By Charles Matthews

Monday, November 8, 2010

3. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 59-95

Henderson the Rain King6-8
The frog problem is a clear setup for culture shock, and Henderson begins his campaign to solve the problem. "I realized that I would never rest until I had dealt with these creatures and lifted the plague." He argues his case to Itelo:
"Do you know why the Jews were defeated by the Romans? Because they wouldn't fight back on Saturday. And that's how it is with your water situation. Should preserve yourself, or the cows, or preserve the custom? I would say, yourself. Live," I said, "to make another custom. Why should you be ruined by frogs?" The prince listened and said only, "Hm, very interstin'. Is that a fact? 'Strodinary."
Anyway, Itelo has something else on his mind: "When stranger guest comes we always make acquaintance by wrestle. Invariable." Henderson tries to talk him out of it: He was trained to kill in the war and he doesn't know any other way to wrestle. They should be concentrating on the frog problem. "And I told him, 'Your Highness, I am really kind of on a quest." But finally Henderson gets the message: "I saw that to regain his respect I must activate myself, and I decided to wrestle him after all."

Henderson wins, largely by using his bulk against Itelo's superior musculature. He sees how much Itelo hates losing. "Though it made my breast ache to win, and my heart winced when I did it, I knelt nevertheless on the prince to make sure he was pinned, for if I had let him up without pinning him squarely he would have been deeply offended." And Henderson also hates to lose, remembering how even when he tried to lose while playing checkers with his children, he could never bring himself to do it: "I would jump all over the board and say rudely, 'King me!' though all the while I would be saying to myself, 'Oh, you fool, you fool, you fool!'" He apologizes to Itelo, who says only, "I know you now, sir. I do know you."

The victory is saluted by the villagers, and Henderson is presented to Queen Willatale and her sister, Mtalba. He is startled when Willatale takes his hand and places it between her breasts.
On top of everything else, I mean the radiant heat and the monumental weight which my hand received, there was the calm pulsation of her heart participating in the introduction. This was as regular as the rotation of the earth, and it was a surprise to me; my mouth came open and my eyes grew fixed as if I were touching the secrets of life.
Willatale takes on for Henderson the characteristics of a divinity or a prophetess, and Mtalba begins to demonstrate an exceptional interest in him. He presents the queen with a plastic raincoat as a gift, and is expected to kiss her belly as a reward. He makes "contact with a certain power -- unmistakable! -- which emanated from the woman's middle." But he pretends not to understand when the corpulent Mtalba wants him to do the same to her.

Itelo says that his aunts are "Two women o' Bittahness," which Henderson mistakes for "bitterness" until Itelo  explains, "A Bittah was a person of real substance. You couldn't be any higher or better. A Bittah was not only a woman but a man at the same time." A challenging moment comes when the queen asks Henderson to
tell her about himself.
Who -- who was I? A millionaire wanderer and wayfarer. A brutal and violent man driven into the world. A man who fled his own country, settled by his forefathers. A fellow whose heart said, I want, I want. Who played the violin in despair, seeking the voice of angels. Who had to burst the spirit's sleep, or else.
But it is the queen who lets him off the hook, changing the subject. 

The queen has a cataract in one eye, and Henderson now wishes he were a doctor so he could operate. "I felt singularly ashamed of not being a doctor -- or maybe it was shame at coming all this way and then having so little to contribute." When he had asked Lily if it was too late for him to become a doctor, she hadn't laughed at him as Frances had. She had said, "'Why, no, darling. It's never too late. You may live to be a hundred'-- a corollary to her belief I was unkillable."

In his admiration of the queen he "felt I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. And altogether I felt my hour of liberation was drawing near when the sleep of the spirit was liable to burst." He asks Itelo if he might talk with the queen, "About the wisdom of life. Because I know she's got it and I wouldn't leave without a sample of it. I'd be crazy to." He also tells Itelo "you are really a stronger fellow than I am.... I am strong all right, but it's the wrong kind of strength; it's coarse, because I'm desperate.... My soul is like a pawn shop. I mean it's filled with unredeemed pleasures, old clarinets, and cameras, and moth-eaten fur."

Itelo translates the queen's impressions of Henderson: "You have, sir, a large personality. Strong. (I add agreement to her.) Your mind is full of thought. Possess some fundamentall of Bittahness, also." This pleases Henderson, of course. He adds that Willatale "Says ... you are very sore, oh, sir! Mistah Henderson. You heart is barking." Henderson concurs with all of the queen's observations, and says, "I can fill her in on a lot of counts, though I don't think I would have to. She seems to know. Lust, rage, and all the rest of it. A regular bargain basement of deformities."

And in response to all of Willatale's comments, he asks them to listen:
I started to sing from Handel's Messiah: "He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," and from this I took up another part of the same oratorio, "For who shall abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth?" 
When he finishes, the queen says, "Grun-tu-molani," which Itelo translates: "Say, you want to live. Grun-tu-molani. Man want to live." Henderson repeats the word delightedly.

His mind turns again to the frog problem. "I figured that these Arnewi, no exception to the rules, had developed unevenly; they might have the wisdom of life, but when it came to frogs they were helpless.... And therefore I thought, this will be one of those mutual-aid deals; where the Arnewi are irrational I'll help them, and where I'm irrational they'll help me." But Itelo has a warning for him: "Oh, Mistah Henderson -- you 'strodinary man. But sir. Do not be carry away." Henderson laughs off the warning. And that night he and Romilayu inspect the cistern and Henderson plots the death of the frogs: "My heart was already fattening in anticipation of their death. We hate death, we fear death, but when you get right down to cases, there's nothing like it.... I hungered to let fall the ultimate violence on those creatures in the cistern."

He recalls the argument he had with Lily before he left. Their tenants, complaining about the cold, uninsulated outbuilding they had rented from him, had moved out, leaving a cat behind. Henderson had grown obsessed with the cat, and finally captured it and took it into the attic, where he fired a gun at it and missed. And just then the tenants telephoned to say they were coming for the cat. "The confusing thing is that I always have some real basic motivation, and how I go so wrong, I can never understand." So now he decides that the best thing to do is to rig up some explosives and blast the frogs out of the cistern. Romilayu strongly protests the idea. "I believe he liked me, but it was dawning on him that I was rash and unlucky and acted without sufficient reflection."

Henderson tries to get some sleep: "somehow if I get seven and a quarter hours instead of eight I feel afflicted and drag myself around, although there's nothing really wrong with me. It's just another idea. That's how it is with my ideas; they seem to get strong while I weaken." But his sleep is interrupted by the arrival of Mtalba, whose advances he tries to discourage. When he finally persuades her to leave, he still has trouble sleeping: "I lay with eyes open, bathed in high feeling."

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