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Beloved – Andy would like to be witty about slavery but, you know, it’s slavery…

December 19, 2012

We’ve said something like it before, Netty and I both, but Toni Morrison is the quintessential Challenge writer. The author of a book or books we’ve been meaning to get around to but for whatever reason …  Beloved, obviously,  is the book of Morrison’s we should’ve been getting around to.

And now we have.

belovedAnd it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. I had this idea that Morrison would be a sublimely beautiful writer, and more often than not she is. Stupendously impressive? Yes. But not page after page, which perhaps unreasonably is what I expected. The supernatural elements of the novel didn’t wash with me entirely, although I consider myself to be the sort of psychopathically rational atheist who can on occasion suspend belief. Like, when I’m watching Lord of the Rings, maybe.

That said, I was pretty impressed.

I thought I knew a bit about slavery. And I did. But Morrison has given my understanding of slavery a depth I’m not entirely comfortable with. These days you can dismiss the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of murderous psycho scum. Or you could, if you didn’t understand that their vicious, murderous sadism has roots in the racism that found slavery acceptable. I may be drawing a long bow here (although probably not, I’m sure it’s been said before), but in the Greco-Roman world, slavery was a more strictly financial arrangement: So yes, you were a slave, but the human being that owned you understood that you were a human being too. It’s just that it was OK to own humans. The enslavement of Africans was different. Africans weren’t human. Or at least they weren’t as human as white people. There’s a particularly odious scene in Beloved in which children are encouraged to differentiate between the “human” and “animal” attributes of particular slaves.  I remember seeing a doco in the 80s about South Africa, in which a defender of apartheid grabbed a black woman’s hand and pointed to the colour of her palm and said something like, See? Just like a monkey. I was 12 or 13 or something.

I thought I knew a bit about slavery and racism. But the savagery in Beloved left me reeling. Only slightly, I should say, if it’s possible to reel only slightly. I’m pretty well aware of what human beings are prepared to do to each other in extreme and sometimes not so extreme circumstances. It’s just that, rather naively, I guess,  I hadn’t realised the sadism descended to quite such appalling depths in the American South of the mid-1800s. And while I have no doubt there have been those who have said Morrison doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I have absolutely no doubt at all. She knows exactly what she’s talking about.

Anyway, enough of that bollocks. What about the book?

I loved the way Morrison tells her story. Throughout the novel there are things happening at five or more different points in time, between the story’s earliest moments and its last (and these moments do not correspond exactly with the book’s beginning and its end). Things are told, and they are not entirely explicable, and then other things will be told that will explain some though not all of the previously inexplicable things but perhaps reveal other not entirely explicable things, which may or may not be explained at a later point. Beloved is definitely a novel to be reread – one reading gets you to the end understanding, essentially, what has happened, but not comprehending things completely. It’s not linear and it’s not compartmentalised, and perspective within scenes sometimes flicks from character to character – something I’m rather opposed to, both as a writer and a reader, although Morrison pulls it off.

Curiously, while it is obviously a novel that explores racism, I’m not sure it’s a novel that explores sexism. Most of what the female characters endure they endure because they’re black slaves, not because they’re women. Both male and female slaves are subjected to sexual violence, although what the female slaves endure is far more horrific (heterosexual males might disagree with me on this one). So perhaps not a novel about sexism, but without doubt a feminist novel – in that it depicts women, strong women, battling and surviving and triumphing, at least a little bit, against the odds. Those odds are skewed against them mostly because of their ethnicity rather than their gender. Netty is probably going to disagree with me on this, and given that I’m a self-absorbed sodomite male, she’s probably right.

There are a handful of chapters/sections towards the end of the novel that are particularly impressive, breaking with what Morrison has done earlier to present things in first person from the perspectives of Sethe, Denver and Beloved. Beloved’s is quite haunting because, while it presumably describes her time in the afterlife, it reads like a description of the slave ship passage from Africa to the Americas.

I’m also curious about the house number. 124. 2 is 1 plus 1, and 4 is 2 plus 2. I don’t do numerology, obviously, rational atheist and all. But perhaps Morrison does. One plus one equals two, and two plus two equals four. 124. I’m not sure how many times you’d have to do this ’til you get to 60 million…

Finally, and perhaps least interestingly, the question I guess everybody asks themselves about this book: Did Sethe do the right thing by murdering her daughter? If you’re worried, I’m not giving anything away.This is on the back cover of my copy. My answer is yes. She did the right thing. A lifetime of slavery versus a knife in the throat at eighteen months? Give me the knife.

That said, apparently, Beloved disagreed.

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