Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Lure of Africa

I was viewing the Travel Channel last night, and caught the Namibian adventures of celebrity chef and novelist Anthony Bourdain. (And has anyone out there read his fiction, by the way?) During this episode, Bourdain joined a group of bushmen for what he described as the worst meal of his life, beginning with what a menu might describe as "l'anus de cochon dans la sauce de la merde," pig's ass in shit sauce.

I thought, as I was watching it, "They never told us about this in Jon of the Kalahari."

Jon of the Kalahari, as I'm sure few will remember, was a (mostly forgettable) feature that ran in the back pages of Gold Key Comics' Korak, Son of Tarzan. (In those days, postal regulations required that magazines have more than one feature.) Unlike the Tarzan stories, which were set in a timeless Burroughsian landscape, Jon's adventures took place in a more or less contemporary Africa. They were moderately educational, informing readers about bushmen and the Namib, as viewed through the adventures of Jon and his native sidekick, T'Kou. The most memorable thing about them was the Jesse Marsh art.

If they had gone into methods of cooking warthog butt, I might have found them more compelling.

Though interested enough in bushmen and their ways, it was the more fantastic realms of Burroughs that had the more persistent and pernicious influence on my childhood. I probably came to Tarzan first through the comics (read to me by my father), then the movies, then (when I had learned to read myself) the books. So my boyhood visions of Africa were infused with a heady mixture of warring tribes, greedy white adventurers, Tuareg slavers with their trusty Tower muskets ("thundersticks"), lost civilizations, dimwitted colonial officers, ferocious bull apes ("Kreegah!"), the noble savage, and Tarzan's Ape-English Dictionary.

The comics were relatively enlightened on racial matters. Sure, the hero and his family were white, but there were also any number of intelligent African supporting characters, beginning with the wise Waziri chief, Muviro. When I finally came to the books, Burroughs' racial attitudes stood out by contrast. ("I think Edgar Rice Burroughs is a racist!" I remember chirping to my bemused mother, age seven or so, when coming across a particularly malevolent passage--- and these were the cleaned-up versions I was reading, rewritten in the 1940s to remove the far more offensive stereotypes of the original texts.)

Racist or not, I ate up Burroughs with a spoon. I suppose if I read them now, I'd find them a disappointing mashup of Rider Haggard, The Jungle Book, and English pukka-sahib India adventures, but in the latter half of my first decade, I was ready for Tarzan. As my elders did their best to instill in me the values of civilization, the appeal of the boy raised in the jungle by apes was obvious.

It helped that I was familiar with the wilderness. Though I lived in a small city (Duluth), there was a forest literally in our back yard, and another one across the road in front. Occasionally we would see deer or moose. My relatives all lived in the country, which (as they lived in northern Minnesota) means that they lived in isolated steadings in a large, dark, wild wood. (Revisiting the area a few years ago after decades away, I was genuinely struck by how isolated everyone was.)

So picture young Walter Jon of the Mesabi trying to knap a spear point out of granite. (For flint you go to Michigan) The result was not sharp, but it was at least spearpoint-shaped, and I bound it with twine into a poplar haft and set forth into the woods for adventure. I got pretty good at chucking that spear. In the woods I had a tree house, just like Tarzan of the Movies. I set snares for rabbits, and caught a number of them, but I was not ready for the adventure of butchering and the carcases were left to rot in the woods.

The second feature in the back of the Tarzan comics was another influence. Brothers of the Spear featured two sworn brothers, the black Natongo and the white Dan-El, who were respectively the exiled princes of two kingdoms, Tungelu and Aba-Zulu, the latter of which seemed to be one of those lost white African civilizations that Tarzan was always stumbling across. Brothers of the Spear was the first comic I know of where the black guy got equal billing with his white cohort--- and both wore neat, short dreadlocks, by the way. By the time I encountered them, Dan-El and Natongo had become kings of their homelands and married the equally beautiful Tavane and Zulena, but continued to have adventures together, fighting Arab slavers and wily native chieftains. (For all the racial equality displayed by the Tarzan titles, the only consistent villains were Arabs and Tuaregs.)

All this got mashed together in my overheated juvenile brain. Poplar spear in hand, I vanquished Tuaregs, rescued the occasional princess, repelled assaults on my African kingdom (which seemed to have a rather Toltec architecture, come to think of it), and defeated deranged Nazi scientists (well, if you're going to have lost civilizations, why not lost anti-civilizations?).

I wrote several of these adventures in what I called "novels," and which I illustrated in crayon. Neither Kipling nor Russ Manning would have been threatened by my abilities. Fortunately none of these efforts have survived to disappoint any hypothetical biographer searching for evidence of precocious talent.

This unreal Africa, defended by my granite-tipped spear, continues to occupy an odd little corner of my memory, a lost civilization in its own right. As no one but I ever lived there, I remain its solitary prince, stalking the vine-covered walls of its ruined city, waiting for discovery by the outside world.

9 Comments:

Blogger Bruce said...

I didn't get to Burroughs until I was thirteen.

That was too old. Even at that age, ERB's work (A Princess of Mars, to be specific) came across as stiff, clunky and unbelievable. I never went on to read anything else by him.

12:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, a pleasant return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

I was Sheena Queen of the Jungle for a time. Unlike many of my soul sisters, I didn't fall out of my tree and break an arm.


-Sage

11:10 AM  
Blogger stainles said...

"(And has anyone out there read his fiction, by the way?)"

Yes. *Bone in the Throat* seems to be the most popular of his fiction books: I think it's not too bad for a first book.

However, I liked *Gone Bamboo* better, and would enjoy reading a second book with the two main characters.

I'd put *The Bobby Gold Stories* somewhere in the middle.

(I'd write more, but I have to rush off to a certification exam at work.)

11:50 AM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Burroughs is a terrible writer, in the technical sense, particularly his (best) early works.

The paradox is resolved by noting that it's his imagination and headlong drive that make him good, not his writing skills. You could say the same about Howard, tho' he's technically better too.

The drive, the crazed belief in what he's writing, is the fuel in the tank. The writing skills are the car. Burroughs had a full tank of gas in a wheezing old Model T.

OTOH, a beautiful Beamer with no gas goes nowhere.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

As to Burroughs' depiction of blacks, it's a yes and no thing.

Eg., in "Tarzan at the Earth's Core", Tarzan travels to Pellucidar on a dirigible -- crewed by sympathetically-depicted Germans, btw., which is a bit of a shock after say "People That Time Forgot".

Tarzan takes along a bunch of his black Waziri warriors. He has each of them attached as an understudy to the German engineers and mechanics, because as he says "they are highly intelligent men and will quickly pick up what they need to know", and will be able to fill in if there are casualties.

Which, since they're illiterate peasant farmers and herdsmen who speak no European language and have never handled a tool more complex than a spear, is giving them lots of credit.

In the same book, the ship's cook is a black American and a complete Stepin Fetchit caricature.

Myself, I don't think there's much profit in recoiling in horror at the fact that people in the past didn't agree with us. The past is another country and they do things differently there.

We'll look just as weird to our descendants -- who may agree with our ancestors rather than us. These things come and go. History is change but it ain't going anywhere in particular.

12:37 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Oh, I never recoiled in horror as Burroughs' racial attitudes. They were typical of attitudes that, in my childish naivete, I thought were more or less confined to the American South, and which were receiving a lot of publicity at the time.

The Waziri, I think, were Burroughs' idea of a "superior" form of African. They had Hamitic, rather than Negroid, features, and thus were superior to the local Bantus.

(The idea of a "Hamitic race" was current in Burroughs' time, but is now referred to as the "Hamitic myth." It was used to colonial powers to discriminate among the local population--- the Tutsi in Rwanda were supposed to be Hamitic, and thus suited to rule over the Hutus, who were mere Bantus.)

It's one of those obsolete ideas that, thanks to folks like Burroughs, still floats around in the popular imagination.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

The modern equivalent of "Hamitic" is "Cushitic".

It's a perfectly valid linguistic and ethnic descriptive category. Somalis and Galla are Cushitic-speakers, for example.

And they do look different from central or West Africans -- their features are much thinner, for starters. You can tell a Somali from, say, a Kikuyu at a glance; they're as different as Norwegians and Greeks.

You can usually tell a Nilotic-speaker like a Maasai from a Bantu-speaker, tho' not nearly so readily, since they've intermarried extensively, particularly recently.

That's probably about what Burroughs had in mind.

4:40 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

Steve, while it's true that you can certainly tell a Cushite from a Gikuyu, nobody these days speaks of the "Cushite race," anymore than they would speak of the Norwegian or Greek races. And for much the same reason: that sort of talk ended up killing millions of people.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

"Steve, while it's true that you can certainly tell a Cushite from a Gikuyu, nobody these days speaks of the "Cushite race," anymore than they would speak of the Norwegian or Greek races."

-- no, they use other words to say the same thing. I think the basic reason is a mix of fashion and gutlessness.

"that sort of talk ended up killing millions of people."

-- not nearly as many as talking about "class" did, but people didn't stop talking about that.

We like to think we're more advanced than our ancestors, but mostly we just have slightly different crotchets.

4:13 AM  

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