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Friday 19 December 2014

FFB – Lord of Darkness

‘In the destructive element immerse’ – Lord Jim (J Conrad)

I have been in a time-machine and have savoured the richness of smells, tastes,sounds, prose and colours of 16th century Africa. And what a journey. ‘There is a voyage outwad and there is a voyage inward, and my twenty years inward to the heart of African deviltry took me father indeed than Drake himself could have gone.’ This voyage inward gripped from beginning to end – even after the end. As a fictional travel autobiography, Lord of Darkness was most convincing, so true in fact that the author came across as one humorous, wise and compassionate Andrew Battell and not as Robert Silverberg, author of Lord Valentine’s Castle et al.

Battell and many of the other characters existed. According to Silverberg, all we know of Battell is that he went to sea in 1589 when Spain and Portugal were at war against England; that he was captured on the Isle of Sao Sebastian off Brazil, shipped to Angola, where he had twenty years of adventures before returning to England. He then dictated his memoires which were subsequently printed in a much-edited form in 1625 and again in 1901. Upon these bones has Silverberg fashioned flesh. The account of Andrew Battell of Leigh in Essex, born in 1558, is certain to be regarded as an outstanding work, comparable to Robinson Crusoe and King Solomon’s Mines.

Although best known for his varied and numerous Sci-fi novels, Silverberg has been prolific in producing non-fiction books, among them the mythical land of Eldorado, The Longest Voyage, an account of the first six circumnavigations of the world, and The Realm of Prester John (1972). After a journey to Africa, he wrote Downward to the Earth, a sci-fi novel in which were embedded some homages to Joseph Conrad (one of my many favourite authors). All this knowledge and research, the influence of Conrad and the Hakluyt Voyages and Discoveries, coupled with a masterful style that captures the feel of the 16th century, has inevitably been distilled into this remarkable Lord of Darkness, within which one can embark on a mind-broadening, often gruesome odyssey of young yellow-haired Andrew. He was new to the world beyond Leigh and began by looking at everything with the blinkered eyes of ignorance. In truth, he found that travel broadens the mind; aye, wondrously so. Perhaps armchair travel does, too. For there is much cogent philosophy, wisdom and compassion within these pages, besides excellent description and humour.

Though a prisoner, Battell had been given a modicum of freedom to seve as a pilot; thereafter, he undertook two trading voyages, before falling in with man-eaters, the Jaqqa. He continually allied himself with the powerful to retain his modest freedom, as reflected in his simple philosophy:

‘No sailor ever reached home by sailing into the jaws of a storm. I try to keep my sheets aligned so that I will move ever forward, or at least not find myself capsized.’

His intention was to bend to adversity, but never to give up hope that one day he might return to England. He was not given to despair, which is remarkable considering the privations, betrayals and disappointments he endured: ‘wholly English within me, that does not like to rush forward and claim defeat as a bride.’

These quotations give a less than adequate indication of the style; it seems exactly right. His choice of words seem apt, too: ‘catercorner’ rather than ‘diagonally’ and ‘rampscallery roguey army of cutpurses and rackrents and dandiprat costermongers, the dregs of Lisbon… to defend Angola against the forces of darkness.’ The insult of today is so pauperised, as is the description of explicit sex. In both these areas Silverberg restores some long-abandoned words that that, unlike many books on the shelves today, Battell’s descriptions don’t seem coarse or clumsy or purely sensational, but almost poetic. And then there is the language – ‘fetish’ and ‘albino’ come from Spanish/Portuguese sources; and ‘Your accent is broad, though you have the words and the sense quite aptly. You speak our words in the flat English way, without music. Speak you more in the throat and in the nose… Put some savoury spice in them. I think it is your English food, that is so empty of taste, that causes you to speak your words in such a flavourless way.’

Battell was educated to be a clerk but followed his father and brothers to sea. He had read a lot, was familiar with Marlowe, the Book of Solomon, and Marcus Aurelius – all employed in their appropriate place – as well as two quotations familiar to sci-fi enthusiasts: ‘folly it is to bid time return’ (Matheson/Shakespeare); and ‘a stranger in a strange land (Heinlein/Moses). He befriended Portuguese and natives, man-eaters and a slave-girl, Matamba.

Slavery antedated the coming of the whites, but the Portuguese ‘refined it… into something most monstrous.’  This terrible trade in human beings was inaugurated by the Portuguese, but the Dutch, British, French and other European nations soon joined in, setting up trading factories along the African coast. Founded in 1576, Luanda became the principal centre for the export of slaves from Angola to Brazil. During the 400 years of trade – 1450-1870 – over ten million Africans were transported to the Americas. Here, as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Flash for Freedom and Roots, we see the cruelty and indignity inflicted during this forced demographic change.

The title of the book refers to Calandola, a Jaqqa whose influence on Battell is both hypnotic and demonic. He and his people are invested with a strange grandeur and a fascinating frightfulness. The Jaqqa creation myth, history and philosphy are held up against the religion and philosophy of the time: Battell found little to choose between them. At least the ferocious Jaqqa made no pretense at piety. Henceforth, Battell’s soul was captive.
There are court-intrigues, trials by ordeal, strange beasts, bizarre illnesses, bravery, anthropological detail, and politics and power-hunger. The sex scenes – and the gruesome horrors – are described with an ease and openness. Double standards are questioned: the rite of circumcision is touched upon, also for females – as Battell says, ‘the life of a woman is sufficiently hard as it is, without her having to give up that thing, too.’
Many characters deserve mention, not least the tragic, long-suffering slave, Matamba. But Battell’s great passion was the beguiling Dona Teresa; she altered his life. She was shameless, their relationship vying between love and hate: ‘a superfluity of passion that does turn to rage and foul sour juices when it is thwarted’ was how she explained one betrayal. Yet towering above all is the overpowering Calandola, who was anointed daily with the fat of human victims to give his large physique a terrible burnished gloss. He is a memorable creation: an evil Umslopogaas. Whilst with the Jaqqa, Battell observed that his world was bounded by cauldrons and drums and ollicondi trees; so too was mine as I vicariously shared his sojourn. Ultimately, ‘Calandona was real to me and England only a phantasm, now, and much of the time my mind lay in a hazy borderland between the real and the unreal.’

If you like history with flesh on it, unrestrained and vivid through eye-witness accounts, then this book is for you.

I wrote this review for the BSFA in 1984; the book has lingered since.

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