The Books We Carried

In the fall of 1962, the Peace Corps Volunteers arriving in Ethiopia were reading, or had packed into our carry-on luggage, Catch 22 by Joe Heller; The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone; Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger; Exodus by Leon Uris. And, of course, The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.

There were, I’m sure, a few other books being read on that long overnight flight on TWA out of the old Idlewild  Airport in New York to Rome and Athens, and then in the fleet of Ethiopian DC-6Bs into Africa. There were nearly 300 of us crossing Egypt and Sudan to arrive in Addis Ababa at dawn at the end of the “big rains” when the Ethiopian highlands are blanketed with bright yellow Maskel flowers. We stepped from the plane and smelled for the first time the burning of a hundred thousand eucalyptus fires — the smell of Africa distilled at eight thousand feet. We arrived with high hopes and much apprehension, and our luggage packed with books.

Most of you have similar memories, I’m sure, and I asked the novelist extraordinaire, Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 1975–77), to recall  the books he, and his group, took to West Africa in 1975, and to tell us how they carried him, and the other PCVs, through two years in the country then known as Upper Volta.

For those who don’t know Monninger, he has published eleven novels and three non-fiction books. His work has appeared in American Heritage, Scientific American, Readers Digest, Glamour, Playboy, Story, Fiction, The Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and Ellery Queen, among other publications. Twice he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

His young adult novel, babyBaby, received the 2008 Award for Best Children’s Literature from Peace Corps Writers. It was also chosen as a top-ten book by Young Adult Library Services Association. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books awarded hippy-chickHippie Chick, a young adult novel, a blue ribbon for being a top book of 2008.

Joe went to college on a football scholarship, served in the Peace Corps, and is now a licensed New Hampshire Fishing Guide. He has fly-fished from New Zealand to Wyoming’s Wind River Range. He lives with his wife, Wendy, and his son, Justin, in a converted barn near New Hampshire’s Baker River. For several years his family also competed in the New England Sled Dog sprint races and ran a small sled dog business in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. He does all that, and writes. His next novel, Wish, will  come out in November 2010.

In an e-mail I asked Joe what books he carried to Africa,  and this is what he had to say:

The first book I recall from those days is magusThe Magus by John Fowles. As trainees — stagiaires — we passed the book around, its appeal obvious as soon as you opened the cover: a young man accepts a teaching position and makes his way to Greece; finds mystery, finds himself, questions reality. As young people away from home for the first time, we devoured the book, saw ourselves in every page. Mark G., I remember, sat with me at a cafeteria table and talked about the book. George and Don, too. In between bouts of dysentery — the host staff had not covered the latrines properly and flies carried germs back and forth from the latrine to the dining hall and we had all become sick in our first, squatting toilets — we talked about how ingenious the magus was, how unpredictable Fowle’s plotting. And at night, on tick mattresses looped by pink mosquito nets, we read in the deep heat, our restless bodies waiting for our own postings en brousse. We read by flashlight held in our mouths, long before the simple application of headlamps, the metal stalk tasting like stones on our tongues. Then during the day we walked into the Ouagadougou markets and saw the dead things hanging from wooden braces, goats, pigs, chickens, and the silent vultures, bead-headed, watching everything from the posts of the hangars. This was 1975, I guess, in Upper Volta, West Africa.

Books as contraband, as treasure. Books as a means to stave off loneliness, sadness, stomach rot and exploding bowels. Books as hand-movies. Entire tables of people sitting, reading, smoking cigarettes. The sound of pages turning. Between couples sometimes a hand touching another hand, or a foot rested on a partner’s knee, but the book central and occupying laps, its primacy undisputed.

Love Story. The Pickwick Papers. Mill on the Floss. The best books a trout of pages, thick, multi-charactered, laboring plots. Good to go back in time. Good to live in the 19th Century. Michener’s books passed around. chesapeakeChesapeake, The Source. Leon Uris, too: Trinity, QB VII, Exodus. When the staff finally drove me in a white truck to Tenado, my posting, I carried a mattress, two chairs, a table, cookware, and as many books as I could find. I read at night, outside, a kerosene lamp poised on a table beside me, the table made of stick wood and goat gut. Now and then, drawn to the lantern light, a cheval de scorpion ran over my feet. Cheval de scorpions, scorpion horses, were large wolf spiders, large as a man’s hand, that trotted over my sandaled feet. They made circles, hunting in the light, non-venomous, pursuit hunters. In a certain season, blister beetles also arrived, flapping by the light, landing on our skin where we might raise a hand and mush it, only to find it had burned us with acid, left a scar.

zen-and-the-artZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Persig. The lesson: sit down and study an engine. An engine is not an eternal mystery, it is fathomable, possible to diagnose. I read it at night, then practiced his instruction on my Motobecane moped. Clean the gas filter, check the throttle cable. Check tire pressure, check the spark plug. Then pedal it until it started. But bigger lessons waited in the book. Father and son lessons. Freedom and duty. Questions. And the sense of the large, western landscape that we had voluntarily left behind, had traded for the African Sahel. Persig driving, feeling free and open. His experience more familiar and less brave somehow than our own. That thought. That way of thinking.

At our first Christmas a trip into Ouagadougou, the capital. After months of eating little but eggs and pasta and African bread — peanut sauce, maybe, and now and then a slice of pig or beef — we flocked to the L’Eau Vive where we ate French baked goods. Rich caramel rolls, cakes with sugared icing, baguettes, flaky crescent rolls, knuckles of butter. At an Embassy reception — hot dogs and hamburgers, ketchup, the works — I fainted in the Embassy litter box. My system stunned by the rich food. Woke to find my brow covered with cat litter. When I looked up, shelves of books, a thousand books waiting.

A college friend, Nicky from Temple University, sent me seth-speaksSeth Speaks by Jane Roberts. Strange cover. Curious book. It purports to be the teaching of a man who had died but is now channeled through Jane Roberts. He has lessons for us. It was first published in 1972. Under the dark African sky, I read Seth Speaks and felt that odd mixture we feel when we watch a magic show. True or hokum? Probably hokum, we tell ourselves, but that small nut in the center of our forehead hopes to find it true. Maybe true. I recall closing the book and putting it under other objects, as if it were a haunted volume and might suck my soul out. Anyway, it became a small cult book among the Volunteers. Have you read Seth yet? Has Seth come to visit? It was frightening to read it in our isolation, to feel already alone and vulnerable, then to have this possibility that a dead soul could enter us. But it was irresistible, too. Everywhere we turned, we heard stories of African witchcraft, possession, gris-gris. Why not Seth, too? On the cover a picture of Jane Roberts’s face twisted in open-mouthed rictus, the pain of permitting Seth to pass through her obvious and acute. A book to read at daybreak, but not late at night with the flies beating against the lantern light, moths spreading like small vampire capes on the mosquito net.

A dozen Irving Stone books, long, novelistic biographies of historical people. Sailor on Horseback (Jack London). The Agony and the Ecstasy, (Michelangelo). The Passions of the Mind (Sigmond Freud). Lust for Life, Van Gogh), The Origin, (Charles Darwin). The novels like stepping stones back to people you missed in school. Whether they were true or not, were romanticized or not, hardly mattered. Large, thick volumes that took up days, nights, put the mind elsewhere.

The Russians. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pasternak, Turgenev, Tolstoy. Let’s be honest. These were not novels one would lightly read under different circumstances. In day to day life in America, nearly impossible. Or at least it felt that way. But in West Africa, in the long white days of heat and time, we passed around the Russians and read them. No problem. Bigger is better. The thing is this: they were no different from Seth Speaks, or Michener. Truer, perhaps, but no different. Hand movies again. Books to occupy time. To pass time. war-and-peaceWar and Peace, Anna Karenina. Prince Andrei. Here’s a memory: sitting beneath a small hangar, mud benches, mid-day. We must have been on some sort of break, because a number of us had congregated together and we napped on the benches. Tremendous heat. In preparation for the night, a chef de village had ordered a goat killed. A roast, a feast, something larger than our everyday life. Half asleep, I heard the goat dragged to its death, its squeals and bleats pitiful as we listened to some quick talking, shouting, then silence. They had slit its throat. I sat up, stunned, groggy from the heat, and Steve, a Viet Nam vet, a Vol from Chicago with deep troubles of his own that would lead him to suicide when he returned, but a wonderful guy, funny, alive, green eyes, black Irish curly hair, looked directly at me and asked, Where’s the goat? In another life, in any other place, a doubtful reference. But he asked the question central to War and Peace, the question asked at the death bed scene involving Prince Andrei, when one character, presiding over the death of another, asks the same question: where did death take this character? Where is his soul? Where is he now, this thing we called a person? Where is the goat?

Steve’s eyes met mine. We smiled. Then we resumed our naps, turning and trying to find comfort on the dirty benches.

Tolstoy’s master-and-manMaster and Man. The tale of a rich landowner traveling through the Russian winter, trying to get a favorable deal on some land. A sled and a little horse. Snow everywhere, hoar frost, Russian samovars. A servant with lousy boots and a ripped greatcoat, but common sense. A love of horses. They keep getting lost, foundering in snow, impatient, stupid, finally fatal. Reading about snow in all that heat. Reading about fur caps and the smell of stables on a winter night, horses eating hay, a lantern light in the window, laundry hung out and frozen on the line.

We read John D. MacDonald. Still one of my favorites. Three decades later, I still read him. Travis McGee. Travis, who won his Florida houseboat in a poker game on a busted flush, is a salvage expert. He goes after lost treasure, helps the flim-flammed, the taken, the conned, the broken. If he regains monies, he keeps half. A soft heart, but cagey, long-limbed, deep tanned, boat bum. Fifty different stories, all of the titles possessing a color scheme. tan-and-sandy-silenceA Tan and Sandy Silence. The Deep Blue Goodbye. The Long Lavender Look. Girls with sandy bikini bottoms, the Florida Keys, slow trips of recovery and fishing for snook and tarpon, the girls always falling for Travis but Travis keeping his last distance, a noble knight, a self-confessed romantic, a solitary figure out of western cowboy lore. Condo life. Florida fakery. Steak houses and big cars and the Alligator Highway. An entire world to enter and live in when Africa became too much. MacDonald’s books high on the list for any Volunteer. Good value to trade for other books.

A few African novels. Not many. Not as many as we should have known. Chinua Achebe, things-fall-apartThings Fall Apart. Ousman Sembene, God’s Bits of Wood. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country. We also read The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, a strong, sad story, but a masterpiece about Morocco. out-of-africaOut of Africa by Isak Dinesen. Elenore Smith Bowen’s Return to Laughter. Westerners telling Africans what Africa means.

Somewhere at university I had stumbled on Whitman, so I read him as a secret voice. Leaves of Grass. His essays on democracy. A big, fat volume of Whitman that I must have brought from school. Catnip to a young man, to a person searching and looking and living alone in Africa. Will you come travel with me? I invite my soul to loaf. I begin now, hoping never to cease. Such crazed richness, ripeness, over-the-top sentimentality. But something true and American and broader than anything else. An invitation to the soul, to everything, to join the illimitable earth. Camden, New Jersey. Long Island. White sailed schooners, oyster shells, the river never ending, eternal, flowing from generations unknown.

Have you read? Did you get into….couldn’t? Wow, that book was important to me. Really? I like Islands in the Stream better than any of his others, with maybe the exception of The Sun Also Rises. Seriously? Come on. That was in Paris. Joyce wrote the Dubliners, yes, right then, same time, really, maybe a little earlier. No, not the same time as Islands in the Stream, but as the Sun Also Rises, yes, Italy, Joyce was in Italy.

Nothing pretentious about it. We read to save our lives. We read as we now might watch movies. Stories, plots, good yarns and bad. Masterful techniques. I brought with me a book given to me by my father. The Complete Shakespeare. I had read the usual: Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth. Years later, my first puppy, a Golden Retriever, ate the book, shredded its old leather covers. But in Africa I read into its onionskin pages, tried to make sense of character lists, motivations. Loved Othello. Hated the history plays. Found the comedies silly. But now and then a line would strike me, a phrasing, and I would put the book down and try to memorize the line, try to get it right, but seldom could. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Cather’s Song of the Lark. Time to read everything. Time to sit quietly, the BBC on a cheap radio nearby, orange Yuki soda at hand, cigarettes, lizards. I tried to read in French, but my French wasn’t good enough, was a street French, and after one or two attempts — Camus’s L’etranger, I suspect — I gave up. I was soaked in French all day, and the books, the English, were my escape. Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, Cannery Row. Saul Bellow, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, The Adventures of Augie March. The Natural, Malamud, Catch 22, Heller. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins. Time to give books a chance, time to read them to page 100, 200, just to see if they had anything for you. Time to read bad books, books that went nowhere, said nothing useful. No distractions, no urge to do something else. In fact, when people came to visit, rarely, it often felt an imposition, an interruption. The pages waited. The story waited, and the visitor was not part of the story, but part of a different, quieter story, one that was not as gripping, could not speak as clearly into your ear.

In the end, the books passed on to remaining Vols. Left in the Peace Corps office. Left in the small ad hoc library. For me, a long trip across the desert by truck to Bamako, Mali, then by train to Dakar. Up the coast to Mauritania, Morocco, Spain, then France. In Paris, I found the Shakespeare Bookstore and went there everyday, buying English books, happy to browse a thousand copies, read the spines, say hello to friends with whom I had spent time. I read A Moveable Feast sitting in the Jardin d’Luxemburg, and realized that the feast was not Paris for me, or even Africa, but rested in books, in pages turned slowly, in the taste of print lingering on my finger, washed by my tongue, then tasted again.


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  • I read Catch-22 during training, and The Agony and the Ecstasy sometime when I was in Ethiopia and it informed my first visits to Rome and Florence where I wanted to see all the stuff described in that book. Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Racing in the 70s, and it remains one of my all time favorite books. I love that blend of narrative and philosophy. Pirsig was less successful with his second book, but he has made a living off the first one. I loved that book locker and read more books during that time until I got onto audio books in the 90s, which I am still a huge fan of now. Latest one completed was The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is also a blend of story and philosophical observations and well done.

  • Thank you. I wonder if current “wired” volunteers will ever experience the depth of reading that we had in the olden times. The days were saturated and punctuated by books, and, as you said, the thicker the better. The state of panic when you were getting to the bottom of the stack of books in English that you still had (the stack between you and madness) comes to mind. Tina
    Zaire – ’73 to ’75

  • An earlier volunteer had left the book locker on the island and it was pretty much intact. Somehow I found a Vonnegut and a Tom Robbins and they became my favorite novelists. The year after Peace Corps I was still in country on a teaching contract and still on an outer island. I came down with hepatitis, was quarantined in my house, and in a two week period I read Moby Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Grass’ The Tin Drum. All were more depressing than my hepatitis.

  • Yes, John, we “of course” read THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET. But allow me to mention Lawrence Durrell’s brother Gerald who was also a prolific writer, best known for MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS. He wrote nonfiction, all his books based on his life as a naturalist, a global wanderer, and a drunk. Required reading for my group (Cameroon 65-67) during training was THE BAFUT BEAGLES, a riotous story of his work cataloguing animals in the stunning Bamenda hills. (Queen Elizabeth visited the Fon of Bafut shortly after her coronation. He gave her an elephan tusk, naturally.) The beagles of the story were six decrepit bush dogs who never left his side since he fed them.
    Finally, here is something from Anthony Burgess who described THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET thusly: “Anything can happen in Alexandria–pederasty, incest, all the convolutions of lust, all the varieties of betrayal. Enter a teashop, and someone will be screaming in terminal meningitis on the floor above, and the cashier will be suffering ravishment behind her cash desk, while outside a live camel will be slowly cut to pieces.”

  • Jacque Barzun, a professor at Colombia and truly a prolific scholar, wrote “The House of Intellect” which was in the book locker. At last reeport, he was still alive and writing at the age of ninety-nine!

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