By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 15, 2010

10. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 292-318

Henderson the Rain King21-22
Grief overcomes Henderson, shut in his cell. And then he realizes he is not alone: Romilayu had been picked up when he tried to leave the town, and is there in the cell with him. His presence doesn't deter Henderson from mourning Dahfu. "But maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end. So that it shouldn't last forever? There may be something in this. And bliss, just the opposite, is eternal? That is no time in bliss. All the clocks were thrown out of heaven."

The next morning Henderson "felt light, dry and hollow." The Bunam's assistant, the man in black leather who was painted in the white that Dahfu had recognized as an ill omen, attends Henderson, bringing them food. Henderson tells Romilayu, "Dahfu said that when he died I should be king," and Romilayu notes that they are calling Henderson "Yassi," which means king.

Finally, Henderson tells Romilayu that the king was murdered: "It was a scheme. I begin to be convinced of it. Now they can say he was punished for keeping Atti, having her under the palace." He vows revenge, and although the idea upsets Romilayu, he shows Henderson the knife he had kept with him, concealed in his hair. They begin to chip a hole in the wall that separates them from the chamber where the king's body is lying. Through the hole they see the Bunam's assistant sitting on a stool by the door asleep. Next to him is a lion cub, two or three weeks old.

Horko, Dahfu's uncle, arrives to confirm that Henderson is now the Yassi, but that he has to wait until the maggot appears from the dead king's mouth and the cub was displayed to the people before he can make his official appearance. That may take three or four days, and then, Horko tells him, he can marry the king's sixty-seven wives. When he leaves, they hatch a plot: Romilayu will call out that Henderson has been bitten by a snake; when the attendant comes, Romilayu will jam the door open with a rock, and Henderson will take care of the rest.

The trick works: Henderson overpowers the two amazons who respond to the attendant's call, and knocks them out. He is about to strangle the attendant, but Romilayu protests, so he throws the attendant into the cell with the amazons and bolts the door. In the other cell, he says goodbye to the king and then, on an impulse, picks up the lion cub and takes it with them.

It takes ten days for them to reach Baventai, surviving on the roots and insects that Romilayu finds for them. But Henderson's fever grows worse along the way. "I would sit and play with the cub, whom I named Dahfu, while Romilayu foraged." By the time they reach Baventai, Henderson is becoming delirious, but he makes Romilayu promise to look after the lion cub.

They spend several weeks in Baventai, and when Henderson begins to recover they move on to Baktale. "There I bought a pair of pants and the missionary let me have some sulfa until my dysentery was under control. That took a few days." Then Romilayu drives to Harar, in Ethiopia, where Henderson, making a present of the jeep and other things to Romilayu, takes a plane to Khartoum. He overcomes the objections of the consular officials about the lion, and finally takes a plane for Cairo, where he telephones Lily. He tells her to meet him at Idlewild on Sunday and to bring the family lawyer: "I thought I might need his legal help on account of the lion." After stopovers in Athens, Rome, Paris and London, he and the lion cub get onto a plane bound for New York. Henderson scoffs at the passengers who read books instead of looking out of the plane's windows:
I couldn't get enough of the water, and of those upside-down sierras of the clouds. Like courts of eternal heaven. (Only they aren't eternal, that's the whole thing; they are seen once and never seen again, being figures and not abiding realities; Dahfu will never be seen again, and presently I will never be seen again; but every one is given the components to see: the water, the sun, the air, the earth.)
He makes friends with (flirts with) the pretty stewardess, and tells her, "You know why I'm impatient to see my wife, miss? I'm eager to know how it will be now that the sleep is burst. And the children, too. I love them very much -- I think." "Why do you say think?" "Yes, I think. We'll have to see." She tells him there is a little boy on board who has been orphaned and is going to live with his grandparents in Nevada. His parents were Americans, but he was raised by servants in Persia and speaks only Persian. So Henderson lets the boy play with the lion cub, and that night the boy falls asleep on his lap.

Henderson reflects on his past, on the fact that his father had loved him less than his brother, which made the brother's death the more devastating. After an argument, Henderson ran away from home and went to Ontario where he got a job working in an amusement park with a trained bear whose trainer had run off and left it. Henderson and the bear, named Smolak, would ride the roller coaster together twice a day. "We're two of a kind," he told the manager of the park. "Smolak was cast off and I am an Ishmael, too." He became close to the bear:
So before pigs ever came on my horizon, I received a deep impression from a bear. So if corporeal things are an image of the spiritual and visible objects are renderings of invisible ones, and if Smolak and I were outcasts together, two humorists before the crowd, but brothers in our souls -- I enbeared by him, and he probably humanized by me -- I didn't come to the pigs as a tabula rasa.... He had seen too much of life, and somewhere in his huge head he had worked it out that for creatures there is nothing that ever runs unmingled.
Before continuing to New York, the plane has to land in Newfoundland to refill. Because he has spent "so many months in the Torrid Zone," Henderson wants "to breath some of this cold stuff we've been flying through." The stewardess lets him take the boy outside with him:
While to me he was like medicine applied, and the air, too; it was also a remedy. Plus the happiness that I expected at Idlewild from meeting Lily. And the lion? He was in it, too. Laps and laps I galloped around the shining and riveted body of the plane, behind the great fuel trucks. Dark faces were looking from within. The great, beautiful propellers were still, all four of them. I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running -- leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence.

And so the end of Bellow's novel finds his protagonist -- who had grappled with such great matters as life and death, reality and unreality, desire and necessity, and his own identity (pig or lion) -- running in circles. Do we laugh or cry? Or both?

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