I DON’T KNOW PRECISELY what a novella is I think it’s more or less a short story with a longer story to tell but Peter Chilson’s opening salvo in his collection Disturbance-Loving Species, the novella “Tea With Soldiers,” is a story I’m convinced could not have been told in fewer words. And it’s the words that drive his excursion into the worlds so well plumbed by the likes of Greene, Shacochis, Mueller, Brazaitis, Hemingway the machinations, the expatriate pathos, the futility of trying to fit an Africa into a Western world view.
David Carter is a teacher in the Lycée Centrale in Niger in the early ’90s, a time when the military-backed government is warring with rebels. The Tuareg group is being systematically rounded up by soldier-tyros, just boys many of them, and the rest of the population is in a relentless and miserable state of flux. Soldiers and other officials harass people for identification at every corner, markets are razed, schoolchildren are murdered in their classrooms, and, most harrowing for Carter, people simply disappear. In particular, his colleague and friend Salif Moustapha, a philosopher-savant who regularly extols Carter over elaborate tea rituals to get out into the countryside, disappears periodically throughout the story, which takes place over the last several months of Carter’s two-year stint. Salif, taken by soldiers for infractions the young volunteer does not understand nor receive explanations for, is somehow resigned to his fate but stoically determined to keep his family and friends out of it. The tale, however is Carter’s, propelled by, as he comes to understand, his inability to comprehend the events unfolding around him. He worries over Salif and slowly becomes unhinged he asks too many questions, he’s impertinent, he baits soldiers, he drinks dangerously. At one point, alone in his room after an evening of drinking, he binds his wrists and forces himself to sit in a chair throughout the night, as he imagines Salif during an interrogation. It’s a bit of theater for Carter (and for Chilson), and while it brings him no closer to understanding what has happened to his friend, it somehow assuages his guilt, at least momentarily, over being white and free and unable to help. “This little event,” Chilson writes, “this little attempt at empathy, was like a memorial service.”
Chilson has a terrific ear for dialogue, managing to juggle the confluence of French, English, West African English, West African French, and a handful of the local languages that daub the quilt of West Africa. In the story “Disturbance-Loving Species,” an American botanist travels to Niger to deal with his sister’s death. He remembers a prior visit, when he and Kate, who was a volunteer, were stuck in a desert storm and a large bird crashed through their Land Rover’s windshield. Sitting in the sandstorm outside the vehicle, picking shards of glass from their faces, Kate shouts lines from “The Settler,” a favorite poem by Kipling, as a sort of ode to the bird.
“Kipling!” she shouted at me.
I stood up. “Kipling?” I shouted back at her. “He was a racist. What does Kipling have to do with it?”
She looked at me. “Maybe,” she shouted, “but I like that poem. It smells of regret.”
The wonderful and humorous “American Food” sees a Malian college professor in Oregon - another stranger in a strange land missing his home, fretting over the Americanization of his children, worried that his roots are rotting under the soil of his expatriation. But and here’s the universal what does anyone, anywhere, dwell on when they’re missing home? Mom’s cooking. So we open with a sheriff’s officer visiting Professor Traore as the lanky African boils up a goat head in his back yard, an act that has his neighbors believing the cult he’s apparently in will next direct him to invite them to a backyard barbecue for which they’re the main course. It’s a terrific story, using food as the vehicle for the inevitable cultural confusion what’s not to like?
The collection, which won the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 2006 Bakeless Prize for fiction, concentrates geographically on West Africa, a region rich in cultural and historical striations. Chilson renders an authentic depiction of the universe of the expatriated and misplaced, the world of near-familiarities smudged by misunderstanding, the Western sensibility upended by Africa in its misery and splendor. While it would be tempting to say that these stories are most likely to receive a nod and a wink from those who have lived overseas, in Africa in particular, that would be a disservice to the universal themes that emerge through Chilson’s superb writing. He’s made that world his own and ours, and we’re the better for it as wonderers, and wanderers.