Thursday, 11 February 1999

Saul Bellow: Henderson the Rain King (1959)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1959
Review number: 206

Saul Bellow' famous novel is about a man who is a misfit. Henderson is a rich American, yet his behaviour still makes him unacceptable to society. He is a very large man physically, prone to rages and enthusiasms, who finds it difficult to know what constitutes an acceptable way to react to a stimulus. (His attempts to kill a cat accidentally left behind by some ex-tenants from a property he owns are an example of this.)

In what is basically an attempt to find himself, he travels to Africa, asking his guide to show him unusual, remote places and peoples. He meets two tribes, one of which he virtually destroys in an attempt to purify their main water supply of a plague of frogs which goes disastrously wrong. The major part of the book, though, is about the second tribe, where he befriends the king, Dahfu, and unknowingly becomes involved in a religious ritual to bring rain, the success of which leads to his acclamation as a Sungo, or Rain King. Dahfu enlists Henderson's help in his attempts to capture a particular lion alive - this lion is believed to contain the reincarnate spirit of the previous king, and Dahfu needs to capture it to make his hold on the throne secure. During the preparations for the lion hunt, Dahfu engages Henderson in philosophical conversation. This is what Bellow uses to work out and resolve Henderson's alienation, so these conversations are structurally the most important parts of the book.

Henderson the Rain King is a book which grows on the reader slowly. At the beginning, I found Henderson so much of a misfit that I couldn't really understand him; after he arrived in Africa, I began to realise what it was that drove him to act in such anti-social ways. As I did so, I found him less dislikeable; to understand all is to forgive all. The characterisation of Henderson and his development is what has made this book a classic of twentieth century literature.

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