19.3.12

Le cru et le cuit

Reading _Heart of Darkness_ alongside _The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency_ has left me with a funny reader's whiplash. The two books actually do some interesting work as a pair, because both depend on the old "Mother Africa" trope: Africa sentimentally imagined as the source of all goodness up until the moment that it ... uh ... is not. While Conrad is paranoiacally sure Mother A will revert to type any minute now, Smith counterphobically never stops reminding the reader that so long as everyone plays nice, we don't have to worry about that.

All fantasy, all the time. The post-colonially astute have already made the case for the spectrality of this place called "Africa" in the Western white imaginary. No need to rehearse that here. Besides, I am less interested in Conrad's mythologizing than in Smith's, because Smith's immense popularity is so mysterious, while his works are so weirdly immune to all but the gentlest criticism. Perhaps Smith's popularity depends only on what his primarily female readers make of his exceedingly beloved heroine, Mma Ramotswe, who sees and understands the problems of patriarchy everywhere, all the while going very far out of her way to forgive (and forgive, and forgive) the naughty boys in her life. It's not that she stands by her man -- when the series begins, she's single -- but that she seems like the ideal sort of best friend who is always available for a long bitch session, who would forgive you for staying with some cad without letting said cad off the hook in any way.

She lets all her cads off the hook, actually. Except, perhaps, for one exceptionally bad one -- who must remain unforgiven because someone has to be beyond the pale.

Good old structural anthropology worked much the same way, no? I mean, I have this feeling that behind all that surface charm, Smith's stuff is really retrograde.

I'm going to read some boring factual material now.

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