by John Updike
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MY COUNTRY OF KUSH, landlocked between the mongrelized, neo-capitalist puppet states of Zanj and Sahel, is small for Africa, though larger than any two nations of Europe. Its northern half is Saharan; in the south, forming the one boundary not drawn by a Frenchman's ruler, a single river flows, the Grionde, making possible a meagre settled agriculture. Peanuts constitute the principal export crop: the doughty legumes are shelled by the ton and crushed by village women in immemorial mortars or else by antiquated presses manufactured in Lyons; then the barrelled oil is caravanned by camelback and treacherous truck to Dakar, where it is shipped to Marseilles to become the basis of heavily perfumed and erotically contoured soaps designed not for my naturally fragrant and affectionate countrymen but for the antiseptic lavatories of America—America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut. Our peanut oil travels westward the same distance as eastward our ancestors plodded, their neck-shackles chafing down to the jugular, in the care of Arab traders, to find from the flesh-markets of Zanzibar eventual lodging in the harems and palace guards of Persia and Chinese Turkestan. Thus Kush spreads its transparent wings across the world. The ocean of desert between the northern border and the Mediterranean littoral once knew a trickling traffic in salt for gold, weight for weight; now this void is disturbed only by Swedish playboys fleeing cold boredom in Volvos that soon forfeit their seven coats of paint to the rasp of sand and the roar of their engines to the omnivorous howl of the harmattan. They are skeletons before their batteries die. Would that Allah had so disposed of all infidel intruders!
To the south, beyond the Grionde, there is forest, nakedness, animals, fever, chaos. It bears no looking into. Whenever a Kushite ventures into this region, he is stricken with mal à l'estomac.
Kush is a land of delicate, delectable emptiness, named for a vanished kingdom, the progeny of Kush, son of Ham, grandson of Noah. Their royalty, ousted from the upper Nile in the fourth century by the Christian hordes of Axum, retreated from Meroë, fabled home of iron, into the wastes of Kordofan and Darfur, and farther westward still, pursued by dust devils along the parched savanna, erecting red cities soon indistinguishable from the rocks, until their empty shattered name, a shard of grandeur, was salvaged by our revolutionary council in 1968 and, replacing the hated designation of Noire, was bestowed upon this hollow starving nation as many miles as years removed from the original Kush, itself an echo: Africa held up a black mirror to Pharaonic Egypt, and the image was Kush.
The capital is Istiqlal, renamed in 1960, upon independence, and on prior maps called Cailliéville, in honor of the trans-Saharan traveller of 1828, who daubed his face brown, learned pidgin Arabic, and achieved European celebrity by smuggling himself into a caravan from Timbuctoo to Fez and doing what hundreds of unsung Berbers had been doing for centuries, maligning them as brutes even while he basked in the loud afterglow of their gullible hospitality. Previous to French organization of the territory of Noire in 1905 (checking a British thrust arising in the Sudan), the area on both sides of the river had been known, vaguely, as Wanjiji. An Arab trading town, Al-Abid, much shrunken from its former glory, huddles behind the vast white-and-green Palais de l'Administration des Noirs, modelled on the Louvre and now used in its various wings as offices for the present government, a People's Museum of Imperialist Atrocities, a girls' high school dedicated to the...
About the Author-
John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.
- The Washington Post Book World "One of Updike's boldest and most imaginative performances."
PublisherRandom House Publishing Group
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