By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 11, 2010

6. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 166-189

Henderson the Rain King13-14
As the ceremonies proceed, Henderson's skepticism about their rain-making possibilities increases to the point that he bets the king that it won't rain. There's not a cloud in the sky. The king takes him up on it. Henderson has been admiring Dahfu's ring, "a huge garnet set in thick gold and encircled by smaller stones," so the king put that up for his side of the wager. Henderson has nothing of equivalent value, so Dahfu, after warning "You should not assume at all that you have a sure thing," proposes, "let us say that if I win you will remain a guest of mine, a length of time." When Henderson asks how long, Dahfu says, "Let us leave it an open consideration for the moment."

Then in the arena some men appear dressed in black plumes and begin to mock the statues of the gods that are placed there. "The attitude of the tribe seemed to be that it was necessary to come to the gods with their vices on display, as nothing could be concealed from them anyway by ephemeral man." Henderson is a little shocked by the irreverence and blasphemy. When the men have kicked over, toppled and moved the smaller statues, they call on the crowd to help with the larger ones. Some larger and stronger men begin to haul the statues around, and when one of them hoists a statue the way Henderson had carried the corpse the night before, Henderson gasps aloud, attracting Dahfu's attention.

Finally, all the gods have been carried out of the middle of the arena except two: "Hummat the mountain god and Mummah the goddess of clouds." Several men have made attempts to move them with no success. Now a man comes out of the crowd and takes on Hummat. Henderson joins in cheering him on, and the man finally carries the statue twenty feet and sets him among the other gods. But he's exhausted and unable to move Mummah. The king comments, "This man, as you see, is powerful, and a good man, as I believe I overheard you to exclaim. But when he has moved Hummat, he is worn out, and this is annual. Do you see, Hummat has to be moved first, as otherwise he would not permit the clouds passage over the mountains."

As the man, named Turombo, struggles with Mummah, Henderson begins to think, "Ye gods! I was shivering and cold. I simply knew that I could lift up Mummah, and I flowed, I burned to go out there and do it." He thinks of his failure with the Arnewi and begins to be convinced that this was a chance to redeem himself. When Turombo gives up, the crowd mocks him. And Henderson decides to step in: "I understood now why the corpse had been quartered with me. The Bunam was behind it. He sized me up right. He had wanted to see whether I was strong enough to move the idol. And I had met the ordeal."

He tells the king what he wants to do, and Dahfu asks, "Do you not rush through the world too hard, Mr Henderson?" Yes, Henderson says, he does, but he feels some compulsion to serve. "I have a feeling that I could move her." Dahfu replies, "I am obliged to tell you, Mr Henderson, there may be consequences." This doesn't deter Henderson:
I had got caught up in the thing, and it had regard only to the unfinished business of years -- I want, I want, and Lily, and the grun-tu-molani and the little colored kid brought home by my daughter from Danbury and the cat I had tried to destroy and the fate of Miss Lenox and the teeth and the fiddle and the frogs in the cistern and all the rest of it.
Finally, the king gives his assent. Henderson pulls off his shirt, kneels before the statue and sizes her up, and "lifted her from the ground and carried her twenty feet to her new place among the other gods." The crowd goes wild. "The sensations of illness I had experienced since morning were all converted into their opposites. These same unhappy feelings were changed into warmth and personal luxury." He returns to the king, who congratulates him, and "the sky began to fill with clouds.... I was inclined to take it as my due."

Then the Bunam appears, "his arms full of of leaves and wreaths and grasses and pines," joined by the "generaless," as Dahfu called her, the head of the amazons. More of the amazons appear, along with the woman who had tossed the skulls with Dahfu. Two of the women are bearing pikes with skulls on top of them, and the others had "odd-looking fly whisks which were made of strips of leather. But then from the way they grasped these instruments I suspected that they were not meant for flies. These were small whisks."

Dahfu tells him, "The man who moves Mummah occupies, in consequence, a position of rain king of the Wariri. The title of this post is the Sungo. You are now the Sungo, Mr Henderson, and that is why they are here." But Henderson is suspicious and fearful, imagining his fate reported back home:
"That big Henderson finally got his. What, didn't you hear? He went to Africa and disappeared in the interior. He probably bullied some natives and they stabbed him. Good riddance to bad rubbish. They say the estate is worth three million bucks. I guess he knew he was a lunatic and despised people for letting him get away with murder. Well, he was rotten to the heart." "Rotten to the heart yourselves, you bastards." "He was full of excess." "Listen, you guys, my great excess was that I wanted to live. Maybe I did treat everything in the world as though it was a medicine -- okay! What's the matter with you guys? Don't you believe in regeneration? You think a fellow is just supposed to go down the drain?"
The king chides Henderson for his suspiciousness. All they want, he tells him, is "your attendance to cleanse ponds and wells. They say you were sent for this purpose.... It is evident you must have been born for something."

And so Henderson is stripped naked by the generaless, and forced to run through the streets with the amazons. "With feet lacerated by the stones, dazed, running with terror in my bowels, a priest of the rain. No, the king, the rain king." The generaless, Tatu, teaches him to yell as they run: "Ya-na-bu-ni-ho-no-mum-mah!" They run beneath the gallows where the vultures are feasting on the hanged men, and when they reach a cattle pond, "They picked me up and gave me a heave that landed me in the superheated sour water." He emerges covered in mud and continues to chant, "crying in my filth and frenzy, 'Ya-na-bu-ni-ho-no-mum-mah!' as before."
Yes, here he is, the mover of Mummah, the champion, the Sungo. Here comes Henderson of the USA -- Captain Henderson, Purple Heart, veteran of North Africa, Sicily, Monte Cassino, etc., a giant shadow, a man of flesh and blood, a restless seeker, pitiful and rude, a stubborn old lush with broken bridgework, threatening death and suicide.... And with all my heart I yelled, "Mercy, have mercy!" And after that I yelled, "No, justice!" And after that I changed my mind and cried, "No, no, truth, truth!" And then, "Thy will be done! Not my will, but Thy will!" 
Henderson labels himself as a Christ figure, a rather unconvincing one. Back in the arena the crowd shrieks. "Above all this I heard the roaring of lions, while the dust was shivering under my feet." He watches as the amazons attack the figures of the gods with whips, and protests against it. In the frenzy he is struck several times too.

Then, after a thunderclap, "after a great, neighing, cold blast of wind, the clouds opened and the rain began to fall." He sees a terrified Romilayu and asks him to bring his clothes. Romilayu leads him to the king, who, unperturbed by the rain, is being carried away in his hammock by four women. The king tells him that he has performed a great service and must have some pleasure after his pain. He also reminds him, "You have lost the wager."

No comments:

Post a Comment