s son, Lanu. His people are cheerful cannibals who eat anyone unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. Then one day his village is attacked by Arab slave raiders. Loa is forcefully thrust into a new world full of pain and degradation. His escape and trek home provide him with insight into the world at large. The new life he builds for his people is living on borrowed time. The era of European colonization has begun and Loa’s people will see the world change yet again.

Forester makes a scathing indictment of colonialism and a defense, of sorts, of tribal, pre-modern life. As brutal as Loa’s people can be, they are pretty much angels compared to the Arabs and the Europeans. It is their fate to learn one stage of human conflict only to confront people who have mastered the subsequent levels of ruthless warfare.

The problem, and it is a big one, is that as a reader I just don’t buy Forester’s depiction of the African savages. Maybe I’m not versed enough in African anthropology, but the records of explorers I’ve read suggest that African natives weren’t unduly hostile to travelers. Maybe the Central African jungle really does impose isolation, but I find it hard to swallow that a village near a river had no concept of boats or even fishes. Or that they had no contact with any of their neighbors, except to eat them. Forester is at some pains to point out that Loa is a man unaccustomed to logical thinking, one who never had to use his imagination, and his language is clumsy and lacks the vocabulary to express abstract thought. Nonetheless, this big, deified tard becomes a great leader of men. My guess is that primitive people in remote places use their environment to the fullest. They may not have words for compound interest, jihad, genocide, post-modern inter-textual discourse, or fair and balanced news, but just the same I would bet African languages can express many complex moral and spiritual ideas.

While I am a fan of Forester, The Sky and the Forest was a disappointment. The story line of survival and rescue is a strong one, but undermined by a picture of native Africans I can’t help but see as distorted and untrue. For straight up na├»ve jungle-adventure I’d recommend Tarzan, for a story of how the world changed overnight in a vast region of the world, read The White Headhunter.
-Dave Hardy

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