By Charles Matthews

Sunday, November 7, 2010

2. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 33-59

Henderson the Rain King4-5
We finally get to Africa with Henderson, and rather swiftly, though first he has a few more things to tell us, particularly about his 15-year-old daughter Ricey. While home for Christmas from boarding school "she passed a parked car and heard the cries of a newborn infant in the back seat of this old Buick. It was in a shoebox." She takes it home and hides it in the closet of her room, mainly from her father. Lily discovers it and helps her feed it, but they let Henderson go on practicing his violin in the basement.

We learn also from Henderson's ramblings about the death of his older brother, Dick. A veteran of World War I with an otherwise stellar record, he was doomed when "for one moment he resembled me, his kid brother, and that was the end of him." In a diner he took out a fountain pen to write a post card, and when it didn't work he had a friend hold it up. He shot the pen out of the friend's hand, but also shot a coffee urn, which began to spray coffee across the diner. Fleeing from the police, Dick ran his car into an embankment, whereupon he and his friend tried to swim across the river. "Dick had on calvalry boots and the filled up and drowned him. This left my father alone in the world with me, my sister having died in 1901."

As for the baby, which is black, Henderson and Lily manage to get into an argument, not so much about the child but about Henderson's ability to accept reality. Hearing the sound of the argument, Ricey takes the child and runs away. When the headmistress of Ricey's school calls and says that Ricey is there with the infant, Henderson goes to the school, argues with the headmistress, who says that Ricey claims the child is hers, and withdraws Ricey from school. The authorities take away the baby and a wall grows up between Henderson and his daughter, whom he takes to stay with Frances's sister in Providence.

On the way back from Providence on the train, Henderson gets drunk, and when he's helped off the train at Danbury, he "lay on a bench in the station, swearing, 'There is a curse on this land. There is something bad going on. Something is wrong. There is a curse on this land!'" But the final break comes when, on a winter morning, Henderson finds Miss Lenox, "the old woman who lived across the road and come in to fix our breakfast," dead on the kitchen floor. He and Lily have been arguing again, and the coincidence of their fight and Miss Lenox's death triggers something in Henderson. "And now one of [Miss Lenox's] cats was looking at me from the tree, and as I passed beneath I denied any blame that the creature's look might have tried to lay upon me. How could I be blamed -- because my voice was loud, and my anger was so great?"

When the hearse backed up the drive, I said, "You know, Lily, that trip that Charlie Albert is going to make to Africa? he'll be leaving in a couple of weeks, and I think I'll go along with him and his wife...." So Miss Lenox went to the cemetery, and I went to Idlewild and took a plane.
Charlie Albert is a boyhood friend, "a year my junior and in wealth he goes me a little better," who was going to Africa to film animals while on his honeymoon. Henderson had been best man, but got off on the wrong foot with Charlie's wife because, or so Henderson thinks, "I forgot to kiss the bride after the ceremony, there developed a coolness on her side and eventually she became my enemy."  Henderson decides to buy a one-way ticket to Africa.

For a while, he is happy: "I felt I might have a chance here. To begin with, the heat was just what I craved, much hotter than the Gulf of Mexico, and then the colors themselves did me a world of good. I didn't feel the pressure in the chest, nor hear any voice within." His eye for what he sees there is extraordinary: "The crocodiles boated around in the lilies, and when they opened their mouths they made me realize how hot a damp creature can be inside." But after "about three weeks ... my discontent returned and one afternoon I heard the familiar old voice within. It began to say, I want, I want, I want!"

So he sets off on his own for the interior. An African guide, Romilayu, says he can take him to a remote tribe called the Arnewi, and they set out into an arid region surrounded by mountains: "it was all simplified and splendid, and I felt I was entering the past -- the real past, no history or junk like that. The prehuman past.... I lost count of the days. As, probably, the world was glad to lose track of me for a while." Finally they reach the village of the Arnewi. "Even the dust had a flavor of great age, I thought, and I said, 'I have a hunch this spot is going to be very good for me.'"

The Arnewi raise cattle, "whom they regarded as their relatives, more or less, and not as domesticated animals. No beef was eaten here." The first Arnewi Henderson encounters are children, and he tries to amuse them with a trick: lighting a small bush on fire with his cigarette lighter. But the trick doesn't go over well. "The kids were unanimously silent, they only looked, and I looked at them. That's what they call reality's dark dream?" And then they flee.

And then more villagers come out to meet them. "In front of them all was a young woman, a girl not much older, I believe, than my daughter Ricey. As soon as she saw me she burst into loud tears." Henderson takes it badly: "What I thought immediately was, 'What have I done?'" He thinks of running back out into the desert "until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look.... Until all the bad is burned out of me. Oh, the bad! Oh, the wrong, the wrong! ... God help me, I've made a mess of everything, and there's no getting away from the results. One look at me must tell the whole story."

But Romilayu enlightens Henderson: It's not all about him. The girl is ashamed because the cattle are dying. The drought is killing them and "they took responsibility for the drought upon themselves." And so Henderson resolves to do something to help. Finally, one of the men in the village comes up to Henderson and starts speaking English. "From his size alone I felt he must be an important person, for he was built very heavily and had an inch or two on me in stature. But he was not ponderous, as I am, he was muscular."

Henderson is as much disappointed as surprised to find that the man, Itelo, speaks English. It violates his sense of being somewhere cut off from the rest of the world. Itelo apologizes for this: "You thought first footstep? Something new? I am very sorry. We are discovered." He is the only English speaker in the village however, and the queen of the Arnewi, Willatale, is his aunt. Henderson, he says, will stay with his other aunt, Mtalbe." Itelo shows him around the village. "Everybody was extremely good-looking here; some of them would ahve satisfied the standards of Michelangelo himself."

But the cattle are dying of thirst, which puzzles Henderson because he sees a cistern not far away. If it's polluted, he tells Itelo, he can probably figure out a way to "strain it or something." But Itelo says it's impossible. Finally, "with a certain reluctance," he shows Henderson the problem: The cistern is full of frogs. "All he could tell me was that these creatures, never before seen, had appeared in the cistern about a month ago and prevented the cattle from being watered." It is considered a curse, Itelo says, "the people is frightened. Nobody have evah see such a ahnimal." Henderson, however, is resolved to do something.  

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