Living in the Enemy’s Dream

Michael Wood

  • The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman
    Picador, 212 pp, £16.99, August 1997, ISBN 0 330 32789 5
  • Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
    Picador, 243 pp, £6.99, August 1997, ISBN 0 330 35031 5

‘Maybe this is a detective story,’ a character thinks in John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire (1990). It’s a reasonable suspicion, and would be for anyone in any of Wideman’s books that I’ve read. But they are not detective stories. Often structured around a quest, for a missing child, a vanished woman, a former self, a meaning, an answer, they finally take the form of a flight, as if from a horror too great to bear or name, a shock one can only circle again and again, and at last abandon. ‘Do I write to escape, to make a fiction of my life?’ Wideman asks in his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984). ‘Wasn’t there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, escape?’ But Wideman is not avoiding the shocks and horrors, he is allowing himself to be haunted by them, evoking their aftermath in a series of deft and ingenious pictures, taken from all kinds of angles by a restless imagination. The aftermath, though, is as close as he gets, and the need to flee even from that is a measure of the force of the original blast.

What blast? Was there just one? A writer in Philadelphia Fire feels the need to explain ‘that he must always write about many places at once’. Many times, too. Sometimes this imperative produces a fairly loose universalising of local experiences (‘She was the body of woman. No beginning, middle, end to her life. All women. Any women’), but more often, and particularly in Wideman’s most recent novel The Cattle Killing (1996, now published in the United Kingdom for the first time), it reflects a convincing theory of repetition. Certain acts, Iynchings, burnings, rebellions, betrayals, must recur because the conditions and assumptions that cause them have not changed. ‘Philadelphia was a prophecy of other cities to come,’ we read of the plague time in the 18th century, and the prophecy includes not only future Philadelphias, but Cape Town and Pittsburgh, 20th-century cities to which the narrative leaps in its last pages.

The shock of Philadelphia Fire is the shock named in the title, the burning and bombing, on the orders of a black mayor, of a black community in a house on Osage Avenue. The event is briefly recalled in The Cattle Killing. There the shock takes several other forms as well: what we might call the invention of race by 18th-century white American Christians, who one day decided to segregate their formerly unsegregated churches; racial slurs and allegations flung about during the plague; the murder of a mixed-race couple in the Pennsylvania countryside; and across the sea in South Africa, the animal massacre which gives the book its title. Heeding a false prophecy given to a girl in a dream, the Xhosa kill their cattle in the belief that this sacrifice will bring about a new world. Instead it hastens their end. Wideman offers various readings of the moral of this story. Not just: ‘Do not kill your cattle,’ but: ‘Do not speak with your enemy’s tongue. Do not fall asleep in your enemy’s dream.’ Later he suggests that the Xhosa are ‘bewitched by a prophecy that steals them from themselves’.

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