By Charles Matthews

Sunday, November 14, 2010

9. Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, pp. 254-292

Henderson the Rain King19-20
Henderson dutifully follows Dahfu in his efforts to become lionlike: "Daily, I would come up from the den all shaken by my roaring, my throat grated, my head in fever and my eyes like wet soot, weak in the legs, and especially delicate and trembling in the knees." The king assures him he's making progress: "'Your roaring still is choked, Of course it is natural, as you have such a lot to purge,' he would say." But he also becomes aware "that everybody knew where I had spent the morning and feared me for it."

He knows Romilayu disapproves, and tries to persuade him that it's all for the good, but he senses the guide's skepticism: "And it's the destiny of my generation of Americans to go out in the world and try to find the wisdom of life. It just is. Why the hell do you think I'm out here, anyway?" Romilayu replies, "I don' know, sah." He's a Methodist, he says, but promises not to bother Henderson by trying to convert him. Finally Henderson decides to send Romilayu to mail a letter to Lily, and gives him the papers for the jeep he had promised him at the start of their journey. But Romilayu is still bothered because he knows Henderson is in trouble.

In the letter he writes to Lily, Henderson tells her about his travels, and that he has "matured twenty years in twenty days." He also writes about Dahfu: "This king here is one of the most intelligent people in the world and I have great faith in him, and he tells me I should move from the states that I myself make into the states which are of themselves. Like if I stopped making such a noise all the time I might hear something nice. I might hear a bird." But to himself he thinks: " I could never take after the birds. I would crash all the branches. I would have scared the pterodactyl from the skies." He also tells her he is giving up the violin, and asks her to enroll him in whatever medical school will take him and to sell off the rest of the pigs.
I believe that I tried to explain to Lily what Dahfu's ideas were, but Romilayu lost the last few pages of the letter, and I suppose that it's just as well that he did, for when I wrote them I had had quite a bit to drink. In one I think I said, or maybe I merely thought it, "I had a voice that said, I want! I want? I? It should have told me she wants, he wants, they want. And moreover, it's love that makes reality reality. The opposite makes the opposite."
Romilayu leaves the next day. Henderson falls into regret: "this is the payoff of a lifetime of action without thought. If I had to shoot at that cat, if I had to blow up frongs, if I had to pick up Mummah without realizing what I was getting myself into, it was not out of line to crouch on all fours and roar and act the lion. I might have been learning about the grun-to-molani instead, under Willatale." But he remains loyal to the king, and when he is told to wait for Dahfu instead of going to the lion's den, he prepares by washing himself: "I had let myself grow filthy and bearded as it was scarcely suitable to get all cleaned up in order to stand on all fours, roaring and tearing the earth."

The king announces that a lion has been spotted that matches the description of Gmilo, and they prepare for the capture. The people of the village come out to cheer them on, but "As far as I could tell they were not enthusiastic for the king; they demanded that he bring home Gmilo, the right lion, and get rid of the sorceress, Atti." And in the king's retinue Henderson notices, "following very closely, a white creature, a man completely dyed or calcimined. Under the coat of chalk I recognized him. It was the Bunam's man, the executioner." Dahfu admits that his presence is not favorable: "White is not the best omen."

The beaters spread out into the bush to drive the lion toward the trap, and their departure leaves "the Bunam, the Bunam's wizard, the king, and myself, the Sungo, plus three attendants with spears standing about thirty yards from the town." Henderson and the king are unarmed, and the king says it must be that way: "What if I were to wound Gmilo." As for Henderson, he says, "You are with me."

They wait in a hut on a platform above the ground, from which hangs a woven cage. The lion would be driven into a cul-de-sac that would be sealed by a gate, and the cage dropped on him. There is also, extending from the platform, a "pole or catwalk, no wider than my wrist, if that wide," on which the king would balance and from which he would drop the net. Henderson tests the pole and finds it stout enough.

From the perch, Henderson notices "a sort of small stone building deep in the ravine." When he asks the king who lives there, "'It is not for the living,' he told me without glancing toward the building. 'A tomb?' I thought. 'Whose tomb?'" But the king says nothing more about it. While they wait, Henderson shows Dahfu the pictures of Lily and his children that he carries in his wallet, and talks about his experiences in the war.

But soon the sounds of the beaters and the fleeing animals are heard, and finally the king points out the disturbance made in the brush by the lion. Henderson stands up excitedly, only to be rebuked by the king: "'Henderson -- do not,' he said. Nevertheless I took a step in his direction, and then he cried out at me; his face was angry. So I squatted down and shut my mouth. My blood was full of fever, as if it flowed open to the glare of the sun."
Then, at the very doors of consciousness, there was a snarl and I looked down from this straw perch -- I was on my knees -- into the big, angry, hair-framed face of the lion. It was all wrinkled, contracted; within those wrinkles was the darkness of murder. The lips were drawn away from the gums, and the breath of the animal came over me, hot as oblivion, raw as blood.
The lion fights, rearing on its hind legs, and suddenly the king says, "Oh, it is wrong." He has realized that the net has left the lion's hindquarters free. "The lion was incompletely caught, and the king was going to try to work the net over the animal's hindquarters." But the combination of the lion's weight and the king's is too much for the fastenings that hold the pulley, and the king falls onto the lion. "The claws tore. Instantly there came blood, before the king could throw himself over." Henderson pulls him away, but it's too late.

"Is it Gmilo?" the king asks. The Bunam comes close enough to the ensnared lion to check the markings on its ears that will identify it, then asks for a musket and shoots the lion. "'It was not Gmilo,' the king said." Then he asks Henderson to "see no harm comes to Atti." Henderson keeps urging the king to return to the palace with him, but Dahfu says no. "I cannot be ... among the wives. I would have to be killed." Then the king reveals that the body in the hut the night Henderson arrived was that of the former Sungo, who was strangled because he could no longer lift Mummah. And Henderson realizes that the reason Turombo had not lifted Mummah was that "he didn't want to become the Sungo, it's too dangerous. It was wished on me. I was the fall guy. I was had." Dahfu also reveals that the Sungo is the successor if the king has no child old enough to succeed him. Henderson reproaches Dahfu: "Was this a thing to do to a friend?" But the king only replies, "It was done to me ..."

The beaters pick up the king and carry him toward the stone building. He dies on the way to it.
This small house built of flat slabs had two wooden doors of the stockade type which opened into two chambers. His body was laid down in one of these. Into the other they put me. I scarcely knew what was happening anyway, and I let them lead me in and bolt the door.

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