Excerpted from Mortals by Norman Rush. Copyright © 2003 by Norman Rush. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Norman Rush
Author of MORTALS
Q. Mortals is your third work of fiction set in Botswana. How is Botswana different from other African countries?
A. Botswana is a unique African country. It achieved independence in 1967 through a process of negotiation, not violence, and its first president was married to a white English woman. Each of these factors played a part in the development of Botswana as a peaceful democratically-inclined, pragmatic, western-oriented new country. Botswana has remained democratic throughout all the turbulence in the countries surrounding it—Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa—as they attained black majority rule. The country has a small population that is largely occupied in cattle raising and very low-productivity rain-fed agriculture. The terrain is very unforgiving. It’s flat, mostly scrub savannah, with a vast swamp in the northeast quarter of the country that constitutes the largest unfenced wild game area in the world. It’s a poor country, and the problem of inequality between the traditional agricultural sector and the modernized, urbanized sector, is huge. In the 80’s and early 90’s, Botswana was the most promising country in Africa from the standpoint of foreign aid agencies. Since the scourge of AIDS has struck, it is now probably the most damaged and threatened.
Q. What was Botswana like in 1991, the time frame for MORTALS, and how has it changed in the past 11 years?
A. In ’91, Botswana was one of the only African countries that always appeared on the world list of certified democratic states. It had successfully exploited its diamond resources for the benefit of the people. The country was distracted by the liberation struggle in South Africa that culminated in those years. Botswana was a frontline state, as those states that gave material support and sanctuary to the liberation forces were called. The prospects in 1991 were hopeful, but as I’ve said, the magnitude of the AIDS pandemic and its consequences had not yet been grasped.
Also in the years succeeding 1991, Botswana’s economy has been hurt by declining commodity prices. And migration from the countryside into the towns has contributed to social problems like petty crime, and pressure on resources—like firewood and water—and services.
Q. What were you doing in Botswana?
A. My wife, Elsa, and I were the first Co-Directors of a Peace Corps program. In Botswana we were in charge of a program that supported about a hundred volunteers in assignments ranging from teaching to water borehole maintenance to TB control to wildlife management. We were stationed in the capital, Gaborone (pronounced Hab or oh nee), and traveled extensively in the country and the region.
Q. MORTALS is both a tale of everyday espionage and an all-consuming romance. It is also a snapshot of the ideological and political changes that have swept the world since the fall of communism. Why was Botswana, at that moment, 1991-2, the right setting for the story you’ve told?
A. The collapse of world communism came as a deep shock to the nationalist movements in southern Africa. The socialist countries had been sponsors and supporters of the liberation movements, and there was a deep affinity within those movements with socialist ideology. Black majority rule was being achieved in all of the countries of southern Africa simultaneously with the self-destruction of socialism as a live system in eastern Europe. Majority rule was nevertheless very close to becoming a reality. In the novel, this historical moment—the socialist debacle—has consequences for the central characters in the book, Iris and Ray Finch, since Ray’s career has been founded on the struggle against communism… and for the heroic Kerekang the Fire-Thrower and his movement.
Q. Please say a little about these characters, all of whom are American: Ray Finch; his wife, Iris; and her doctor, Davis Morel. What has brought them to Botswana?
A. Ray Finch is a contract agent for the CIA operating under cover as an English teacher in an elite Botswana secondary school. His motives for accepting assignment in Botswana are complex—some are personal, some are political. As the book evolves, we see that the personal motives have been the stronger.
Iris, Ray’s wife, is in a state of increasing doubt about her compliance with Ray’s choice, especially as she sees the world political context that ostensibly justified it changing before her eyes. This disaffection prompts her toward (or rationalizes) a traumatic infidelity.
Davis Morel, Iris’s doctor and then lover, is an African-American come to southern Africa on a personal mission to campaign against what he considers to be the essential pillar of enduring semi-colonialism in Africa—the Christian religion.
Q. Your characters pay allegiance to many literary figures. Ray’s CIA cover is as an English teacher, and he is also a Milton scholar; Kerekang, an African with populist ideals, admires Tennyson; Iris is a sophisticated reader of serious fiction; and Ray’s brother, Rex, echoes Oscar Wilde. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
A. A question that has preoccupied me might be phrased as What is Literature for? That question gets addressed in various imagined situations in this book. As to my own influences, since I write political novels, I look back to the great exemplars, in particular to Conrad's Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. They penetrated my soul. So did Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. I admire the work of Chinua Achebe. Henry James's Princess Casamassima was revelatory for me. I was, unfortunately, I have come to see, for a long time under the esthetic spell of James Joyce. You can see that I have selected my models from the firmament of literary art, and thus must die unhappy. I do think my books are funnier than those I've mentioned, though, and that's a consolation.
Q. Will we see any characters from WHITES or MATING in this novel?
A. Yes, we meet again the narrator of MATING, the formerly anonymous Karen Ann Hoyt Denoon. We see what has become of her, and of her husband, Nelson Denoon. The main character from one of the stories in Whites, Paul Ojang, appears. During Ray’s worst ordeal, he encounters an African woman named Dirang. Some will remember Dirang as the animating spirit of the cooperative community of Tsau, in MATING.
Q. It’s interesting that the character in MORTALS that contributes the voice of dissent toward America is the only one actually living in America. Rex, a gay man dying of AIDS. In fact, he is the only main character to have AIDS in a novel set in Africa, in which a large percentage of the population is HIV positive. Why did you deal with this issue in the manner you did?
A. Rex is a cynic, and is more a satirist than a dissenter. AIDS becomes real for Ray Finch through the cruel fate of his brother. In Botswana, during the period the novel covers, AIDS was gathering force, but the authorities were distracted by the great political drama reaching its climax next door in the Republic of South Africa. Denial and evasion were the initial responses to the AIDS crisis. My character Doctor Morel is in distress at this situation, and is lobbying the Ministry of Health for a change of direction. By the mid-nineties of course, AIDS had become the overwhelming social threat that it is today. Sero-positivity stands at about 34% of the adult population, life expectancy is plunging, children are being orphaned at a horrifying rate.
Q. What is your take on the much-discussed anti-Americanism in the world today? In Africa?
A. During our five years in Africa, what anti-Americanism we encountered derived primarily from perceptions of America’s long cohabitation with apartheid South Africa. Even so, anti-American feeling was ambivalent, strongly mixed with admiration for American technology and prosperity. The contemporary phenomenon of Islamist anti-Americanism had not yet declared itself.
Q. Your first novel, MATING, won the National Book Award in 1991. Did that affect your writing of this second novel?
A. Winning the NBA had some contradictory effects. As Andrew Wylie, my agent, said to my wife seconds after the announcement was made, “This changes everything.” That was true. Many doors opened to me. It brought a sort of calm into my heart. My first book, WHITES, had been a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. But the NBA also stoked certain perfectionistic tendencies I suffer from, and fed a compulsion to do as well or better than I had done with MATING. There was a cost. I took ten years to complete Mortals to my satisfaction, which was too long.
1. The opening chapter, which follows Ray as he approaches his home in Gaborone and describes his feelings about his marriage, is called “Paradise.” In what ways is Ray’s marriage figured as paradise? If you have read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, how is it reflected in Mortals? Which characters in the novel could be seen as representing Satan? [See also chapter 16, “Milton, We Are Surrounded,” and pages 526-33.]
2. The episode of Rex’s attempt to record the “crimes” of the Finch family is narrated in great detail [pp. 32–39]. What does Ray’s role in this episode, and his reaction to it, suggest about the effects of his family situation upon his character? Why might Ray’s father have been so obsessed with finding the document? How does the story connect to the novel’s theme of surveillance?
3. What is appealing—or unappealing—about Iris as a character? To what degree does the fact that we see her only through Ray’s perspective make her difficult to assess? Is Ray a reliable narrator of the story of his marriage? If this book were written from the perspective of Iris (as Mating was written from the perspective of a woman), how might it be different?
4. What does Iris’s interest in Morel do to Ray’s sense of self? What is her motivation for getting involved with Morel? Does it seem that Iris is interested in leaving her marriage, or is she desperately in need of a change, of something more to occupy herself? Does it seem likely that the affair with Morel will develop into something more permanent?
5. If you have read Mating, how does Mortals take up the themes prevalent in that novel? How does the marriage in Mortals compare to the relationship of the female narrator of Mating, (whose name, we learn, is Karen) and Nelson Denoon? How does the story of what became of their matriarchal community reflect upon the viability of utopian schemes? How do the Denoons compare, as visionaries, with Samuel Kerekang?
6. The novel is written entirely in the first person narrative style, which gives the reader the illusion of complete access to Ray’s mind. What is the effect of this choice on the experience of reading and on the reader’s feelings about Ray?
7. Ray sees himself, in his work for the CIA, as “a provider of truths that others would make use of, for good or ill, the morality of what they did with them being their problem and not his” [p. 50]. Why does Ray love this work, and why is it important to him to remain in Africa “in the borderlands of the struggle” [p. 50]? Why does Ray try so hard to shield himself from moral culpability in his work and from the less successful outcomes of American interference in the affairs of foreign nations [see also p. 74]?
8. Ray realizes that “his great enemy, some great personal enemy, was missing. . . . The Russians and their creatures had been a blank system to him” [p. 50]. Is Morel the “great antagonist” he seeks? If so, why? If the second half of the novel can be seen as a prolonged contest between Ray and Morel, is there a clear winner?
9. Discuss Ray’s meditation on Iris’s unhappiness, his mother’s unhappiness, and the unhappiness of women in general [pp. 59–60]. Is Ray’s idea about the cause of women’s discontent correct? He realizes that “the only kind of societies the human race had ever been able to build were ones in which half the population was being very accommodating to the other half.” Is he right in thinking that if women stop being the accommodating half, “it was going to be a world full of divorces”?
10. Like Iris, Ray is going through a crisis of his own—as his meeting with Boyle makes clear. Ray finds that the words “Nobody knows who I am” have “a soothing effect” on him [p. 73]. In his work for the agency, he muses, “He produced art. He was a writer. . . . And his Lives existed materially and would be kept and someday might even be found, when the true history of the world was written, but that wasn’t important” [p. 75]. Why is Ray so ambivalent about his own status as a creative intellectual? How, at the end of the novel, has this situation changed?
11. Why does Rush bring Iris’s sister, and to a greater extent, Ray’s brother Rex, into the story? Why is it important that Rex is a writer and a homosexual? What is the connection between Rex’s writing and Ray’s own sense of himself as a writer and intellectual? What kind of a voice do Rex’s letters and his Strange News bring to the novel? What happens to change Ray’s feelings about his brother?
12. What is most interesting about the way Ray and Iris interact? Is there a vital connection between the games of language and sex that they play? To what extent is their marriage a model of companionship and mutual support, and to what extent is it claustrophobic? What aspects of Ray’s life, past and present, have contributed to his obsessive focus on Iris? What are Rush’s particular skills as an observer of human intimacy?
13. What does Kerekang’s eulogy for Alice Wemberg suggest about the gifts of whites to Africa? What is it about Kerekang that makes him a “person of interest” to the CIA? Is Davis Morel more radical in his intentions than Kerekang? Why is the CIA not interested in him?
14. Rush has created Kerekang and Morel as two foils to Ray—two men whom Iris admires and who are passionate believers in bringing about social change. What do they make Ray realize about himself and about what Iris wants? How does he come to feel about Morel when they are imprisoned together? How does he arrive at the decision to throw his lot in with Kerekang and Mandela’s new South Africa?
15. Why does Ray destroy his passport? What is most moving about the relationship between Ray and Keletso?
16. Ray’s imprisonment and escape contain some of the book’s most amusing moments. Why is his situation so laced with comedy? Why does he choose to be naked when he makes his stand against Quartus and his thugs? What is the significance of his having strapped Strange News to his chest?
17. Ray’s idea of a worthy goal in life is, quite simply, to love his wife: “It came to him then that probably one of the best things, or at least one of the simplest good things, you could do with your mortal life would be to pick out one absolutely first-rate deserving person and do everything you could conceive of in the world to make her happy” [p. 77]. Considering the difficulties of more socially progressive characters in the book, like the Wembergs, Kerekang, and the Denoons, does Ray’s romantic philosophy seem a surer road to contentment? How does this line of thinking underscore the desperation of Ray’s situation?
18. Messy postcolonial politics, far-flung tribal groups, an inhospitable climate, the tenuous yet privileged position of the expatriate community—many aspects of life in southern Africa are represented here. Which scenes are most effective in giving the reader a sense of the complex reality of Botswana?
19. Talking with Morel, Ray mentions that “The working vocabulary of Americans is half what it was in 1950. That’s horrifying” [p. 548]. Earlier, he thinks of Kerekang as “a victim of poetry” [p. 373]. Language and literature—particularly poetry—are essential to the identity of most of the main characters in Mortals. What is the effect of reading a book so saturated with the consciousness of words and their various implications?
20. Why might Rush have chosen “Mortals” for his title? Both here and on the cover of his previous novel Mating, Rush has chosen to use details from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch [see page 555]. Why this painting?