Bruce Chatwin's The Viceroy Of Ouidah masquerades as a small book. In 50,000 words or so, the author presents a fictionalised life that has been embroidered from truth. History, hyper-reality, the supernatural and the surreal and the cocktail that creates the heady mix through which strands of story filter. Overall the experience is much bigger than the slim book suggests.
We meet Francisco Manuel da Silva, a Brazilian born in the country's north-east in the latter part of the eighteenth century. We learn a little of his background and then we follow him to Dahomey in West Africa, the modern Benin. He finds a place in society, consorts with kings, encounters amazons and conjoins with local culture. He also becomes a slave trader, making his considerable fortune by moving ship-loads of a cargo whose human identity is denied, as if it were merely the collateral damage of mercantilism. Francisco Manuel survives, prospers and procreates with abandon. He fathers a lineage of varied hue, a small army of males to keep the name alive and further complicate identity, and a near race of females who inherit the anonymity of their gender.
But The Viceroy of Ouidah is much more than a linear tale of a life. Bruce Chatwin's vivid prose presents a multiplicity of minutiae, associations, conflicts and concordances. Each pithy paragraph could be a novel in itself if it were not so utterly poetic. A random example will suffice to give a flavour.
"Often the Brazilian captains had to wait weeks before the coast was clear but their host spared no expense to entertain them. His dining room was lit with a set of silver candelabra; behind each chair stood a serving girl, naked to the waist, with a white napkin folded on her arm. Sometimes a drunk would shout out, `What are these women?' and Da Silva would glare down the table and say. `Our future murderers.'"
Within each vivid scene, we experience history, place, culture, and all the emotions, disappointments and achievements of imperfect lives. A jungle vibrates with untamed life around us. Treachery sours and threatens, while disease and passion alike claim their victims. It is a book to be savoured almost line by line. It provides an experience that is moving, technicoloured, but, like all lives, inevitably ephemeral. Like the outlawed trade that endowed riches, it eventually comes to nought, except of course for those who are inadvertently caught up in its net and whose lives were thus utterly changed if, indeed, they survived.
I read The Viceroy Of Ouidah without a bookmark, always starting a few pages before where I had previously left off. Each time, I read through several pages convinced that it was my first time to see them and then I would reach a particularly striking phrase and realise I had been there before. The extent of the detail and complexity of the images present a rain-forest of detail that is completely absorbing. The Viceroy Of Ouidah is thus surely a book worth reading several times.