Friday, February 16, 2018

Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard (re-read)

When I first read this book ten years ago, I realised that it was utterly unique in my experience. There was classic literature that featured black protagonists - Othello, for instance. There was classic literature set in Africa - many of Haggard's other novels about stiff-upper-lipped European adventurers discovering lost civilisations ruled by white queens of Egyptian or Arabic stock who presided over the rites of long-lost deities. But this was the very first historical romance I'd ever read which was about a documented period of premodern African history and featured an all-black cast.

I loved this book because, as I mentioned in my previous review, it brought an often-neglected history and people into the limelight and made them swashbuckling barbarian royalty. It really did give African history that sense of colour, adventure, nobility, and romance which drew me to other historical periods and places. It wasn't a social-issues book or a slavery-history book or a white-people-save-the-day book. I'm not saying those stories are illegitimate somehow. I love Rider Haggard's other books. But those books can't avoid having a certain perspective and a certain focus which excludes other perspectives and foci. Nada the Lily had a different perspective, and a flavour all its own. I adored it, but I never found it again.

Until Marvel's first Black Panther trailer popped up and looked exactly like my best memories of Nada the Lily turned up to eleven in the modern day with superheroes. It was like a pure shot of adrenaline to the imagination, and I hadn't even realised this book had had such a profound impact on me. And so, I thought now might be a good moment to take a second look at this unique Rider Haggard novel...

Mopo is a chieftain's son and an apprentice medicine-man, but when he kills his jealous mentor in self defence he's forced to flee with his sister Baleka to the kraal of Chaka, the powerful young king of the Zulus who once swore friendship to Mopo - and vengeance on the rest of his tribe. Chaka cuts a bloody swath across southern Africa, building a mighty empire - but when Mopo and Baleka conspire to keep one of the king's sons alive, they lay the first foundations for Chaka's fall.

This book is quite the epic, starting in Mopo's youth and ending in his old age. And don't let the title fool you: Nada, the titular character, is barely in the thing and isn't remotely the most interesting person in it. This is even less a "kissing book" than The Princess Bride, and it's significantly gorier. Haggard starts the book out in the Preface by calling it "a wild tale of savage life", and indeed it's full of murder, mayhem, genocide, polygamy, infanticide, and the like. It's got magic, betrayal, ghost wolves, legendary weapons, intrigue, epic battles, and a star-crossed romance with just a whiff of incest. I mean...I haven't ever read George RR Martin's books and I don't intend to, but this book is pretty gaudy. Haggard absolutely runs with the "savage" theme, but it actually manages not to come across as self-righteous precisely because there are no significant white characters in this book. Instead, it's basically Conan the Barbarian with black people.

In addition, one of the things I found fascinating this time around was Haggard's portrait of Chaka, whom he depicts as a mad, evil, but generous and brilliant autocrat. I did a quick read of Chaka's Wikipedia page, which suggested that some of Chaka's crazy actions as mentioned in this book were actually historically founded: his mourning after his mother's death, including killing any couple who conceived a child in the year following the death, for instance. He was certainly a ruthless conqueror responsible for the deaths of millions. But in his fictional version of Chaka, Haggard somehow creates a compelling picture of an Ancient Roman or modernist dictator. A volatile cocktail of fear, manipulation, and propaganda, Haggard's Chaka makes you think of Stalin, Hitler, or Shakespeare's Richard III. I don't know whether reading this book after the twentieth century makes these parallels more obvious now than when the book was written, but what struck me about the "savagery" depicted in this novel was not how far we'd come, but how far we haven't. We've just had a century in which the heads of state of some of the most "civilised" nations on earth behaved just like "savages". Again, this book isn't conducive to feelings of self-righteousness.

Victorian Femininity and Race

Which is not to say that there isn't a problematic aspect to this book. There is. One of the things I remembered finding quite offensive about the book the first time I read it, was the treatment of the heroine. It wasn't just that there was a pivotal moment at which she became too stupid to live, although I realise now that the two things are related. But I really, really didn't care for the fact that Nada is said to be part white. To put it into perspective, Nada's whole shtick is that she's So Beautiful, It's a Curse. Her beauty is like magic and inevitably brings death, and all because of her unusually fair skin, straight hair, and so on. Even ten years ago, I didn't see why conforming to white Victorian ideals of beauty should make someone the reigning beauty of Zululand. To put it into perspective, would Victorian England have gone crazy for a young woman who conformed to Zulu ideals of beauty? Ha! 

So the implication is that African women are objectively less beautiful than Europeans. But reading the book this time, I thought it was actually worse. Nada is also depicted as conforming to European standards of modesty and is heavily implied to be more enlightened, gentle, and civilised largely as a result of her European ancestry. I do actually sympathise for Haggard labouring to make his heroine appropriate for conventional Victorian tastes. I get what he was doing there and as an author who's also laboured to make things appropriate for a specific audience, I don't want to condemn him so much as his culture. I also am all for standards of modesty and Christian ideals of mercy and gentleness. But these things aren't transmitted by blood, they're transmitted by the Word and the Spirit, regardless of blood.

Haggard's treatment of Nada also implies a double standard when it comes to white women versus black women, his heroine versus the other women in the book. One of the magical effects of Nada's beauty is that although she's often captured by various warring tribes, she's never mistreated by them. She's never forced into an unwanted marriage, and while the regular black women work hoeing fields, she's never asked to work. She's the closest thing in this book to a conventional white Victorian woman, and she's treated like one. But as ex-slave Sojourner Truth pointed out, this honour was not rendered to all women:
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
I recently read a post from Jasmine Holmes on "Growing Up Black in the Purity Movement" which perfectly articulated the problem here: 
For me, dignity must be won, not only through my chastity but also in spite of the fact that I was black. ... Ironically, I’m starting to learn that the purity culture we had inherited was highly racialized. The seeds of the movement were fraught with social Darwinism masquerading as theology and assumed that sexual purity could best be exhibited by the “Anglo-Saxon race.” As it began during the Victorian era before sprouting up in my 21st-century evangelical teenhood, that shouldn’t come as a shock.
Now, the real irony in all this is that, as I pointed out in my first review, Nada is the least interesting character in the book. The other, less "white" women - Baleka, Unandi, even Zinita - are allowed to be savages and are therefore tough, hard-working, and cunning. Well, they also tend to be treacherous and murderous, which is a different sort of problem, but my point is that they are much more three-dimensional and interesting characters with far more agency in the plot and far more in common with real women.

In Summary

Re-reading Nada the Lily was fascinating. And while I've spent a lot of time discussing what I felt was wrong with the book - and I've always believed that bad storytelling and bad messages are irretrievably linked - I'm grateful for stories like this that help me understand lies that our culture has believed in the past (and how they continue to affect us today). 

This time around I felt the plot could have been tighter, but this is still a rollicking epic which whet my appetite for premodern African history. Some of the scenes in this book - Mopo and Baleka's footrace to Chaka's kraal at the beginning, or Umslopogaas and Galazi's last stand on Ghost Mountain - are unforgettably awesome. This book is that unique blend of history, fantasy, and adventure which Rider Haggard was so good at writing, and it continues to be one of my very favourites of his books.


Blume said...

There was a black African woman sent around like a circus show in the Victorian era credited as the most beautiful woman in the world. She conformed to Namibian beauty standards.

Suzannah said...

That's fascinating, Blume. Can you link me to a reference?

Tarissa said...

Such interesting history that you've brought out from this novel!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...