By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

4. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 95-135

Henderson the Rain King9-11
From the moment Henderson says to himself, "This is going to be one of my greatest days," every reader who has been paying attention knows it won't be. But Henderson forges ahead, enraptured with the "mild pink color, like the water of watermelon," of the dawn:
At once I recognized the importance of this, as throughout my life I had known these moments when the dumb begin to speak, when I hear the voices of objects and colors; then the physical universe starts to wrinkle and change and heave and rise and smooth, so it seems that even the dogs have to lean against a tree, shivering.
He thinks back to the octopus in France, an epiphany that has for him an opposite significance: "That had spoken to me of death and I would never have tackled any big project after seeing that cold head pressed against the glass and growing paler and paler. After the good omen of the light I approached the making of a bomb with confidence."

This is Bellow beautifully inverting the Wordsworthian "spot of time" or the Joycean epiphany: the moment fraught with experience too intense to articulate. Except that Henderson does articulate it -- incorrectly. His pink light is Gatsby's green light -- and look what happened to Gatsby. Henderson's inner life has never been in tune with the external world before, and there's no reason to expect that it will be now.

But he goes forth to his doom, unfazed by Romilayu's doubts and egged on by the enamored Mtalba. "Owing to the vision of the pink light I was firm of purpose and believed in myself, and I couldn't allow Romilayu to show his doubts and forebodings so openly." He begins to falter a little, though, when he sees that Itelo "looked apprehensive."

He holds on to the bomb until the last second, and when the explosion happens he has a moment of exhilaration, shouting out to Romilayu and Itelo, "How do you like that? Boom! You wouldn't believe me!" But all too swiftly, "I heard shrieks from the natives, and looking to see hat was the matter I found that the dead frogs were pouring out of the cistern together with the water. The explosion had blasted out the retaining wall at the front end."

Stricken with the magnitude of his failure, he calls on Itelo to kill him. But Itelo says, "You want to die, you got to die you'self. You are a friend." Henderson offers to stay and repair the cistern, but Itelo replies, "Bettah you not, sir." So he and Romilayu pack up and leave. Henderson offers to go on alone, but Romilayu won't allow this, suggesting, somewhat hesitantly, that they go to the Wariri. "He seemed to have his doubts about his own suggestion," Henderson observes, but he remembers that Itelo had attended school with the king of the Wariri, Dahfu.

They travel for "eight or ten days," during which Henderson talks about his life and makes Romilayu promise he won't tell the Wariri about blowing up the cistern. He also begins to rationalize what he has done, citing his "good intentions":
"Really and truly it kills me to think how the cattle must be suffering back there without water. No bunk. But then suppose I had satisfied my greatest ambition and become a doctor like Doctor Grenfell or Doctor Schweitzer -- or a surgeon? Is there a surgeon anywhere who doesn't lose a patient once in a while? Why, some of those guys must tow a whole fleet of souls behind them." 
He notices Romilayu's attitude toward the Wariri: that they are children of darkness, which he takes to mean, "they are wiser in their generation and all the rest. But as between these people and myself, who do you think has got more to worry about?" Romilayu, with "a glitter of grim humor playing in his big soft eye," says, "Oh, maybe dem, sah."

Finally they encounter a Wariri herdsman, who points the direction to the village, and before long they are surprised by about a dozen armed tribesmen, pointing their guns at them. Romilayu stretches prone on the ground and Henderson follows suit. He has noticed that their weapons are old enough that some might have been captured from Gordon at Khartoum: "I feel sympathy for Gordon because he was brave and confused."

They are taken to the village, where they wait a long time for a village official to see them. While they wait, "one of those things occurred which life has not been willing to spare me. As I was sitting waiting here on this exotic night I bit into a hard biscuit and I broke one of my bridges.... After this I was compelled to recall the history of my dental work." And we're off into one of Henderson's digressions into the past.

His first bridge was installed by a woman dentist in Paris after the war. "It felt like a water faucet in my mouth and my tongue was cramped over to one side." But the dentist said he'd get used to it "and appealed to me to show a soldier's endurance. So I did." When he got to New York, he had it replaced by a dentist named Spohr, who was a cousin of Klaus Spohr, who was painting a portrait of Lily, which doesn't please Henderson.  

He thinks about his son Edward, who "is like his mother [i.e., Frances] and thinks himself better than me. Well, he's wrong. Great things are done by Americans but not by the likes of either of us. They are done by people like that man Slocum who builds the great dams.... That's the type that gets things done. On this my class, Edward's class, the class Lily was so eager to marry into, gets zero." Edward is something of an idler, and Henderson encourages him to become a doctor -- his own ideal of a profession. Eventually, Edward falls in love with a Honduran woman whose name Henderson recalls as Maria Felluca. Henderson opposes the marriage, which Edward takes to be a reflection on her "family background," which gives him the opportunity to say, "then how about Lily?" Henderson gives in, but he takes his portrait out of the family gallery. "Neither Lily nor I would hang in the main hall."

Then Henderson and the painter's wife, Clara, a "badly ravaged" former beauty, become involved when they meet one afternoon in Grand Central Station. "I saw Clara Spohr coming from the Oyster Bar or being washed forth into this sea, dismasted, clinging to her soul in the shipwreck of her beauty." They take the train back to Connecticut and a taxi to her house where, in the entry hall, she kisses him and he returns the kiss. "Furthermore Lily and Klaus Spohr saw it all. The studio door was open. Within was a coal fire in the grate. 'Why are you kissing each other like that?' said Lily. Klaus Spohr never said a word. Whatever Clara saw fit to do was okay by him."

But then, back to Africa, where Henderson is dealing with his broken teeth by rinsing them in bourbon from a canteen and buttoning them in a pocket "on the chance that even out here I might run into someone who wuld know how to glue them into place." While they wait, they hear a lion roar, and wonder if they keep one in the palace. "The smell of animals was certainly very noticeable in the town." Finally, the official arrives, and a large book that turns out to be an atlas is brought out, so Henderson can show where he's from. The official asks questions of Henderson which Romilayu translates.

One of the questions is "What was the purpose of my trip, and why was I traveling like this?" Once again, Henderson is at a loss to answer:
Could I say that the world, the world as a whole, the entire world, had set itself against life and was opposed to it -- just down on life, that's all -- but that I was alive nevertheless and somehow found it impossible to go along with it? That something in me, my grun-tu-molani, balked and made it impossible to agree? No, I couldn't say that either.

Nor: "You see, Mr Examiner, everything has become so tremendous and involved, why, we're nothing but instruments of this world's processes."

Nor: "I am this kind of guy, rest is painful to me, and I have to have motion."

Nor: "I'm trying to learn something, before it all gets away from me."
So he fudges an answer about how he'd heard about Wariri and wanted to see it. And he and Romilayu are conducted to a hut. It is about eleven o'clock at night, so they make a fire and try to heat some dehydrated chicken noodle soup. As they settle down for the night, Henderson suddenly realizes that there is somebody else in the hut. It turns out to be a dead body. "Why was I lately being shown corpses -- first the old lady on my kitchen floor and only a couple of months later this fellow lying in the dusty litter?"

Henderson refuses to sleep in a hut with a corpse, and sends Romilayu to wake someone to take it away, but he knows from the way Romilayu behaves that he won't do it. Romilayu argues that they should sleep outside the hut, but Henderson insists, "They've unloaded this man on us and the thing for us to do is to give him right back to them." So Henderson decides to dump the body in a ravine about a hundred yards away. Romilayu's reluctance makes it necessary for Henderson to shoulder most of the task, "and, as if dressed in a second man and groaning, my head filled with flashes and thick noises, I went into the lane. And a voice within me rose and said, 'Do you love death so much? Then here, have some.' 'I do not love it,' I said. 'Who told you that? That's a mistake.'"

After Henderson dumps the body into the ravine they turn to see a man with a gun coming toward them. But he says only that the examiner wants to see them again. He asks Henderson to sign his name and compares it to the signature on his passport, and then asks him to take off his shirt. "I thought perhaps I had strayed into a wrestling part of Africa, where it was the customary mode of introduction. However, this did not seem to be the case." The king, he tells them, wants to see Henderson tomorrow and will talk to him in English. So they return to the hut.

"Just inside the doorway, against the wall, sitting in very much my own posture, was the dead man. Someone had fetched him back from the ravine."

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