Monday, September 2, 2013

Kenya Noir

Peter Hayes was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy where John Irving was his wrestling coach, and he would push the infant Dan Brown in his stroller!  He studied fiction at Harvard with Bernard Malamud.  Published a prize-winning short story in The Atlantic Monthly at 21.  Wrote The Supreme Adventure, a book on personal growth and eastern philosophy, published by Dell and The Feathered Serpent, a thriller, published by Little, Brown.  Lived, studied and taught yoga and meditation in India for several years, speaking at almost every Indian Rotary Club from Udaipur to Hyderabad.  He lives today in Accord, New York with his wife Uma, and occasionally with his son, Siddhartha, a senior at Vassar.  His next book 'My Lady of the Bog: An Archeo-Forensic Mystery' will be published by The Permanent Press in April 2014. Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to the voice and the mind of Peter Hayes

Annamaria -Monday.

In the Mahābhārata, the great Indian epic, a warrior’s dying wish to be buried “where no one has been buried before” proves unfulfillable, as with each attempt to inter his body, the spirits of Earth rise up and shriek: “One hundred million dead are here!” — and so it goes, spot after spot, until it becomes apparent that, whether or not murder is everywhere, death is and has been many times over.

This story’s power comes from its surprising perspective.  To me, at least, death’s appearance has always seemed spotty.  In some places — war-zones, slums, particular lands and cities — violent death is much more likely.  Intersections, for example, are among the deadliest places in the world.  This makes sense with today’s high-speed vehicles.  Yet intersections have always been associated with death.  Gallows were often sited at crossroads. Robert Johnson, the Mississippi bluesman, went down to a rural crossroads to meet the devil.  Hecate, the goddess of the underworld, was propitiated at crossroads.  And the sign of the “cross” or “X” symbolized death long before, and after, the Crucifixion.

A Conversation
This rumination on human ruin was engendered by an email exchange with Annamaria Alfieri, whose fiction I so admire.  She told me that her next book is set in East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.  I replied:
British East Africa, 1911.  Very romantic with great noir possibilities.  And evocative to me of Vidya Prasad, the heroine of my own book — My Lady of the Bog — to be published next spring by “The Permanent Press.”  Vidya is a deshi from Kenya.  Here’s an outtake from that email exchange. 
“Kenya … a stunning, green and tawny land and, biologically speaking, the hottest place on earth: the origin and font not only of Homo but of other species, too — some of which are still emerging.  For it was in the villages around the western edge of Lake Victoria that HIV appeared, while on the slopes of Mt. Elgon and in the bat-filled darkness of the Kitum Cave, the deadly Ebola virus took birth.
Thus, a host of new diseases is today one of Kenya's more successful exports. Was it just a coincidence that Vidya hailed from a land of plagues, half a day's ride from Kilimanjaro and just across an unmarked border from where Idi Amin once built villages of human skulls?  Or isn’t every place on earth like this: a land of pain and death for someone?” 
Whereupon, Annamaria graciously suggested I contribute to this blog.

Location, Location, Location
Crime novelists have two choices: to go with the flow or go against it.  As “setting” is such a vital factor, the question is: does one’s mystery unfold in a place and time steeped in deadly ambience and imagery, or does one emulate those Brits who unmask death’s horrors in the “safest” of civilized surroundings: a weekend at a country manor?
        Both approaches have their strengths.  After every murder in small- or rural-town America, someone is invariably quoted as saying, “What makes it so shocking is that things like this don’t happen here.”  On the other hand, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (not a murder mystery, but a great book about death, nonetheless) revels in its mortal imagery — from its title and setting in a lawless time and part of Mexico to the date of its action: November 2, 1938, the Day of the Dead.  It uses everything it can about the land and culture to reinforce its tone and theme. 
But let’s return to Kenya.  First, I’ve never been.  And as a friend, the writer Meir Ribalow once said, “I can’t write about any place when I don’t know how it smells.” Which is why My Lady of the Bog’s heroine hails from Kenya yet the book itself takes place in Dorset, England and Rajasthan, India, places whose odors — fair and foul — I know and love.
Africa Noir
Kenya is definitely a potent setting for stories in the neo-noir vein.  When I was a kid, Africa was always “dark;” “Darkest Africa” a common cliché.  Its darkness appeared to stem from its unmapped miles of jungle, but a moral darkness was also implied.  This description, as far as I can source it, goes back to Henry Stanley, the man who said, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” (or perhaps didn’t, according to one of Michael’s posts) and to his 1891 bestseller: In Darkest Africa.  Joseph Conrad ran with the ball in Heart of Darkness, infusing Africa’s noir with a spiritual dimension.  And ever since, it’s been a cultural trope.  Even today, Africa is seen as the last frontier by many NGOs and charitable organizations.  The “word map” from a website offering free graphics to nonprofits portrays a continent composed entirely of sorry words, about which a blogger complains:

“We are bombarded with messages that dehumanize Africans by turning them into flat symbols of suffering.  Looking at the word map, it’s impossible to imagine everyday folk in Africa who are making a living by working, raising families and participating actively in their communities.  Unfortunately, this is consistent with the last 120 year of representation for the continent … there is almost no sense that Africans play roles other than victim or aggressor and the old tenacious stereotype of “darkest Africa” paints it as a lawless, primitive, threatening and mysterious place “where terror and adventure meet.”
        That said, here are some further points about Kenya that a crime novelist, noir or not, might wish to reference or bear in mind:
The Mau Mau Revolt: The atrocities committed on both sides — the native Mau Mau and the colonial British — were inhuman.  And while the Mau Mau rebellion still invokes images of black attack, the numbers tell a different tale. Fewer than one hundred whites were killed as opposed to 20,000 Africans.  Furthermore, the rationale the British used to justify the imprisonment and interrogation by torture of many thousands eerily prefigures the ones proffered after 9/11.  I’ve read many crime books and thrillers about the search for and continued machinations of ex-Nazis and Stalinists. Not that many about ourselves and our allies.
The Corruption of Daniel Moi: Like many regimes, Kenya was long ruled by a dictator whose corruption was renowned.  Whether Moi was any worse than other tyrants, I can’t say, but a corrupt political system is an essential backdrop for any tale of personal corruption — which is, after all, the hallmark of noir.
Going Native:  Today, this is all the rage; spend two weeks living with the Maasai — only $70 per night.  But less than a century ago, such doings were taboo.  The colonial British firmly believed that if you stopped dressing for dinner, it was just a matter of time before you went bonkers.  No less an observer that Carl Jung in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections, writes of a 1925 visit to Kenya: 
I never spoke to a native woman… As in southern Europe, men speak to men, women to women.  Anything else signifies love-making.  The white who goes in for this not only forfeits his authority but runs the serious risk of ‘going black.’…  Quite often I heard the natives pass judgment upon a certain white: ‘He is a bad man.’  When I asked why, the reply was invariably, ‘He sleeps with our women.’”
Therefore, want to cause trouble in your Kenyan novel?  Sleep with the women.
Disease: In many of today’s murder mysteries, death is by gun, car or knife.  And while there’s nothing wrong with death by Audi, by a 9mm Sig Sauer 290, or decapitation by a yataghan (a recurved scimitar), Kenya’s tropical diseases offer the writer a whole new set of tools.  Since some of these diseases are contracted from “bush meat” — HIV was apparently endemic in monkeys and leapt into the human population through their consumption as food — serving your fictional victim a nice, spicy stew of baboon or gorilla has real, noirish possibilities, as does something as innocent as suggesting a hike to view Mt. Elgon or an outing to the Kitum Cave.  The Ebola and Marburg viruses are almost always lethal in humans, destroying their hosts in grotesque and painful ways through a progressive and irreversible process of what amounts to inner liquefaction.  I’m being delicate.
So for the crime novelists among us, those are a few ideas to prime the pump.  When I read this list to a writer friend, she squealed in dark delight: “Oooh, I feel a story coming on!”

The Inner Country
Having focused on Kenya, then and now, as prime territory for the crime novelist, let me conclude with an observation that in some ways obviates everything I’ve said.  In the end, even our most perfect descriptions of actual geographical places are fiction. None of them are “real.” As Nabokov asks in one of his lectures:
“Can we expect to glean information about times and places from a novel...? Can we rely on Jane Austen’s picture of landowning England with baronets and landscaped grounds…?  And Bleak House, that fantastic romance within a fantastic London, can we call it a study of London a hundred years ago?  Certainly not….the truth is that great novels are great fairy tales.”

I’ll go Mr. Nabokov one step further.  The places we describe in our fiction are the landscapes of our soul.  James Ellroy’s LA does not exist, except in the mind and heart of Ellroy (and, for a time, in the minds and memories of his readers.)  What we write about a place — and the places we choose to write about — says more about the writer than it does about the place.

A Question
Why then are nice, civilized people like ourselves drawn to writing and reading about murder, corruption and death in the darkest and lowest of situations and places? The answer is: we humans have an unappeasable need to experience life in all its fullness and, in so doing, to taste the wealth, plenitude and power of our own selves.  As the poet Theodore Roethke writes, “Dear God, I want it all: the depths and the heights… and so do we. 
        At crossroads, these two streams meet: high and low, good and bad, love and betrayal, life and death.  The more we attempt to sanitize reality, admitting only the pleasant and the good and avoiding all that’s bad and painful, the more we feel cut off from our own selves.  Deny our dark side’s existence within and it manifests before us — as our destiny.  Identify with heaven wholly, and all hell is certain to break loose.
        Which is why Vidya Prasad, mocking My Lady of the Bog’s anthropologist hero, declares:
“Oh, Americans.  You think if everyone has enough to eat and a decent education, they’ll behave like good little boys and girls. Well, rot!  Human beings, as you may have noticed, have an insatiable need for violence and gore.  They love blood, love to see it spill and run.”

And, she might have added, they love to write and read about it, too. 

   Peter Hayes
Accord, New York
August 25, 2013


  1. Thanks, Peter, for a truly terrific, thought provoking post giving me a LOT to think about.

    By the way, I see we share a similar experience--"a rumination on human ruin was engendered by an email exchange with Annamaria Alfieri"--and opinion of her work : "fiction I so admire."

  2. Thank you, Jeffrey. Yes, it was my admiration of her City of Silver, whose prose, to my mind, poured like molten silver -- and the grace of a mutual friend -- that brought us together. So glad it did!

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  4. A good read, Namdev. I pondered the line: "The colonial British firmly believed that if you stopped dressing for dinner, it was just a matter of time before you went bonkers." As a colonial Brit brat I see this as a a slight exaggeration. The truth is that some of those colonial Brits who did dress for dinner went bonkers.

  5. Well, this topic has been on my mind after working this year at the Ubud Writers's Festival here in Bali, an event involving 23,000 people and a lot of excellent writers from all over the world. Their god seemed to be Cormac McCarthy and I have been disturbed by that, although I am just as fascinated with the human tendency toward evil as anyone else. The effects of Stalin's five year program in the Ukraine make McCarthy look kind of soft. Western drama and fiction are based on conflict. Not so Indian drama: e.g Shakuntala by Kalidasa. But who wants to read about harmony?