The Poisonwood Bible:Summary:BOOK 4:part 1
Book FOUR: BEL AND THE SERPENT
Orleanna Price, Sanderling Island, Georgia
Summary: Orleanna reflects on the ways in which she was unaware of the larger political and social forces impacting the Congo while she was preoccupied with her family and its troubles. She describes the way in which Patrice Lumumba was secretly targeted by the United States government, arrested and removed from power, and ultimately murdered. She also expresses regret about an as-yet unspecified tragedy that befell her family at around the same time, lamenting that destiny cannot be avoided.
Analysis: The title of the fourth book in Kingsolver’s novel, unlike the previous three, comes from an apocryphal or deuterocanonical book of the Bible, “Bel and the Serpent” (also known as Bel and the Dragon). The fact that Book Four takes its title from the Apocrypha reminds readers that Nathan is unique among most evangelical Protestants in his admiration for those non-canonical books of the Bible (his “peculiarly beloved Apocrypha. That is one pet project of the Reverend’s; getting other Baptists to swallow the Apocrypha,” p. 59).
In this apocryphal book, the Hebrew prophet and seer Daniel combats idolatry during the Babylonian Exile. “First he proves to the king of Babylon… that it is the priests and their families and not the god Bel who deceitfully consume the sacrifices brought to the idol. The king then allows Daniel to shatter the idol. Next Daniel overcomes a living dragon worshiped as a god by feeding it a cake made with pitch, fat, and hair that causes its stomach to burst. This time the Babylonians force the king to throw Daniel into a lion’s den, but he remains unharmed and after six days is brought food to sustain him by the prophet Habakkuk at the command of an angel of the Lord. When the king sees that Daniel has survived he releases him and hurls his accusers into the den. The theme running through the two stories is the sovereignty of Daniel's God” (New Encyclopedia of Judaism, ed. Geoffrey Wigoder, Jerusalem Publishing House). Even before beginning Book Four, then, readers can make some educated guesses about what thematic resonances this portion of Kingsolver’s novel will have with the apocryphal book. We know the Rev. Price sees himself as a prophet serving the one, true God, assigned a divinely appointed mission of saving the Kilangans from their supposed darkness of superstition and idolatry. We have also seen, however, that the Kilangans possess wisdom that the Rev. Price does not. Readers might expect, therefore, that Kingsolver’s novel is about to subvert the themes of the apocryphal book, possibly denying any claims of the sovereignty of Nathan’s God (just as Leah, for example, has recently come to find her beliefs about God undercut at the end of Book Three). We might also expect some crisis to confront Nathan and his family, as the crisis of the lion’s den confronted Daniel. Readers may well wonder whether Nathan’s God will deliver him as Daniel’s God delivered him.
In this chapter, Orleanna presents the machinations by which Prime Minister Lumumba was removed from power and assassinated through the extended metaphor of a chess game, “the kind of game that allows civilized men to play at make-believe murder” (p. 317). In this instance, of course, the murder will become all too real, and its perpetrators’ veneer of civilization will be forever stripped away for those who know (i.e., see) the truth. “Who will be the kings, the rooks, and bishops rising up to strike at a distance?” (p. 317). Lumumba must be the king (“the piece that will fall,” p. 318), the target of any chess match; the rooks and bishops—in chess, major and minor pieces, respectively, who nonetheless share the ability to move unimpeded along any empty diagonal (in the bishop’s case) or rank and file (in the rook’s), thus capable of doing damage some distance away from where they begin on the board—are those individuals whom Orleanna names in a fashion reminiscent of a litany. Barthelemy Mukenge led a pro-Lumumba faction at the time of Lumumba’s election. Pierre Mulele was Lumumba’s Minister of Education, later leader of a guerilla army in rebellion against Mobutu. Joseph Kasavubu (sometimes “Kasa-Vubu”) was the President of the Congo, with Lumumba as his Prime Minister (the position occupying the true power in the elected government). When Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba from office (September 5, 1960), Lumumba declared the action contrary to the Congo’s Constitution. The most prominent name in this chapter, however, other than Lumumba’s own, is Joseph Mubutu, a “rook who would be king” (p. 318). “Mobutu served in the Belgian Congolese army and as a journalist before joining Patrice Lumumba… When independence was achieved, the coalition government… put Mobutu in charge of defense. In a rift between Kasavubu and Lumumba, Mobutu helped Kasavubu seize control” (Brittanica Concise Encylcopedia). Ultimately, Mobutu would rule the Congo (renamed Zaire) as dictator until 1997 (coincidentally, the year before Kingsolver’s novel was published). The aptness of the chess metaphor especially emerges when Orleanna reflects that Lumumba’s downfall was that he was “disinclined to let White control the board, preferring the counsel and company of Black” (p. 318). The traditional colors of chess pieces here become references to the division of race, evoking the white West’s long and shameful history of refusing to cede self-determination to black Africa.
Orleanna devotes such attention to the political turmoil in and around the Congo because “it helps place [her] own regrettable acts on a broader field, where they seem smaller” (p. 319). Readers do not yet know to what specific actions Orleanna is referring, but we sense some impending doom. As Orleanna says, looking back, “On that awful day in January 1961 [January 17, the date on which Lumumba was executed in secret by firing squads, along with two of his government’s officials who were aiding his escape], Lumumba paid with a life and so did I. On the wings of an owl the fallen Congo came to haunt even our little family, we messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions” (p. 323). Mortality cannot be forever avoided, either by prime ministers or preachers and their families. As Orleanna says, “Oh, it’s a fine and useless enterprise, trying to fix destiny” (p. 324). Near the end of this chapter, she even parallels her meeting with Nathan at the revival worship service so long ago to the secret meeting she imagines at the beginning of the chapter between Belgian and American officials: “A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds. Who can say where it starts?” (p. 323). And yet might not readers be entitled to ask if Orleanna can fairly blame “destiny” alone on whatever calamity will befall the Price family? Patrice Lumumba’s murder was no blind working out of destiny or fate in a classical, literary sense; it was the calculated, orchestrated act of foreign powers seeking their own interests at any costs, aided and abetted by like-minded individuals from within (including, it seems, Axelroot, “a South African mercenary pilot who owned a radio” and alerted “the CIA station chief [that] Lumumba was free,” p. 322). This question, in turns, raises readers’ awareness that, unlike in her previous chapters, Orleanna does not, in this chapter, address the dead child (or whomever her unnamed audience was) to whom she has, to this point, been attempting to justify herself. What accounts for this shift in tone? On the other hand, while that question intrigues, it is not as important as recognizing the fundamental point of this chapter: that the Prices’ fate has become inextricably intertwined with that of the Congo. “Now I know,” says Orleanna, “whatever your burdens, to hold yourself apart from the lot of more powerful men is an illusion” (p. 323). Readers sense that she learns this lesson too late, and at a painful cost.
“What We Lost”
Kilanga, January 17, 1961
Summary: One Sunday in October 1960, while the Rev. Price is preaching on the book of Bel and the Serpent, Tata Ndu—who rarely attends worship—stands and calls for a clearly pre-arranged election to determine whether Jesus Christ will be the personal God of Kilanga village. When Nathan objects that such an election is absurd and blasphemous, Tata Ndu responds that Westerners have taught the Congo that elections are good. As a Westerner, Price cannot now claim that elections are not good. Tata Ndu resents the principle of majority rule, arguing that it is inferior to the traditional way of letting the older, experienced men of the community make decisions for the whole; but since “Jesus is a white man,” Tata Ndu believes he will understand. The villagers file to the altar to cast their stones into jars: one marked with a cross, the other with a bottle of palm wine. “Jesus Christ lost, eleven to fifty-six.”
Analysis: The election in which the villagers vote against Jesus—and, by extension, against the Rev. Price’s continued mission work—is an episode both amusing and profound. Nathan insists, “Matters of the spirit are not decided at the marketplace” (p. 332), but fails to see both his own reliance on “marketplace”-like indicators of his success (recall his earlier preoccupation with how many people came to his congregation) as well as the fact that such a compartmentalization of life at all flies in the face of the Kilangan worldview. When Tata Nguza remarks that “a white man who has never even killed a bushbuck for his family was not the expert on which god can protect [the] village,” Leah allows, “Where we come from, it’s hard to see the connection” (p. 332). In the developed, technological West, life can be easily segmented into matters physical and spiritual (just as the eating of food can be divorced from the growing of it; recall Leah’s conversation with Anatole near the end of Book Three, pp. 282-283). Not so in the Congo. As we have seen by now on several occasions, life is taken as an integral whole. (This outlook also explains why, unlike Nathan, Tata Ndu believes that church buildings are all together proper places to hold elections, p. 330). Readers get the sense that the election of gods seems on some level as absurd to Tata Ndu as it does to the Rev. Price; nevertheless, as Tata Ndu says, “that is the white man’s law” (p. 333). Tata Ndu and the villagers feel that Nathan will have no choice but to respect the outcome of an election (just as the West ostensibly—though, as we know from the cabal in which Axelroot is involved, not actually—respects the Congo’s election of Patrice Lumumba). Leah sums up the village’s attitude toward Nathan’s message: “Jesus may have sounded like a helpful sort of God in the beginning, but He was not bearing out” (p. 328). Drought and sickness continue. Therefore, since Jesus has been presented to the villagers by Price as a god for Westerners alone (Tata Ndu says “Jesus is a white man,” p. 334, because Nathan has stubbornly refused to make any but the most token of attempts to present his message in cultural forms the Kilangans can understand and might accept), they conclude that Jesus—and his “apostle” to them—can be dismissed by Western rules. Kingsolver has thus crafted a narrative episode in which, despite its serious overtones, readers cannot help but also be amused by the way in which Tata Ndu hoists Nathan, representative of all things Western, by his own petard: “Tata Price, white men have brought us many programs to improve our thinking. The program of Jesus and the program of elections. You say these things are good. You cannot say now they are not good” (p. 331). Clearly, Tata Ndu’s thinking has never stood in need of Western improvement! He understands that the Western world has long considered Africans “mwana, your children, who knew nothing until you came here” (p. 333)—but of course they have long known a great deal. Tata Ndu admirably defends the traditional practice of rule by village elders and by consensus, contrasting it with Western-style democracy: “Our way was to share a fire until it burned down, ayi? To speak to each other until every person was satisfied. Younger men listened to older men. Now the Beelezi tell us the vote of a young, careless man counts the same as the vote of an elder” (p. 333). No matter how strongly readers of Kingsolver’s novel may be committed to democracy, they cannot deny there is wisdom in the traditional approach as described by Tata Ndu. The Congo’s election represents one more way in which the West has squandered an opportunity, in its eagerness to exploit and profit from Africa, to learn from it instead.