WHITES: Stories by Norman Rush. Knopf. 150 pp. $14.95.
THE COMPLEX relationships among black natives and white settlers in Africa have long fascinated British novelists, and have produced numerous first-rate works of fiction, but the subject has never really caught on among American writers: perhaps because Africa has never been the object of much imperialist interest in this country, perhaps because black-white relations here at home are quite complex enough in themselves and have produced a rich body of work by black and white writers alike. Whatever the case, apart from a number of novels and stories by Ernest Hemingway and Paul Theroux, little significant American fiction has been set in Africa, and even for these two qualifications must be noted; Hemingway's African fiction deals almost entirely with whites, and Theroux's is mostly apprentice work that, rightly or wrongly, does not have much to do with the high esteem in which he is now held.
So Norman Rush, who is American and who does write about how blacks and whites get along in Africa, has the field pretty much to himself. Whites, his first book, is a collection of six low-keyed yet forceful stories set in Botswana, where Rush lived from 1978 to 1983. Occasionally there is evidence in them of those who have gone before -- Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, William Boyd -- but there is an important difference. While the British writers focus on colonialism, the Africa about which Rush writes is post-colonial and the whites who come to it are more likely to do so as governmental emissaries or would-be angels of mercy than as rank exploiters; their lives tend to be more immediately intertwined with those of the black natives and their relationships with them are, if anything, even more complex and ambiguous.
That having been said, oddly enough the most successful story of the six is not about American settlers, but about two British couples. It is called "Near Pala"; as in most of the stories a central image is the terrible drought afflicting southern and central Africa. The couples are taking a long drive in a Land-Rover through desolate country. Nan, talking in the back seat with Tess, grows increasingly voluble about the shortcomings of white behavior toward blacks -- "Truly," she asks, "are we so superior as we think?" -- while in the front seat Gareth, her husband, becomes more and more impatient with her: "Might I ask where you have the least proof of that? You don't know a bloody thing about it. We can't set a foot right if we're white, can we? Regular litany with you, Nan. You're becoming tiresome!"
As the conversation grows steadily sharper, the vehicle enters an especially difficult part of the journey. There, while Gareth struggles to keep them on course, Nan pleads with him to stop and help three women and a child, all pleading for water. Gareth refuses; after a heated argument Nan at last flings the precious water bottle out of the car, whereupon Gareth grinds the car to a halt and demands that she fetch the bottle. There the story ends, but what finally happens is beside the point. Without oversimplification, Rush has presented in Nan and Gareth opposing white attitudes toward Africa, and by placing them inside a single marriage has shown how intimately connected they are. Nan is decent but a little foolish, Gareth is cruel but practical; in the white presence in Africa, there are elements of all of these.
IN "NEAR PALA" as in several other stories, a woman is the most sympathetic figure. Of the other women, by far the most interesting is Ione, an American nearing 50 who appears in three stories; she has come to Africa with her husband, Frank, who has "a contract to advise African governments on dental care systems." He is on the road much of the time; being a sensuous and independent woman, she takes advantage of his absences to play the game of seduction. Botswana is exactly the locale for that game:
"This place had been designed with her in mind. The furniture the government provided even looked like it came from a bordello. And Botswana was unnerving in some overall way there was only one word for: conducive. The country depended on copper and diamonds. Copper prices were sinking. There were too many diamonds of the wrong kind. Development projects were going badly and making people look bad, which made them nervous and susceptible. What was there to do at night? There was only one movie house in town. The movies came via South Africa and were censored to a fare- thee-well -- no nudity, no blue language. She suspected that for American men the kind of heavy-handed dummkopf censorship they sat through at the Capitol Cinema was in fact stimulating. Frank was getting United States Government money, which made them semi- official. She had to admit there was fun in foiling the eyes and ears of the embassy network. She would hate to leave."
For Ione as for the other whites, Africa is a place where the ordinary rules do not apply. They are in a country that is not their own, in a civilization they do not understand, cannot really connect to, and feel no obligation toward. They may be deeply pained by the drought, the widespread suffering among Africans, the pervasive conviction that matters will get not better but only worse, yet they are at a distance from this because they are white and because, of course, they can always go home. In these strange lives, everything matters and nothing matters; they are under strong constraints, especially those who work for their government, yet in a sense they are utterly free.
In this odd situation they do what people ordinarily do: they reach out, however clumsily and ineffectively, to each other or to the Africans. In a bleak landscape, surrounded by privation and death, they seek the comforts of the flesh and the consolation that affection brings. They often come up short of either, but that probably would be just as true if they were back home. What matters, as Rush emphasizes over and again, is that they try.