Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review - Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg

Short review: Andrew Battell sets off as a privateer and instead ends up as a prisoner of the Portuguese. He spends twenty-one years in Africa, when all he really wants to do is get home to England.

First a privateer
Then a captive prisoner
Last a survivor

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Take an obscure and brief report from a mostly unknown historical individual, flavor it with some styling reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson, throw in a dash of H. Rider Haggard and a sprinkling of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the end result is Robert Silverberg's foray into historical fiction about Africa: Lord of Darkness. The story contained in the book mostly takes the form a travelogue that follows the central character Andrew Battell as he endures his existence as an English privateer taken prisoner by the Portuguese and transported to Africa, where he doesn't so much adventure as he merely struggles to survive on a continent made doubly dangerous by the national animosity between himself and his captors that is coupled with the wild and inhospitable African landscape as well.

In the forward to the book, Silverberg recounts how a children's story titled The Three Mulla-Mulgars featuring three traveling monkeys entranced him as a child. That story included a brief interlude in which the monkeys came across a lone Englishman named Andrew Battle living by himself in a hut in the African jungles. This would have been little more than a childhood curiosity but years later Silverberg learned of a short first-person account from a seventeenth century Englishman named Andrew Battell giving a short overview of his extended sojourn in Africa. Connecting the dots, Silverberg concluded that the man in The Three Mulla-Mulgars and the historical Battell were one and the same, and also decided that Battell's story needed to be told. But, given that the only records of Battell's experience were he own brief account coupled with a handful of passing references by his contemporaries, leaving Silverberg with scant material to work with, meaning most of the story that came out of the effort was an invention built on a skeleton of truth.

The story that Silverberg came up with is that of a man who sets out for fame and fortune, but in the end only aspires to survive. Battell is a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth and a veteran of England's fight against the Spanish Armada. After a brief marriage ended by his wife's untimely death falls in love with a pretty young girl named Anne Katherine, and decides to sign on as a privateer to plunder England's enemies and secure a nest egg for himself and his intended. The expedition goes badly, and Battell and some of his shipmates are captured by the Portuguese in Brazil and find themselves transported to the colony of Angola in West Africa. And from there, the rest of the story is dominated by Battell's decades long effort to secure his freedom and return to England. Most of the story follows a fairly predictable pattern: Battell overcomes odd that are stacked against him, manages to eke out an existence and almost win his freedom, and then, because there is more book left, events around him conspire at the last possible moment to deny his liberation, resulting in Battell returning to square one, often in a worse position than he started in.

But to a certain extent, Battell's efforts to escape from Africa are not the main plot of the book. Rather, the main plot of the book is Battell's changing relationship with the Dark Continent. As a character, Battell engages in a lot of action, but makes relatively few actual decisions rather than merely being buffeted about by the winds of fate. The only decisions Battell really makes in the course of the book are deciding to turn privateer, purchasing the slave-girl Matamba, refusing Dona Teresa's continued advances, attempting to escape with a Dutch trader, and betraying Calandola to the Portuguese. Every other action Battell takes in the book is spurred by a desire to save his own life, in short, these were the only choices in the book where the alternative would not have been Battell's death. And because the primary character trait for Battell is that he is a survivor above all else, he almost always chooses the path that keeps him alive, making these other "choices" really non-choices. The plaintive cry of "I had no choice, what else could I do" is almost a mantra of Battell. One has to wonder how much of this sentiment was drawn from Battell's original narrative that inspired the book, and how much was the result of Silverberg being unable to figure out any other plausible way to continue keeping Battell trapped as a quasi-prisoner of the Portuguese in and around Angola.

The real meat of the story is Battell's four significant relationships with the women in his life. Anna Katherine spurs Battell to embark upon his career as a privateer, leading to his capture and the events of the book. And while Anna Katherine is offstage for much of the book, and is clearly idealized in Battell's memory, she serves as a reminder for him of his love for England as a whole: As Battell's memories of Anna Katherine fade, so do his memories of England. Once he is in Angola, Battell meets the exotic and duplicitous Dona Teresa, a half-Portuguese half-African beauty who takes up with Battell for fairly inexplicable reasons while he is being held as a prisoner in the Portuguese dungeons. Leaving aside the implausibility of the scenario in which a beautiful scheming social climber would jeopardize her affair with one of the most powerful men in the colony in order to have trysts with a prisoner she barely knows on the floor of a fetid dungeon, Dona Teresa serves to illustrate Battell's growing acceptance of his enforced exile and the rationalizations he makes to accept working with the Portuguese. Teresa, with enough European heritage to appear familiar, but still alien enough that it takes some time for Battell to warm up to her, is a transitional figure in the book, bridging the gap between the "normal" and the "alien". As a side note, there is a lot of sex in the book. Anyone coming to this book hoping for a rehash of Stevenson or Haggard should be aware of this fact before diving in and being shocked by the numerous references Battell makes to his "yard", a woman's curly "three-pointed patch", or the "starfish mouth" within it.

But Battell's life is one of constant change, and eventually he is required by his captors to pilot one of their ships northward, eventually finding himself purchasing the slave girl he calls Matamba. Battell's motivations for purchasing Matamba aren't fully clear, mostly because the idea is not his own, but is rather spurred by Matamba herself, who asks him to buy her to she may escape the slave pens. And although he doesn't purchase her with the intent of having a sexual relationship with her, eventually he does. While Silverberg tries to paint this relationship in the best light possible, and it is probably the most "equal" relationship Battell has with a woman in the entire book, it is still a thirty year old slave holder having sex with his sixteen year old slave girl. Perhaps it is a commentary on the society of the time, but I admit I did find it somewhat disturbing that the most balanced and loving relationship between a man and a woman was the one between Battell and Matamba, mostly because of the clearly exploitative aspects that Silverberg tries so desperately to explain away. To a certain extent Matamba is better off with Battell then she would be otherwise, a point made starkly clear when Battell is separated from her when he is sent away for punishment after an escape attempt and returns years later to find her in an abjectly miserable condition, but this only mitigates the situation, rather than justifying it. But Matamba is, in this regard, a perfect metaphor for the "mainstream" of Africans who spend the book being exploited by European powers beyond their control and only hope to emerge with as little suffering as they can.

The book reaches its climax during Battell's final significant relationship, with his Jaqqa wife Kulachinga. Except that Battell's relationship isn't really with Kulachinga, but rather with the ruler of the cannibalistic Jaqqa tribe the Imbe-Jaqqa Calandola. Abandoned by his Portuguese companions and fearing for his life, Battell finally throws aside the final vestige of his civilized European identify and joins the dreaded Jaqqa tribe, where his musketry skills earn him a place by Calandola's side as "Andubatil". Kulachinga is assigned to Battell by Calandola, and neither she nor Battell has any choice in the matter. She is wholly alien, covered with ritual scars and tribal decorations, and symbolizes the truly alien nature of where Battell has gone, and what he has become. But Kulachinga is almost not a character in her own right, and is merely the extension of Calandola's will. It is through Battell's relationship with Calandola (that becomes more than merely symbolically sexual) and some of the other leaders of the Jaqqa tribe that Silverberg makes his boldest statements, and although they are probably not historically accurate, they are interesting. The Jaqqa, for all their destructive and cannibalistic ways, turn out to be much more than merely mindless locusts swarming across the land, but have a philosophical bent that informs their actions. While they are foreboding and have a somewhat terrifying outlook, they are understandable. And making a tribe of marauding cannibals understandable and even somewhat relatable is what makes this book ultimately interesting. If Silverberg had merely jumped from Battell as a privateer to Battell living among the Jaqqa, they probably would have been too foreign to the reader's experience for any amount of explanation to be effective in making them human rather than monsters. But by taking his time to get to them, Silverberg was able to both increase the terror the Jaqqa engender and ease both Battell and the reader into being able to accept them on their own terms.

As a work of historical fiction, Lord of Darkness seems to be more or less equal parts history and fantasy. The broad strokes and most of the elements of Battell's own personal story are accurate, but it is fairly clear that everything else is a fantasy put forward by Silverberg to make a compelling and interesting narrative. And Silverberg succeeds in that effort, taking the bare bones of a historical account and fleshing it out to describe one man's journey from the familiar to the wholly alien, and taking the reader along for the ride. To a certain extent, Silverberg's efforts are so successful that the final chapters are required to bring Battell back from the wilderness and to allow the reader to take that part of the journey with him as well. While the journey might not be particularly true to the reality of sixteenth century Africa, it is an engrossing tale of survival against mountainous odds filled with interesting characters. And because of that, it is a story that lovers of historical fiction should find interesting and which should have gotten more notice when it was first published.

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