Tony D’Souza is one of the fresh young writers to have emerged in the American literary scene in the last decade. Born to an Indian father and an American Caucasian mother, his mixed racial identity makes a subtle appearance in his works. In his much acclaimed novel Whiteman, for example, the protagonist Jack Diaz, who is an American, leaves to Africa on a humanitarian mission. Ivory Coast is the place of his deputation and the constant Islamic sectarian conflicts of the country provides the backdrop for his stay there. He is part of a team of American volunteers, who take up this difficult challenge so as to help Ivory Coast lift itself out of poverty and backwardness. Not only has he to contend with the mindset of primitive people steeped in orthodoxy, but also survive regular outbreaks of epidemic diseases in the region. For example, some of his colleagues are set back by malarial infections. But much to his frustration and surprise, it is he who ends up a changed man toward the end of the novel. Written in accessible prose and a simple narrative style, some of the important themes in the novel are moral relativity, role of religion in social organization and the rigidity of cultural norms and customs. This essay will argue that the author’s attempt to ‘unravel the mystery of Africa’ is its most pronounced theme.
The chaotic political situation in Ivory Coast provides plenty of material for D’Souza to explore the human condition in the region. The civilians of the African country seemingly take a nonchalant attitude to the grave internal political tensions in the region. This might be difficult for the Western reader (to whom the novel is addressed) to comprehend. But in the stagnant Third World country as Ivory Coast, such a mindset is not unusual. As Tony D’Souza poetically notes in one of the passages, the region has seen political and military conflicts of every sort, including “bloody coups and bloodless coups and attempted coups and aborted coups and averted coups and rumored coups”. This reality is juxtaposed against the primary mission of his NGO, namely to “change the world”. How impossible an objective this idea is will be revealed during the course of the novel.
The established social norms and customs in his place of work is both a source of fascination and despair for Diaz. The society is largely organized as per tribal traditions. So what Diaz experiences in his interactions with the locals is unlike what he had seen in his native country. The exotic elements in this far-off culture fascinate them due to their novelty. But Diaz also knows that tradition has provided a misplaced sense of complacency to the people of Ivory Coast. He believes that they can emancipate themselves by looking beyond their own history and culture. But this project is easier to conceive than to execute. As one reads the novel it becomes increasingly clear that it is Diaz who is changed by his environment and not the other way around. While his failure to accomplish his grand mission of “change the world” is no surprise, the fact that the local society and politics leave a profound effect on his personality is interesting. This outcome is an aspect of the theme of ‘mystery of Africa’ that they novel essays into.
At places in the novel, Jack Diaz is at a loss to comprehend the seeming madness of strife and conflict that his hosts were participants in. The Islamic sectarian violence of Ivory Coast has an immediacy and relevance in the post 9/11 context. Even funding for the Potable Water project that Jack is working on dries up in the anti-Islamic posturing of the post 9/11 political climate. This is tragic, for so many babies and children die in Ivory Coast as a result of contaminated water and resultant fatal infections. Though, Jack is on a humanitarian project, he is human too. This is revealed in his numerous affairs with local black women – some of whom are married and others prostitutes. This weakness on part of Jack is further testimony to the theme of the mysterious Africa, in that it shows how his rationality and initial benign intent gets consumed by the lure of exoticism. Jack’s tendency to digress from his mission is a metaphor for the power of Africa to brush aside rationality for more instinctual actions and motives. In other words, Jack Diaz’ initial proclamation that he is in Ivory Coast to “change the world” comes back to ridicule him, for he ends up assimilated the very instincts and behaviour that he was once critical of.
In sum, Whiteman is a fascinating novel by Tony D’Souza that is at once full of exoticism and insight. It is a statement on the power of tradition and instinct over progress and rationality. Jack Diaz’s failure to accomplish his mission and his assimilation into the backward-looking culture of Ivory Coast is a strong testament to the mystical and mysterious qualities of Africa that often escape reason and commonsense. The reader should be careful not to take it as a license for instinctual and irrational behavior. But instead take it as a warning for the dangers posed by this path. For example, the most obvious danger posed by Diaz’ reckless sexual behavior is unwanted pregnancies and abortions. This outcome is in clear contradiction to his original motivation for visiting Ivory Coast, namely, to save black babies for endemics.
D’Souza, Tony, Whiteman, published by Portobello in 2006, 288pp.