Tuesday, June 17, 2014

" . . . there must be a reason, an organizing principle, to each man's life."

Toward the end of Water Music by T. C. Boyle, Ned Rise, one of the two heroes (if you will) of the book is thinking about his future.  He's been trekking into interior Africa and
now for the last couple of months, drifting down the Niger River with Mungo Park, Scottish explorer who was the first European to set eyes on the Niger. Park was trying to find where the river ended.  Here's the narrator on Ned Rise near the end of their journey:
"Homeless, fatherless, with neither prospects nor hope,Ned hs begun to see this bleak, stinking, oppressive continent in a new light, as a place of beginnings as well as endings.  All he's been through these past two years, all the heat and stink and disease, all the suffering and strangeness - it must have some purpose, some hidden meaning, some link to his life.  He is thinking that maybe he won't return to London when they reach the coast.  He'll stay on as a trader, or maybe he'll rest up and then work his way back into the interior, explore on his own, search for whatever it is he's been spared to find."

Ned had been sent to a British army post just off the coast of Africa, because they were short of soldiers and a politician had gotten the notion to send prisoner's there.  And then Park selected from the soldiers.

Park had been born to a decent family, but there were older brothers, and he'd decided to make his fame and fortune by discovering the Niger River, which he did on his first trip to Africa.  On his return, his book and lectures, made him a well known hero in the first decade of the 1800s.  The book traces both their lives, but they don't meet until Park is recruiting men for his second Africa trip. 

They've [Rise and Park] talked, man to man.  Still nights, mist on the water, forty-one men dead and the equatorial moon sitting on their shoulders like an immovable weight, they've talked.  Mungo bared his heart, told him of his marriage, his children, of the pain of separation, of his ambitions.  He talked as if he were talking to himself, for hours at a time, and then, apropos of nothing, he would turn to Ned and ask him how he'd lost his fingers or acquired the scar at his neck - "you know" he'd say, "it almost looks like a rope burn." [It is, he's survived being hanged.]  Ned, his face frank and open, his gaze steady, would lie.  "Butcher shop,"  he'd say, "cutting out steaks."  Or, fingering the scar at this thoat, "Oh, this.  Nothing really.  Got my head caught in an iron fence when I was a kid.  No more than five or six.  They had to fetch the blacksmith to loosen the bars."
Ned Rise continues his musings:
No, worming his way into the explorer's confidence was barely a challenge.  The man was easy, a self-centered fool.  If Ned hadn't got a grip on the reins long ago they'd all be dead by now.  Still he bears the news no malice.  In fact, he's all right in his own way - at least he's committed himself to something.  That's more than Ned can say for himself.  Mungo Park may be conceited, mad with ambition, blind, incompetent, fatuous - but at least he's got a focus for his life, a reason for living.  That's the kernel of truth Ned has dug out of the motherload of the past three weeks of drifting in the sun:  there must be a reason, an organizing principle, to each man's life.   For M'Keal it's booze, for Martyn weapons and bloodshed, for Park it's risking his fool hide to open up he map and get his name inscribed in history books.  And for himself, Ned Rise?  Mere survival isn't enough.  A dog can survive, a flea.  There must be something more.  [emphasis added]

There's also the story of Mungo Park and his young wife who violently opposed Park's taking this second trip to Africa, to the point where he took the cowardly way out and promised her he wouldn't while he was actively working on this second trip. 

Boyle writes in a lush prose that scrapes words onto the page like thick oil on a canvas.  So many words that I had to look up.  Not to be pretentious, I don't think, but because they were the exact word he needed.  But, alas, I didn't mark particularly good passages as I read and finding them isn't easy.  But here's the first paragraph of the book as an example:
At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Ibn Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar.  The year was 1795.  George III was dabbing the walls of Windsor Castle with his own spittle, the Notables were botchings things in France, Goya was deaf, DeQuincey a depraved pre-adolescent.  George Bryan "Beau" Brummell was smoothing down his first starched collar, young Ludwig van Beethoven, beetle-browed and twenty-four, was wowing them in Vienna with his Piano Concerto no. 2, and Ned Rise was drinking Strip-Me-Naked with Nan Punt and Sally Sebum at the Pig & Pox Tavern in Maiden Lane. 
You can find more excerpts from Chapter 1 at TC Boyle's website.

By the way, the Encyclopedia's summary on the Niger:
Niger River, principal river of western Africa. With a length of 2,600 miles (4,200 km), it is the third longest river in Africa, after the Nile and the Congo.
To put this into perspective,  competing claims say the Mississippi River is between 2,300 and 2550 miles long.

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