IN FRANZ KAFKA’S WELL-KNOWN STORY, n Franz Kafka’s well-known story, The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa awoke from disturbing dreams one morning to find himself transformed into a giant vermin.” The transfiguration of a man who works too hard, lacks interest in his relationships with friends and family and who is, in fact, valued more by others for his income than his self, is quick, disturbing and unexpected. Whiteman, the debut novel of Tony D’Souza, is an exercise in self-conscious transformation that never achieves its intended result. If we are all creatures of our environment, as some might suggest, the metamorphosis of American aid worker Jack Diaz who lives three years in the Cote d’Ivoire village of Tegeso should be inevitable. Alas, it is not. He does not turn African but remains, by the end of the novel, following a dramatic escape from the northern war, a white man who must return to America. There is the truth of metaphor (Kafka), and the truth of international development, told by returned Peace Corps Volunteers and other aid workers who spend sufficient time in global grassroots communities to wonder whether they can ever go home again.
Jack works for Potable Water International, an American aid organization, which in many respects resembles the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, funds for projects at his rural site (and those of other PWI workers), have been redirected toward the war on terrorism, leaving Jack to fend for himself within a local tribe. We learn little of Jack’s history back home in Chicago other than that his father died when Jack was a boy; the unusually large number of older men whom Jack befriends including Chauffeur, a well-respected villager who teaches him how to hunt francolins, the medicine man, the village chief and the Chinese expatriate Wu leads one to presume our protagonist is a 25-year-old man searching emotionally for an identity in an unusual international location.
Yet despite its unfamiliar culture and the Worodougou language of its people, the Ivorian village of Tegeso is a powerful draw for Jack. The villagers are grounded in their work and their families; they suffer none of the angst that rattles Jack. Their complacency is all the more significant considering their nation is on the verge of war. While D’Souza explores Jack’s experience in a Muslim village, he likewise does a superb job of casually offering a few sentences here and there to remind readers of the treacherous context of the young man’s experience. Jack is aware of the problems between the north and the south, and, despite the dangers, he remains loyal to his northern village in the face of some hard observations. “Living among the Worodougou,” Jack says, “I saw firsthand how the Christian southerners kept the Muslims in a state of poverty so that they’d have no other option but to work as laborers on the commercial plantations.”
The villagers of Tegeso welcome the “white man” into their lives, even providing him an adopted name, Adama Diomande, that renders his American one insignificant. Jack spends a great deal of time pursing local women, motivated partially by lust, partially by a desire to dissolve into a local identity. He confesses, “I’d hold Mariam’s sleeping body in the night, imagine I was holding the whole of that hot continent.” His pursuit becomes reckless to the degree that he risks contracting AIDS through unprotected sex with a high-risk prostitute and has no qualms about taking another man’s wife as a lover. Yet two women with whom he feels a developing bond remain elusive in the end and benefit from his emotional vulnerability and his ready access to money. The ungraspable quality of Africa to a white American such as Jack is all the more apparent when Chauffer takes Jack out to the nighttime forest to witness the village’s young men engaging in a tribal ritual of dancing and writhing by firelight. Chauffer will not explain the ritual’s meaning to Jack, confessing: “. . . there are things we must keep for ourselves if we are to go on in this world as a people.” Jack, in turn, later reflects, “All the things I had been doing suddenly seemed as ridiculous as they really were. The forest, the people, they would never reveal themselves to me . . . [I was] as African as I would ever become, not African at all.” Despite their welcome, the Worodougou clearly are proud of their identity and clearly will not share it with an overeager foreigner.
Interestingly, Jack retreats from his one genuine opportunity to marry a local African: the beautiful Peul woman, Djamilla. During his courtship, Jack’s village counterpart, Mamadou, warns that the Peul are a people useful for commerce alone. Yet Jack continues his pursuit of this perceived outsider of a woman. When the engagement is announced, though, Jack does a startling about-face and escapes to the city for several weeks, returning only when it is understood that the courtship has been broken. For a young man searching for a sense of identity, his erratic behavior may seem surprising. Yet Jack also willingly concedes responsibility for an AIDS education project to Mamadou once a village chief refuses the paternal charity of a white American. The careful reader will observe that Jack, in his deepest heart, seems to recognize Africa is not his home and never can be. In those instances where the country finally appears prepared to open itself to him, Jack balks. Ultimately, and inevitably, he must return to America alone and with no lasting attachments to his host country.
D’Souza, in fine control of his narrative, draws the novel to a fitting if tragic close. While skirmishes and minor coups have filled the pages of Whiteman to this point, Jack knows, when television and radio broadcasts are finally terminated, that the greater national war between Muslims and Christians has begun. Jack and his PWI colleagues retreat to a sanctuary in the nearby city of Seguela, hoarding what few rations and cigarettes they have as Muslim rebels move through the north, cleansing the region of perceived enemies. Only through extortion, manipulation and bribery does the PWI team escape to the Christian south, the city of Abidjan and safety. Yet Jack feels little relief and shakes away the protective hands of Marines. In his retreat, Jack reveals elements of a lingering adolescence. “Sometimes I was scared, other times excited to be witnessing something I’d only otherwise read about in books. There was a glamour to it, a sense of pride. At times I let it quicken my pulse, though I know I shouldn’t have.” Yet, in the final pages, he likewise confesses that that despite his subsequent experience visiting other war-torn nations in the region, he never finds what he was looking for, and returns to America with a small dog named Small Africa, the sole lingering reminder of the three years he spent in Cote d’Ivoire. In the end, it seems, he understands life can only move forward and that Africa has tremendously impacted one important part of his personal maturity. Not every Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience may be as steeped in war as Jack’s, and D’Souza does an excellent job of showing that volunteers rarely succumb to a full Kafkaesque transformation into locals but leave only a piece of themselves behind whey they return home, older, more experienced and hopefully a bit wiser.
Joe Kovacs served as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka. He writes for WorldView magazine and is currently seeking an agent for his novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. He also is a martial arts practitioner and holds the rank of brown belt in tae kwon do.