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the complete review - fiction
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- A Story about an African Past
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B : interesting enough, if too artificial and the narrator too self-obsessed
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
In his Author's Note at the end of Gallery Bundu Paul Stoller explains how and why he has attempted to write fiction, as opposed to taking solely the ethnographic approach one might expect from an academic.
The greater freedoms of fiction (and specifically the more widely tolerated acceptance of invention in works of fiction) seem reason enough, but Stoller's comments are useful reminders of where he's coming from and what he is trying to do.
That this is a work of fiction based on fact -- Stoller has expertise in the area, and obviously also writes from experience -- lends the novel an undeniable air (or even an imprint) of authenticity.
But facts and an attempt to 'get it right' can also be a burden for a work of fiction, and, as is the case with so many novels written by academics that focus on their field of specialty, Gallery Bundu has a dry and stiff feel.
And though he avoids the usual greatest weakness of such academic-penned novels -- essentially lecturing -- he does so by trying to make this an almost universal tale, the focus on the major events of one man's life (many of which, in this case, occurred in Africa -- but could almost as well have happened in Appalachia or anywhere else), and doesn't pay enough attention to the matters of likely greatest interest to the reader, i.e. that exotic locale and different culture.
Stoller tries, but he's no born writer, and from the story-telling point of view Gallery Bundu is like a sincere workshop effort, carefully worked over (and the amateur's tendency for exaggeration -- in flowery language, overuse of metaphor, etc. etc. -- nicely kept in check) but ultimately -- exotic locale notwithstanding -- strictly pedestrian.
The book does have the exotic locale going for it -- and it's interesting to see how much that counts for.
Stoller uses it to some extent -- and teases with it quite a bit more -- but never comes close to exploiting it to its fullest.
Still, there's enough to hold the reader's interest, and without it (if, say, the protagonist had really ventured only to Appalachia) it's unlikely the novel would hold sufficient interest.
Much of the novel takes place in Niger.
Gallery Bundu is the story of David Lyons, now just over fifty, a college teacher and partner in a New York gallery specialising in African art.
In 1969 he joined the Peace Corps to make sure that he would avoid getting sent to Viet Nam, and wound up stationed in Niger.
The novel shifts back and forth between the near-present (New York, 1998) and the past, Stoller having chosen a slightly cumbersome let-me-get-it-off-my-chest device for his protagonist to relive and rethink the past.
(David tells his story over some glasses of tea at the gallery, but the narrative of the past is presented more as in TV or movie flashback form -- i.e. the feeling is of being there, rather than someone telling you what happened.
While this makes for a more immediate (and presumably enjoyable) read, it makes the framing device look fairly awkward.
It feels particularly artificial here, since the story David tells is -- despite the brief interruptions, returning the narrative to the present -- far too long for anyone to possibly sit through.)
Stoller at least takes for granted that readers are aware of what country he is writing about, the former French colony which borders on but is not to be confused with the former British colony of Nigeria (Niger is considerably larger but far less populous (and much poorer) than Nigeria).
Ostensibly David is recounting his story to two Africans, and it's realistic insofar they would be familiar enough with the places (and languages and ethnic groups) he mentions not to require any more explanation than he provides, but Western readers may struggle.
Much of David's Africa-stay also has an innocent (and/or American) abroad feel to it: he repeatedly (and increasingly, after all the time he spends in Africa) shows himself to be in the know -- from how much to bribe (or tip) to the proper local social graces -- and yet conveys little of the larger feel of the place(s), beyond his small circles.
The political situation in Niger is only briefly addressed, and matters such as the French-Nigerien relationship only obliquely touched upon.
In some ways this is admirable, allowing David to focus on the very personal level, but it leaves a relatively vague impression of country and cultures.
There is a lot of local colour, and many of the people David deals with are locals, but Stoller's writing is surprisingly unevocative.
It occurs to him to list what David sees on occasion, but rarely does he manage to really set or recreate a scene; the details are right, but he can't add them up to make the full picture.
David spends a good deal of time in Niger.
He teaches, he smokes pot, he has some small adventures, he's sexually active.
He meets and is taken by Zeinabou (and, unfortunately, writes: "I pinched myself to make sure I was awake" when she gets undressed for him the first time ...) -- and just before he's set to leave Niger he learns she's pregnant with (what's probably) his child.
The choice he had -- to stay and/or marry her, or just head back home -- and the decision he made (to leave, of course) is what haunts him to this day.
For David Africa wasn't just a short adventure, it becomes his life.
Based in the US -- where he pursues his graduate studies, and eventually goes on to teach -- he nevertheless repeatedly returns to Africa.
He apprentices as a weaver, and also becomes close friends with the art dealer Diop, who eventually wants David to help him sell his wares in the US.
David's immersion in African culture -- learning about weaving, learning about the carved art Diop deals in -- is interesting, but also largely incidental: readers certainly will find themselves none the wiser.
Again, David focusses on the personal: his weaving teacher, Amadu, and Diop are wise, knowing men, full of good (if occasionally cryptic) advice, but not much more.
(Amadu also teaches David the art of divination, for which he supposedly has a gift, but Stoller doesn't take that idea very far.)
Self-obsessed, David's narrative is of a man finding himself and coming to terms with the one fateful decision he made -- not that he really seems to have too many problems with it.
Focussed so on the self, most of the other characters remain underdeveloped, with many drifting in and out of his life, briefly (apparently) significant but just as soon forgotten.
When David goes on to describe how he met the current love of his life (and art gallery partner), Effi, it seems like pure indulgence, serving little purpose.
By the end, David's life seems rounded off -- and yet there's so much that remains unknown, the figure still largely a mystery.
We know what happens to him, but little of who he really is (much less who the other characters in the novel are).
Perhaps aware of the failures of his approach, Stoller has David claim, after he has finished recounting all these stories, that:
it was psychologically liberating to tell my story to Africans -- people who would more fully understand the dramas of my life.
This implies, of course, that Western readers can't as fully understand these dramas -- and yet the personal dramas are banal, commonplace, and universal, the uniquely African almost willfully left unexpressed and unexplored.
(Or is that what David -- and Stoller -- mean: that Africans could fill in all the blanks he's left in the narrative ?)
Gallery Bundu isn't a bad book, but disappoints in not fully utilising the rich material at hand: Stoller teases with glimpses of Africa, but won't use or relate them to an extent anywhere near enough.
David learns a great deal, but shares practically nothing of what he has learnt (except, annoyingly, the completely banal: what one drinks in Africa, the amounts he gives to children who guard his vehicle, etc.).
Stoller's writing is uninspired, but readable enough: enough happens, and the novel moves along fast enough, that it is certainly a decent, quick read -- but not much more.
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Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of books from and about Africa
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About the Author:
American author Paul Stoller teaches anthropology at West Chester University.
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