Sunday, January 28, 2007

Robert Wilson's Blood is Dirt

There's a funny scene in Robert Wilson's Blood is Dirt, the third in his series of crime novels featuring an English P.I. in West Africa. The protagonist, Bruce Medway, is going to visit a Russian who sells used cars:
"He spoke fluent French but had only learnt English since being in Benin. I had confused his brain by telling him there were eight ways to pronounce the letters 'ough' and now any word with anything approximating those letters would get scrambled. 'Daughter' came out as 'dafter' and 'laughter' as 'lawter', 'ought' as ufft' and 'tough' as 'tow'."
It got me thinking -- what were the eight ways to pronounce the 'ough' combination? I can only come up with these:
1. off (cough)
2. oo (through)
3. uff (tough)
4. oh (though)
5. aw (thought)
Are there any more, or was the character exaggerating?

The book, as long as I mentioned it, was very good. Don't mind the title. There's actually a good reason for 'Blood is Dirt' -- it comes from the English WWI-era poet Wilfred Owen whose poem 'Inspection' tells of a soldier punished for having a dirty uniform during an inspection --the dirt being his own blood.

Wilson's series deals with some typically West African topics, including Nigerian 419 scams (in Blood is Dirt) and blood diamonds (in The Big Killing). The settings and plots are reminiscent of some of Graham Greene's Africa stories, but with a lighter touch in the telling, and much more graphic violence.

Bruce Medway is a "fixer," a private detective who'll take sordid and shameful cases, often from Brits too embarrassed by their predicament or inexperienced with local culture to go to the police. He drinks a lot and lives paycheck to sporadic paycheck. Still, he has his own driver.

These are post-colonial crime stories. While there's none of the blatant "exterminate all the brutes" racism of Joseph Conrad, race and the tension between the roles of blacks and whites is palpable. Where most whites either use Africa (toxic waste dumpers or diamond smugglers) or try to fix it (aid workers like Medway's German girlfriend), Medway is somewhere between.

I like to compare these books to James Lee Burke's New Iberia, Louisiana-based series of detective novels. Burke's protagonist Dave Robicheaux is a former New Orleans cop and recovering alcoholic who takes a job in New Iberia with the local sheriff's department. In each book, something from Louisiana's past resurfaces -- sunken Nazi submarines, former slaveholders' abuse, inbreeding among the gentry -- and expresses itself as the crimes of the present.

Both the Robicheaux Louisiana series and the Medway West Africa series feature a white detective mediating the unease between blacks and whites in a former French colonial culture in a hot coastal climate. Both show us a complicated relationship between the protagonist and his poor black employee -- Robicheaux in Louisiana has Batist, an old man who helps him run his bayou bait shop and Medway has Moses, his driver. These are odd employer/employee relationships, almost more akin to the relationship of butler or a nanny to their household, but both men become part of the family, in way. Through numerous gaps -- in culture, language or dialect, race, and class -- these men form friendships.

When Moses gets diagnosed with HIV, Medway is despondent. Their relationship may stand in for Britain's with Africa: an old friendship, close but unequal, the Briton watching sadly as his beloved employee fights disease on his own. Of course, that may be an optimistic over-simplification, but this is the way the educated liberal European would prefer to see it.

Compare that to the American situation. Back in Louisiana, when Batist watches Robicheaux lapse into alcoholism, he is sullen. He's impassive, a wise old uncle shaking his head in disappointment. Batist may be white America's black conscience.

Neither of these relationships represent the sole examples of black and white camaraderie. Medway, for one has his equal in Bagado, a cop who was educated in England. But these relationships, as reminders of a colonial slave-trading past, are the more interesting ones to read about. They are certainly more difficult.

Editor's note: I revised and expanded this review on Monday (1/29). Also, a reader comments that the ow sound in the British English word plough is a sixth pronunciation. Excellent. Are there others?

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Blogger hazel said...

-ow (plough)

It's British. Does that count?

3:04 PM  
Blogger soubriquet said...

as in the english pronunciation of, borough.
as in drought.

2:28 PM  

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