State of Decay
by Robert Gribbin (Kenya 196870)
Reviewed by Charles Wood Jewett (Ethiopia 196669)
THIS SMALL BOOK, not quite 160 pages, doubly subtitled An Oubangui Chronicle; A Novel of African Adventure, is a quick and good read. The author Robert Gribbin was a PCV in Kenya in the late 60s, and later (according to his State Department web bio) a career diplomat in different spots on the continent, including service in Rwanda as US Ambassador after the 1994 massacres and terror. Gribbin speaks French and Swahili, and knows East and Central Africa well.
Gribbin is adept at weaving fast-moving story lines, filled with assassination attempts, despotic leaders, diamond mining, ivory poaching, and repeated depictions of the rhythm of African people working and living. There are several sweaty sex scenes, but alas, while beautiful, they end too soon.
There is terrific adventure in State of Decay, but the books brevity and weaknesses detract. Gribbin provides evocative portraits of the African countryside: the hospitality of villagers, the smell of cooking fires, the sight of clean-swept compounds, and the muted thump, thump of women working the fields. The books protagonist is Jean, an airline pilot, unfairly jailed, who in just a few pages becomes a superhero a master of diplomacy and guerrilla tactics. We like him and applaud his exploits, but we dont understand the source of his strength.
The books most serious challenge is the authors treatment of the numerous second-tier characters. There is no attempt to flesh out most of those who people these pages. Without flesh, the characters sink back into boring stereotyped images. We see all the classic African images aged White Hunter unsure of his gifts, lustful Scotch-drinking national ruler relying on magic, evil Boer who secretly deals in guns, and wise earthy farmer. Unfortunately, too many of these portraits are almost as brazen and shallow as those from a 1930s Hollywood movie of Africa.
Gribbin provides several blatant clues that the book is a portrait of the Central African Republic (CAR): the books first subtitle is An Oubangui Chronicle using the countrys name prior to independence in 1958. Consider also Bassia, the fictional countrys President, the Lion of Central Africa. He embodies the worst traits of the continents many swaggering presidents-for-life, and probably has been modeled after the CARs despotic ruler Bokassa (even the same three-syllable name helps connect them.). Gribbins president clearly is corrupt as well as insane sadly, two of Bokassas traits (he gained special notoriety in 1977 for crowning himself Emperor). and finally, Gribbin was US ambassador to the CAR in the first Bush administration, more than a decade after Bokassas erratic rule came to an end thanks to local and French troops.
Despite liking the book, there were a few minor irritations for this reader who earns his living as an English teacher: sloppiness in the final product (misspelling of the protagonists name on the book jacket, poor capitalization in the text), and a literal falling apart of the book (one day my copy of Decay simply shed chapters 2 through 6). I can hope this was an isolated event.
I read this book in a very Peace Corps mood: on quiet afternoons, preparing to teach in a new school, while listening to Missa Luba (the Kenyan version). If only I had had some Ethiopian injera and wot at hand to make complete my nostalgic journey back to the Africa I remember of the 1960s.
Charles Wood Jewett (Ethiopia 1966-69) is an elementary school teacher in Clark County (Las Vegas) Nevada. He served three stints on Peace Corps/Washington staff, most recently as Country Desk Officer for Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.