Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The White Rhino Recommends An Eponymous Book: “The White Rhino Hotel” by Bartle Bull

I find my way to books by a wide variety of sometimes-tortuous routes. I think you will enjoy the saga of how I became aware of “The White Rhino Hotel.”

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Roddy Gow and his lovely wife, April. Roddy is Founder and CEO of Gow & Partners, a boutique executive search firm with a specialization in helping companies find the right persons to serve as Chairmen or Members for their Boards of Directors. Roddy and April have a delightful home in Westport, CT – full of history and art and life! A few weeks ago, I was a dinner guest in the Gow’s home. The after-dinner conversation somehow turned to the story of how I acquired the nickname, “The White Rhino.” Upon hearing the story, April said: “You must come with me. There is something I want to show you on the bookshelf. We have a friend named Bartle Bull, and he has written and published several books – including this one here.”

And she handed me a signed copy of Bull’s novel, “The White Rhino Hotel.” I was duly impressed and astonished. At my first opportunity, I ordered a copy from Amazon.com, and have just finished my safari through the book's 400 pages of African adventure.

The story is set in East Africa just at the end of World War I. A motley assemblage of men and women – from America, England, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, Portuguese Goa, New Zealand, Wales, and Africa interact as they try to scratch out a living and a modus vivendi in the harsh environs at the foot of Mount Kenya. Any reader of this taut tale, as the action of the story unwinds, would be hard pressed to decide which kind of predator is the more lethal – the fauna indigenous to Africa or the wide variety of homo sapiens that have washed up on its shores. In this regard, Bull is exploring a theme also treated with great insight in the marvelous book, "The Life of Pi," by Yann Martel.


Mr. Bull tells a stirring story of hopes rising and falling, destinies colliding and intermingling, and revenge being plotted and executed. His sparse writing style is well suited to his geographic setting. A appreciate the fact that he pays homage to the writings of Charles Dickens by having one of the characters read David Copperfield to an illiterate African friend. Like all gifted writers, Bull is able to make broad comments about human nature employing precise descriptions and using an economy of words and rhetoric:

“Lady Penfold’s thoughts we elsewhere. The tinkling of her ice became her only conversation. She watched her husband empty the dish of unshelled peanuts onto the center of the table. He hadn’t changed. ‘All men are boys,’ Sissy’s mother had told her repeatedly. ‘All they want are flattery and sweets.’ There were several types of sweets, Sissy had learned.” (Pages 57-58)

In the wonderful musical play, “Children of Eden,” Stephen Schwartz has written an insightful song called “Wasteland” in which the chorus makes these observations about life in the wilderness of Paradise Lost:

Red rock and outcrop stone
And the sun glares off a bleaching bone
There's no comfort or softness here
There's only the wasteland

The land of the hunter, the stalker, and the skinner
Where you're either the diner or the dinner
And the line between man and beast keeps getting thinner
In the wasteland

Bartle Bull makes similar comments about the precariousness of life on the African plain:

“Only the old German did not eat. He walked back and forth to the river, declining Anton’s help and gathering rocks that he placed over Banda’s grave.

Later Anton lay in his blanket, thinking about Banda and the elephant. For the first time Anton was unable to find satisfaction in a hunt. He thought of the wounded bull leaning on his comrades, his friends patient despite the deadly pursuit. Not many men would have waited and helped as they did. He remembered how he had watched Lenares take his beating. Before Anton’s mind lost hold, hunters and hunted became the same. Like the leopard, and the gamekeeper in Windsor Great Park. While you hunt one creature, another hunts you.”
(Page 177)

Bull does a remarkable job of tying together two disparate worlds – the Victorian world of Dickens and his fictional doppelganger, David Copperfield, and the pre-literate world of rural post-war Africa:

“In the mornings they chanted the alphabet while they walked. They spelled words in the dust when they paused to rest or eat. In the evening they chose words from the book. Anton explained them while Karioki copied each one on the ground. Then Anton would read aloud from 'The Personal History, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery, Which He Never Meant To Be Published On Any Account.' Anton thought of England as he heard the familiar words carry into the night. He wondered what they meant to Karioki.

‘Why is this Uriah Heep like a snake to David?’ Karioki asked one morning. ‘First he crawls, then he bites,’ Karioki sucked on the sun-dried eland flesh that Anton had whittled from a long strip while they walked. The ground was open and Anton carried his boots around his neck, saving their soles and hardening his feet.

‘Because he is cowardly and jealous, Karioki, a schemer. And I think the girl and money are part of the trouble.’

‘But Uriah is clever. He should have many goats and cows to buy his own wives.’

Anton laughed out loud and clapped Karioki on the back.

‘How many goats would a girl pay for you, Karioki?’

‘There are not goats enough, Tlaga.’” (Pages 206-207)

Human nature is such that a young man in Africa without any formal schooling is able to discern the character of a fictional personage living in a totally different setting halfway around the globe, and to know Uriah Heep as if they had grown up together as boys. This phenomenon speaks to good writing and to the universality of our human experience that transcends the particularities of culture and place. Bartle Bull has captured these truths in a marvelous and arresting way.

I recommend that you “check in” to the “White Rhino Hotel” and “check out” the memorable cast of characters that use the hotel as a way station from which to launch themselves towards their varied and intriguing destinies in the dust of the African landscape.


Al Chase

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