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The Coup:  A Novel

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The Coup: A Novel

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Author: John Updike
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

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Book Type: Novel
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A novel that charts the violent events in an imaginary African nation, as told by the colonel and leader of the country...

"A leader," writes Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû, "is one who, out of madness or goodness, takes upon himself the woe of a people. There are few men so foolish." Colonel Ellelloû has four wives, a silver Mercedes, and a fanatic aversion--cultural, ideological, and personal--to the United States. But the U.S. keeps creeping into the nation of Kush, and the repercussions of this incursion constitute the events of the novel. Colonel Ellelloû tells his own story--always elegantly, and often in the third person--from an undisclosed location in the South of France.



MY COUNTRY OF KUSH, landlocked between the mongrelized, neo-capitalist puppet states of Zanj and Sahel, is small for Africa, though larger than any two nations of Europe. Its northern half is Saharan; in the south, forming the one boundary not drawn by a Frenchman's ruler, a single river flows, the Grionde, making possible a meagre settled agriculture. Peanuts constitute the principal export crop: the doughty legumes are shelled by the ton and crushed by village women in immemorial mortars or else by antiquated presses manufactured in Lyons; then the barrelled oil is caravanned by camelback and treacherous truck to Dakar, where it is shipped to Marseilles to become the basis of heavily perfumed and erotically contoured soaps designed not for my naturally fragrant and affectionate countrymen but for the antiseptic lavatories of America--America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut. Our peanut oil travels westward the same distance as eastward our ancestors plodded, their neck-shackles chafing down to the jugular, in the care of Arab traders, to find from the flesh-markets of Zanzibar eventual lodging in the harems and palace guards of Persia and Chinese Turkestan. Thus Kush spreads its transparent wings across the world. The ocean of desert between the northern border and the Mediterranean littoral once knew a trickling traffic in salt for gold, weight for weight; now this void is disturbed only by Swedish playboys fleeing cold boredom in Volvos that soon forfeit their seven coats of paint to the rasp of sand and the roar of their engines to the omnivorous howl of the harmattan. They are skeletons before their batteries die. Would that Allah had so disposed of all infidel intruders!

To the south, beyond the Grionde, there is forest, nakedness, animals, fever, chaos. It bears no looking into. Whenever a Kushite ventures into this region, he is stricken with mal à l'estomac.

Kush is a land of delicate, delectable emptiness, named for a vanished kingdom, the progeny of Kush, son of Ham, grandson of Noah. Their royalty, ousted from the upper Nile in the fourth century by the Christian hordes of Axum, retreated from Meroë, fabled home of iron, into the wastes of Kordofan and Darfur, and farther westward still, pursued by dust devils along the parched savanna, erecting red cities soon indistinguishable from the rocks, until their empty shattered name, a shard of grandeur, was salvaged by our revolutionary council in 1968 and, replacing the hated designation of Noire, was bestowed upon this hollow starving nation as many miles as years removed from the original Kush, itself an echo: Africa held up a black mirror to Pharaonic Egypt, and the image was Kush.

The capital is Istiqlal, renamed in 1960, upon independence, and on prior maps called Cailliéville, in honor of the trans-Saharan traveller of 1828, who daubed his face brown, learned pidgin Arabic, and achieved European celebrity by smuggling himself into a caravan from Timbuctoo to Fez and doing what hundreds of unsung Berbers had been doing for centuries, maligning them as brutes even while he basked in the loud afterglow of their gullible hospitality. Previous to French organization of the territory of Noire in 1905 (checking a British thrust arising in the Sudan), the area on both sides of the river had been known, vaguely, as Wanjiji. An Arab trading town, Al-Abid, much shrunken from its former glory, huddles behind the vast white-and-green Palais de l'Administration des Noirs, modelled on the Louvre and now used in its various wings as offices for the present government, a People's Museum of Imperialist Atrocities, a girls' high school dedicated to the extirpation of the influences of Christian mission education, and a prison for the politically aberrant.

In area Kush measures 126,912,180 hectares. The population density comes to .03 per hectare. In the vast north it is virtually immeasurable. The distant glimpsed figure blends with the land as the blue hawk blends with the sky. There are twenty-two miles of railroad and one hundred seven of paved highway. Our national airline, Air Kush, consists of two Boeing 727s, stunning as they glitter above the also glittering tin shacks by the airfield. In addition to peanuts are grown millet, sorghum, cotton, yams, dates, tobacco, and indigo. The acacia trees yield some marketable gum arabic. The natives extract ingenious benefits from the baobab tree, weaving mats from its fibrous heart, ropes from its inner bark, brewing porridge and glue and a diaphoretic for dysentery from the pulp of its fruit, turning the elongated shells into water scoops, sucking the acidic and refreshing seeds, and even boiling the leaves, in desperate times, into a kind of spinach. When are times not desperate? Goats eat the little baobab trees, so there are only old giants. The herds of livestock maintained by the tribes of pastoral nomads have been dreadfully depleted by the drought. The last elephant north of the Grionde gave up its life and its ivory in 1959, with a bellow that still reverberates. "The toubabs took the big ears with them," is the popular saying. Both Sahel and Zanj possess quantities of bauxite, manganese, and other exploitable minerals, but aside from a streak of sulphur high in the Bulub Mountains the only known mineral deposit in Kush is the laterite that renders great tracts of earth unarable. (I am copying these facts from an old Statesman's Year-Book, freely, here where I sit in sight of the sea, so some of them may be obsolete.) In the north there were once cities of salt populated by slaves, who bred and worshipped and died amid the incessant cruel glisten; these mining settlements, supervised by the blue-clad Tuareg, are mere memories now. But even memory thins in this land, which suggests, on the map, an angular skull whose cranium is the empty desert. Along the lower irregular line of the jaw, carved by the wandering brown river, there was a king, the Lord of Wanjiji, whose physical body was a facet of God so radiant that a curtain of gold flakes protected the eyes of those entertained in audience from his glory; and this king, restored to the throne as a constitutional monarch in the wake of the loi-cadre of 1956 and compelled to abdicate after the revolution of 1968, has been all but forgotten. Conquerors and governments pass before the people as dim rumors, as entertainment in a hospital ward. Truly, mercy is interwoven with misery in the world wherever we glance.

Among the natural resources of Kush perhaps should be listed our diseases--an ample treasury which includes, besides famine and its edema and kwashiorkor, malaria, typhus, yellow fever, sleeping sickness, leprosy, bilharziasis, onchocerciasis, measles, and yaws. As these are combatted by the genius of science, human life itself becomes a disease of the overworked, eroded earth. The average life expectancy in Kush is thirty-seven years, the per capital gross national product $79, the literacy rate 6%. The official currency is the lu. The flag is a plain green field. The form of government is a constitutional monarchy with the constitution suspended and the monarch deposed. An eleven-man Suprême Counseil Révolutionnaire et Militaire pour l'Émergence serves as the executive arm of the government and also functions as its legislature. The pure and final socialism envisioned by Marx, the theocratic populism of Islam's periodic reform movements: these transcendent models guide the council in all decisions. SCRME's chairman, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of National Defense, and President of Kush was (is, the Statesman's Year-Book has it) Colonel Hakim Félix Ellelloû--that is to say, myself.

Yet a soldier's disciplined self-effacement, my Cartesian schooling, and the African's traditional abjuration of ego all constrain this account to keep to the third person. There are two selves: the one who acts, and the "I" who experiences. This latter is passive even in a whirlwind of the former's making, passive and guiltless and astonished. The historical performer bearing the name of Ellelloû was no less mysterious to me than to the American press wherein he was never presented save snidely and wherein his fall was celebrated with a veritable minstrelsy of anti-Negro, anti-Arab cartoons; in the same spirit the beer-crazed mob of American boobs cheers on any autumnal Saturday or Sunday the crunched leg of the unhome-team left tackle as he is stretchered off the field. Ellelloû's body and career carried me here, there, and I never knew why, but submitted.

We know this much of him: he was short, prim, and black. He was produced, in 1933, of the rape of a Salu woman by a Nubian raider. The Salu are a sedentary tribe in the peanut highlands of the west. His mother, a large, oppressively vital woman of the clan Amazeg, became the wife by inheritance of her husband's sister's husband, her own husband having been slaughtered the same night of her rape. The peanut lands are brown, the whispering feathery brown of the uprooted bushes as they dry, precious pods inward, in stacks two meters high, and Ellelloû from the first, perhaps taking his clue from these strange fruits that can mature only underground, showed a wish to merge with his surroundings. In the public eye he always wore brown, the tan of his military uniform, unadorned, as monotonous and uninsistent as the tan of the land itself, the savanna merging into desert. Even the rivers in Kush are brown, but for the blue moment when the torrents of a rainstorm boil murderously down a wadi; and the sudden verdure of the rainy season soon dons a cloak of dust. In conformity with the prejudices of the Prophet, Ellelloû resisted being photographed. Such tattered images, in sepia tints, as gathered fly specks in the shop windows and civic corridors of Istiqlal were hieratic and inexpressive. His one affectation of costume was the assumption, on some state occasions, of those particularly excluding and protective sunglasses whose odd trade name is NoIR. It was said that his anonymity was a weapon, for armed with it he would venture out among the populace as a spy and beggar, in the manner of the fabled Caliph Haroun ar-Raschid. Colonel Ellelloû was a devout Muslim. He had four wives, and left them all (it was said) unsatisfied, so consuming was his love for the arid land of Kush.

Copyright © 1978 by John Updike


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