Bellow evokes all the rich colour and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa in this comic novel about a middle-aged American millionaire who, seeking a new, more rewarding life, descends upon an African tribe. Henderson's awesome feats of strength and his unbridled passion for life earns him the admiration of the tribe - but it is his gift for making rain that turns him from mere hero into messiah. A hilarious, often ribald story, HENDERSON THE RAIN KING is also a profound look at the forces that drive a man through life.
Difficult to know just what to make of this shaggy dog story written by Saul Bellow and published in 1959. It certainly bears all the hallmarks of a Bellow novel in that passages of fine descriptive writing and intense storytelling are infused with some turgid philosophical ramblings. The story of Eugene Henderson's vivid sojourn amongst remote African tribes is so laced with the unreal that I could only think that it was a feverish dream of a rash, blundering man fearful of holding it all together. That the dream is not in the end a nightmare gives the novel a feel of a bildungsroman especially as it is written in the first person.
"When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest . A disorderly rush begins - my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my face, my soul! I have to cry, No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone! But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine, and they pile into me from all sides. It turns into chaos."
This is Henderson explaining why he bought that ticket to Africa and why he chose to strike out in search of primitive tribes who were out of reach of civilisation. It is not the language or the actions of a college professor and by and large Bellow hits the right note in his portrayal of a man who is rash and unlucky and acts without sufficient reflection. He bulldozes his way through life perhaps breaking heads and certainly treading on toes in the process, describing himself as a high spirited kind of guy and we all probably know people just like him.
Henderson almost on a whim travels with a married couple to Africa in search of something else. He soon splits from them hiring a guide (Romilayu) to take him outside the scope of civilised Africa. He is led to the tribe of Anewi and finds them in despair because their cattle are dying of thirst. They treat their cattle as part of the family, sitting up with them and caring for them when ill. A species of frogs have invaded the water cistern and Henderson believes that he can solve their problems by rigging up a bomb from the ammunition he is carrying. First he has to wrestle with the tribe's champion and when he wins he comes under the spell of his auntie the queen; an enormous African woman who is prepared to buy him with her dowry. Henderson thinks she can straighten him out with her simple philosophy of the love of life.Things do not go well and soon Henderson and Romilayu are forced to seek out a neighbouring tribe the Wariri. Their king Dahfu is guarded and cosseted by over fifty naked Amazon women and he explains to Henderson that he can only survive as long as he can service his harem. He has other problems; the tribe believes that the previous king exists as a lion and Dahfu must capture this lion to keep his kingship, however he has already caught a lioness who the tribe believes is bewitching their king. Henderson is befriended by the king who sees in the powerful American an ally. Dahfu is an educated man and has theories about how the soul shapes the outward appearance of a man and that all men bear a close relationship to a species of animal, soon Henderson is being encouraged to walk in the lions den..........
The portrayal of the African tribes is pure anthropological fantasy, something that might have been invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Bellow seems to want his readers to believe in the unreality as one of the themes of his novel is reality and unreality. How real is the world of Henderson? Of course one could accuse Bellow in wallowing in some racial fantasy, but I think this would be missing the point and of course the Amazon women have to be naked. Henderson thinks he may have found some answers to his search for meaning in his life through the chief Dahfu, but the readers of the novel will soon be convinced that Dahfu is as much of a crackpot as the culture of the tribe in which he is intrinsically part of. However much energy Bellow spends in trying to make Dhafu's philosophy palatable he really only succeeds in miring up the novel, if it is supposed to be funny then it was lost on me.
This is a novel that loses it's grip on reality by straying too far into the world of hokum. It is hokum that could also cause offence, but then the character of Henderson is just as likely to cause offence. Is Bellow being deliberately provocative and if so does he get away with it? I think this is very much for the individual to decide. I have read that this is one of his most popular novels, perhaps this is because of the attractions of the anti-hero or perhaps the fantasy world African primitivism appeals. I have mixed feelings, while I admire some of the writing I really cannot see where it is going other than a parody of novels which feature a hero's redemption through coming to terms with primitive cultures, there are plenty of those on the bookshelves. A generous 3.5 stars.
After reading "Henderson, the Rain King," I started feeling those old urges again. Of course, that Africa probably doesn't exist anymore. Just as well. Now in my mid-forties, proving something to myself consists of trying to survive my current mid-life crisis, and fighting the urge to not permanently piss off my wife, and come home in a Porsche 911. Giddy up, Simba!
Well, it's over (Thank God). It somehow grabs you with the lion and the king. That's the essence of the story, but the frogs thingie is a good contrapuntal episode. The rating is up because I finally got used to what was bothering me -- Bellow's bellow. He is aptly named. I'm even going so far as to call this a classic read!
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: Number 128
"I might have added, as it entered my mind to do, that some people found satisfaction in being (Walt Whitman: "Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe! Joy! Joy! All over joy!"). Being. Others were taken up with becoming. Being people have all the breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or other justifications to the Being people. While the Being people provoke these explanations."
"But maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end. So that is shouldn't last forever?"
For me, this opening set off brain itch and intimations that I would be doing a lot of head scratching going forward, and oh did that prove true. (Apology to member brownheidi82 for using the "itch" image, whose review I hadn't read before writing the previous sentence. Great minds think alike!)
On the surface, this book is Henderson's explanation of what made him take a trip to Africa and an account of his adventures and misadventures, but his journey is really a soul-searching spiritual quest to try to get some kind of understanding of the human condition. Henderson, like all of us, is a troubled person. Here's how he describes it:
But there comes a day, there always comes a day of tears and madness. Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, "What do you want?" But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!
Henderson's trip to Africa is his attempt to find an answer to his wanting, a yearning that I believe is embedded in human nature. You may think he's crazy, a clown, a buffoon, but he's also honest, aware of his shortcomings (or sins, if you prefer), courageous, loyal, and a whole lot of other things. He's fully human, engaged in life, trying to make sense of himself, and get at the meaning of life. And he does believe that there's meaning in life.
Sometimes the book can be slow moving, but I grew to like H. and sometimes, emphasis on the sometimes, he reminded me of myself.
When it comes to Henderson, the answer is unfortunately "No." The only thing that I appreciate more is that I not only didn't turn out like Henderson, but I have successfully avoided "Hendersons" along the way.
-It is so often recommended that I re-read in 2013 but did not get beyond the first few chapters.
-Henderson is a man with many interesting stories about himself, but the sort of man that gets tedious after a while. Maybe that is the point of the book, but does not make for enjoyable reading.
"Oh, you can't get away from rhythm, Romilayu...You just can't get away from it. The left hand shakes with the right hand, the inhale follows the exhale, the systole talks back to the diastole, the hands play patty-cake, and the feet dance with each other. And the seasons. And the stars, and all of that. And the tides, and all that junk. You've got to live at peace with it, because it's going to worry you, you'll lose. You can't win against it. It keeps on and on and on" (319).
But I must have forgotten to read the blurb. Had I done so I would have prepared myself for what is described as “A hilarious, often ribald story.” Instead I set about reading something that I expected to be rather Kafkaesque: denser, symboliste, terribly demanding. In the moments when I had time to read over the next ten days I kept wondering why I did not find it difficult, demanding, or soporific. On the final sitting, a day off, I covered the second two thirds of the novel at a sitting. Slowly it dawned on me that deep existentialist angst was not the filter through which to read at least this Bellow.
What was then? Unfortunately my many years of absorption in D.H. Lawrence also kept attempting to claim the ascendancy of filter selection. There were similarities, and they kept distracting me. There were moments of deep, a-sexual (or, the psycho-sexual critics would tell me, a-genital) man-love: The mutual fascination and admiration of Henderson and Dahfu was an echo of Lawrence’s Birkin and Crich rolling naked in the pine needles in Women in Love:”What happened to your labium inferiorum?” (228) is not quite the repressed eroticism of Birkin and Crich but neither is it your average afternoon conversation (and yes, I do realize that labium inferiorum is hardly an erotic obsession). Google “labium inferiorum”, incidentally, and you will be taken to Saul Bellow, and to reviews of Henderson the Rain King . The great tribal rites of chapters 12-14 are far more entertaining than Lawrence’s self-indulgent militarist rite-fantasies of Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent or the execrable “The Woman Who Rode Away”, but have similar echoes of communal-collective liturgical rites that attempt to transcend nature and alter history. Bellow’s description of the lioness Atti (see especially 226-227) show all of Lawrence’s undoubted skill in description of animals Birds, Beasts and Flowers and the rabbit in The Rainbow,while the psychological mumbo-jumbo of Dahfu’s lectures come perilously close to the self-indulgent psycho-babble Lawrence offers in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Lawrence’s work, with all its Blavatsky-esque narcissism, pseudo-intellectual psycho-sociological analysis, and weird obsession with ganglia, or even the ghastly aberrant “discipline” of phrenology beloved of George Eliot alongside Lawrence’s (see 238) fade into self-indulgence precisely because they attempt to take seriously that with which Bellow and his Dahfu playfully flirt.
But slowly it dawned on me: where Lawrence is so terribly earnest and didactic, Bellow is full of fun and self-deprecating. Furthermore, where Lawrence’s characters are as narcissistic as their creator, Bellow’s Henderson is something of a loveable buffoon (not, I would imagine, if I were reading through a post-colonial critique, but otherwise …) who slowly grows, aided not least by the ever-loyal Romilayu (who could be a Defoe-esque or Conrad-esque “noble savage” insult to a post-colonialist critique), to a denouement-epiphany, caring genuinely if momentarily for an other, an orphan child fleeing Syria. Bellow gently chides: Lawrence earnestly and cloyingly preaches.
With filters changed I realized I was reading (devouring by now), a delightful parodic romp. In Bellow’s hand a sentence like “Humankind has to sway itself more intentionally towards beauty” (282) no longer sounds like the focal text of a soporific sermon, as it would in Lawrence’s hands, or even an ambiguous Christo-Zen koan like Dylan’s over-blown existential quasi-biblical nonsense about “hanging in the balance of the reality of man / Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.” Rather Bellow’s mashal (proverb) is simply a playful aphorism from which the reader may build a complicated aesthetic, but should more likely scamper on happily to the end. There the reader will find at last the redemption of the “nosy, gross phantom” (283) Henderson, who eventually learns to dance with a child on the ice that surrounds a re-fuelling strato-cruiser, man and child making their way West to new and vastly different redemption-beginnings in the Land of the Free.