Henderson the Rain King (1959)Read about another entry on the list.
The oddest and most audacious of Bellow’s novels, set in Africa, a continent he had yet to visit. The richly detailed customs Bellow devises for the novel’s fictional tribes, partly drawn from the anthropological texts he studied at university, are what make its Africa so magical and funny. They also connect to the novel’s main themes. Eugene Henderson, its noisy protagonist, “an absurd seeker of higher qualities”, is in despair, lacking or having neglected dimensions of life – mystical, bodily – he hopes to find in Africa.
What he’s missing derives as much from the theories of Wilhelm Reich as from Bellow’s anthropological studies, and Henderson’s attitudes to his African instructor, Dahfu, is like Bellow’s attitude to Reich. Dahfu, king of the Arnewi tribe, has wisdom but he’s cracked. Praise for the novel’s richness of invention has not always extended to the controversial speech of its African characters. Openly artificial, resembling no real African voice, theirs is the language of “blackface”, described by Bellow’s friend Ralph Ellison as “pseudo-Negro dialect”, “a ritual of exorcism”. This language Bellow drew on and adapted in tandem with the poet John Berryman, with whom he shared an office at the University of Minnesota. It is the language of Berryman’s “Mr Bones” in The Dream Songs.
Henderson the Rain King is among Ben Ryder Howe's top ten novels featuring mythical countries.