Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Coup, Chapter One: Updike's Playground

(reflections on The Coup by John Updike. New York: Fawcett Crest Paperback edition, 1979).

John Updike overlays so many strands of story, cultural commentary, and jokes in the first chapter of The Coup  (1978) that  I want to underline every paragraph.  So I’m reflecting on it right away. More may follow. 

For The Coup’s first chapter, we’re in the land of Kush,  a constitutional monarchy “with the constitution suspended and the monarch deposed” (17).  The first incident of the book occurs in 1973, “at the end of the wet season, which had been dry”(21).  Being an artificial political state imposed by European colonialists on a kingdom called Wajiji, Kush doesn’t even have a history.  Its borders bracketing clashing tribes with different languages and traditions, Kush is only “an idea” (21), but in that way, it is no more imaginary than most post-colonial African nations  in the 1970s.  Kush’s political system uneasily combines populist Islam and atheist Marxism.  Its economy is perpetual disaster, its Saharan north starving in drought and its south subsisting on peanuts.  (Doh! Another joke!)   The land is rich only in diseases (16).

Our guide to the nation is narrator Colonel Hakim Felix Ellelou, whose narrative voice is Updike’s playground.   Writing in exile or prison (we’re not told which, yet), Ellelou writes in decorous third person, except when the mask slips, which is often.   “There are two selves,” he explains, “the one who acts and the ‘I’ who experiences” (17).  He admits that the “historical performer bearing the name of Ellelou was no less mysterious to me than to the American press wherein he was never presented save snidely… in the same spirit the beer-crazed mob of American boobs cheers on… the crunched leg of the unhome team left tackle.”  Mixing “wherein” with “boobs” and “the unhome team,” Ellelou’s English is that of a foreigner who has absorbed some American slang into his outdated formal training – a formal trainwreck.

When dialogue begins, between President Ellelou and the old king whom he has imprisoned,  it is rich in polite hostility, rhetorical arabesques, and drole commentary on the World.    Here are the very first lines:

 “Splendor of Splendors,” Ellelou began, “thy unworthy servant greets thee.”

“A beggar salutes a rich man,” the king responded.  “Why have you honored me, Ellelou, and when will I be free?”

“When Allah the Compassionate deems thy people strong enough to endure the glory of thy reign.”  (23)

Because “all their languages were second languages,” the French and Arabic (and English) that replace their tribal tongues are “clumsy masks their thoughts must put on” (23). 

I read the book thirty years ago, and I retain vague memories.  In flashback, Updike will give us Ellelou as a foreign student in a small Midwestern college, attracted to a blonde coed who’ll end up as one of his four wives.  Near the end, there’ll be a scene of a hapless, well-intentioned American official atop crates of breakfast cereal when Ellelou sets the whole supply on fire.  The wives and the fire are both mentioned in this first chapter. 

A year after The Coup was published was celebrated by Van Morrison in his song “Dead or Alive” as 1979, “the rule of the tyrants’ decline…/ From Uganda to Nicaragua, / it’s bombs and bullets all the time.”    Updike was paying closer attention than I and my pals at Duke to the rise of Islam as a strong political force that was about to burst into American headlines. 

There’s a lot to look forward to.

 Blog Note: I’ve read all of Updike’s novels, stories, and poems.  I’ve written about him many times on this blog.  Use the search bar at the top of this page especially for observations about his last books of poems and stories, his hits COUPLES and WITCHES OF EASTWICK (with sequel WIDOWS…), and his problematic novels TERRORIST and SEEK MY FACE.

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