THERE IS NO denying the brillance of Bruce Chatwin's book. The prose coruscates, so that many images from this African horror story linger disturbingly in the mind.
Yet you are left wondering what to make of The Viceroy of Ouidah. The tale's bare bones (a fitting metaphor) concern a young Brazilian who set himself up on the slave coast of Dahomey in the early 19th century and grew rich from the many human cargoes he shipped back to South America, until the dark continent wreaked its dreadful revenge upon him.
This may be taken as a superb, impressionistic piece of historical reconstruction, although Chatwin carefully calls it "a work of imagination." Certainly, there was a slave-trader called Francisco Felix de Souza operating from the old Portuguese fort of Ouidah. True, he was imprisoned by the King of Dahomey, who displayed his exceedingly black humor by -- among sundry other torutes -- dousing the white man in indigo dye.
The author takes a half-step sideways by calling his heroic villain Francisco Manoel de Silva. The publishers make confusion worse confounded by mixing the two names up again on the dust jacket. Admittedly, all this may seem like persnickety hair-splitting: yet, although there are few slave-traders around to complain, modern Africans may consider that Chatwin paints a rather nasty picture of the way they were.
So the way to approach this brief, splendid book is to put aside any agonizing about truth (even the Aristotelian sort) and treat it as an "entertainment," in Graham Greene's use of the word.
The story begins in the present, at the requiem held every year for the long-dead Dom Francisco. His many descendants, darker with every generation, and now "numberless as grasshoppers," gather to honor him. After the mass, the voodoo, as a sweating procession weaves through the African town to the ant-ridden ancestral home. Beside the Goanese four-poster a bottle of Gordon's gin is always ready, for when the great man awakes. Near the praying plaster statue of St. Francis of Assisi stands a curious object covered in blood and feathers: a Dahomean altar of the dead.
From this moment you are in thrall. The word-pictures pile up, haunting and horrific, in paragraphs often only a short sentence in length. On every page they compete to be quoted. For instance, when Francisco is a captive of the king:
"Phosphorescent centipedes crawled over him at night: and the fultures spattered him with ammoniac droppings, shuffling for position along the wall, and flexing their pinions with the noise of tearing silk."
The prisoner dreams of walking through a series of airless rooms. In each he sees his own head, "crawling with meatflies, laid out on a silver dish."
This is Grand Guignol, and Chatwin does not stint it. But there is much sardonic humor in the story too. As the slave-trader succumbs to Africa, its people pay him back for his old ways in a fashion which is terrible, yet somehow clownish and affectionate.
The structure of the book is adroit. It works backwards in time, telling of the slave-trader's amber-eyed daughter, forever lost in love for a young English lieutenant who came to Ouidah, danced with her, then sailed away.
A third of the way through you are told about the childhood of Francisco in the backlands of Brazil. This section has quite a different texture from the African chapters which surround it: but the author of the much-praised In Patagonia also has a keen sense of South America's past, so the spell is never broken. You know, although he does not, that Frncisco's destiny and doom lie across the Atlantic.
The great curves of Brazil and West Africa reach out vainly towards one another. The hearts of the slaves, in the plantations and mines of the new world, yearn for their past but soon forget. Francisco never forgets, but there is no escape for him from Ouidah: he can never make that crossing on which he had so casually sent countless others.
Only his two favorite daughters return to Bahia. Once there, they become whores.
Just as Francisco can be remembered as not one man, but several, so the story may be given many interpretations. This is one of those enigmatic books which might be handed to several friends who could afterwards be lured together for a diverting evening, when each declares what the message is.