on 12 February 2001
Dabydeen's retelling of the experiences of Mungo, an African slave, uses the novel form to its fullest possibilities. Mungo's exploited existence is finally made his own as he narrates his life contradictorily and creatively. Never allowing the reader to recognise a coherent construction of events, he seizes his exploited existence and ironically makes his slavery, his own. Yet, astonishingly, in such an appropriative narrative, Mungo rarely relies on cliché and forces the reader to at least understand even the most despicable of characters. Continually seducing the reader with possibility of consistent truth, he offers the stranger and more immediate truth of silences, incongruity and contradictions.
Hogarth's series, "A Harlot's Progress" of 1732, shows, amongst other figures, a small black boy in a turban. It is this figure that David Dabydeen has focused on in this novel.
The boy's name is given as Mungo but, as his story progresses, he is also known also as Noah and Perseus. The author envisages Mungo, at the end of his life, being invited and bribed to tell his story by Mr Pringle of the Abolition Committee, who hopes to produce a book that will promote the abolitionist cause and raise money.
Back on "the upper coast of Dahomey", Mungo was wrenched from the arms of Rima, a slave and storyteller from the oral tradition, which was vitally important since "to speak is to scoop out substance, to hollow out yourself, to make space within for your own burial". This presents a tension between Mr Pringle's written story and Mungo's oral and internal reflections. Rima was killed by Captain Thistlewood who then physically and sexually abuses Mungo, brands him on his forehead and delivers him into Christianity.
Mungo's memories of his African homeland, his village and family, and those he grew up with are fragmented and fragmentary. Now that he is being questioned by Pringle, he must create the story that Pringle and the public want to hear, "heartrending stories of African suffering". Whilst waiting for Mungo to talk, Pringle doodles "a series of ears drooping and mutilated."
This novel, the author's third, is divided into 9 parts and creates an imaginary story of Mungo's life: his early life, his capture, his traumatic journey to England and his experiences in the capital. Dabydeen teasingly contrasts Pringle's need for a story that emphasises biblical and moralistic teaching with Mungo's readiness to obfuscate and include "hysteria, befuddlement and exaggeration".
The result is not a simple narrative arc since any one event may be presented from different perspectives, whilst the narrative switches between first- and third person. It is not always clear who is the narrator and Mungo's language also varies which may be confusing to the reader.
Some of the best writing describes Mungo being taken through London to be sold, "[Mungo] is overpowered by the stench of offal and ashes littering the street. signboards shriek on their hinges but the people are even more distressing, wandering in all directions and bawling.......The desperation in their voices is matched by people swarming to the baskets of food, grabbing whatever they buy and stuffing it into their mouths. Everywhere people are chewing and swallowing and belching as if recovering from a famine".
At first, I found it difficult to maintain interest in this fractured and fragmented narration but found it easier as the novel progressed, particularly when the narrative is supported and contextualised by Mungo's experiences in England. When I had completed the book I re-read the early parts and only then felt that I had arrived at a reasonable understanding of the author's intention. My rating describes the two reads; had I not re-read much of the first half I would have given a 2* rating.
This is an overtly clever book and probably not one for a holiday read. It contains humor and tragedy, often just pages apart and the writing in the second half of the book is to be admired.
Since 2010, Dabydeen has been the Guyanan Ambassador to China in Beijing.
on 14 April 2013
Having finished this novel a few days ago, I still don't know how I feel about it. I didn't read it by choice (it's on my university reading list) and it didn't immediately appeal to me, so I was not looking forward to reading it. The first half of the book didn't do very much for me, and I remained unconvinced. However, the second half drew me in, and I couldn't stop reading; but it wasn't out of enjoyment, it was something more complex. The story is interesting, as are the multiple truths in the tale, but somehow I was left feeling unfulfilled. Dabydeen's writing is rich, his subject is compelling, but for me, this book never quite reached a peak.
on 12 January 2007
This text holds extremely valid points and writes them in a very complex way. Although this complexity is admirable I found it very confusing.
I think the subject Dabydeen has chosen to write about is very important. We must not dust slavery under the carpet to be part of a forgotten British history. It is a subject very close to the writer and once again I give the writer my admiration for writing about it.
I however found it an uncomfortable read, maybe because I am studying it so i have to read it through knowing how it ends, and most definately because the subject of slavery is not comfortable. Also because of the way it's written, with several authors, ghosts from the past speaking through Mungo and Mungo's name changing three times through out the book, i found it all a bit confusing. I really struggled through it the first read through, and the ending left me feeling empty. This text did provoke a lot of emotion through out because Mungo's story is so painful and I think it is an important subject for a modern day novel to be based, however it wasn't really for me, but everyone is different.