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The Common Review
Sunday, April 8th, 2007
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Whiteman: A Novel

by Tony D'Souza

Deep in the African Bush

A review by Jason A. Smith

Drawing on his own experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa's Ivory Coast, Tony D'Souza has assembled a likeable fish-out-of-water tale, generously peppered with parable. The eponymous Whiteman is Jack Diaz, a twenty-something aid worker who travels to the Worodougou village of Tégéso to dig wells for Potable Water International. Finding himself in the midst of a civil war and financially cut off from his organization, the polyglot Diaz decides to hunker down and assimilate into the Worodougou culture. Under the tutelage of his assigned handler and sometimes AIDS educator, Mamadou, and with a little spiritual help from the local witch doctor, Diaz fumblingly adapts to village life.

What transpires is not a tale of a white man bringing civilization to the natives, nor is it a saccharine affair involving the kind of spiritual fulfillment to be found only by "going native." Instead, we are treated to a compelling rumination on the fluidity of identity. Diaz, like many young Americans who volunteer for service abroad, is searching for meaning and hoping to forge an identity for himself through service to others. Allowing his surroundings -- the dense vegetation, the Worodougou and their primitive religion, and the very real threat of AIDS -- to penetrate his consciousness, Diaz does not transcend earthly concerns, but complicates his life more. It is in the not leaving and the divesting of his former life -- he has no plans to ever return to his native Chicago -- that makes Diaz more than just your typical stranger in a strange land.

"Look at how he speaks our language, look at how he eats our food. How can he be white? He takes off his skin and hangs it up at night. He's black underneath," muses Miriam, one of Diaz's many love interests. Indeed, sex is at the heart of D'Souza's book, but it is characterized neither as an acquisitive nor even obliquely colonial act. It is a complex affair, as shown in Diaz's trysts with a married woman from his village, a prostitute in a nearby town who has AIDS, and a white aid worker, who, like Diaz, has adopted Africa as her home.

Desire and sensuality -- fecund as the jungle itself -- are rendered palpable not only in the central narrative, but in the bawdy oral tradition of the locals. Though these tales wear African garb, many readers will recognize in them the deep humor and human fallibility of traditional Western folktales. Sexual innuendo is transmitted from the simple movement of a mortar and pestle; cautionary tales of cuckoldry, dishonor to one's ancestors, and masturbatory carrot use abound. D'Souza seems to say that Virtue need not be bleached of desire or excitement in order to be true.

In the willful process of becoming a Worodougou -- and losing all of his possessions, including his "whiteness" -- Diaz begins to understand that "doing good" isn't necessarily tied to a single, grand gesture, or even a more commonplace one, like digging a well. Simply surrendering yourself to be inhabited by a different place can be enough. But the West can be hard to shake, and Diaz finds that the old notions of racial stereotyping still emerge from time to time in his stories and others'. That Diaz can identify these moments and laugh at himself for being so myopic is a trait that makes him that much more endearing.

D'Souza does a fine job capturing the esprit of Africa and its people -- at times both stunningly beautiful and horribly violent -- without succumbing to lazy, occidental characterizations such as "exotic" or "mysterious" when describing the cumulative effects of life in a politically unstable and culturally diverse country. Echoing the sentiment of a people at the mercy of nature, malevolent spirits, and "jumpy young soldiers who...cocked their guns at the slightest hint of complaint," Diaz's life in extremis reminds us that we too must live for the moment.

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