Human weaknesses undermine a scientific project in Africa

June 16, 1991|By Michael Boylan

BRAZZAVILLE BEACH.

William Boyd.

Morrow.

316 pages. $21. Most of us picture mathematicians and scientists as pioneers of truth. We have set them up as high priests in our secular culture. But what happens when they cheat? The pressure for grants and accolades can tempt anyone.

The scene in this novel is West Africa, an unnamed country on the coast. A few miles in the interior is an ethological research station that studies chimpanzees (much in the model of Jane Goodall). Researchers are observing primate behavior. The head the natural laboratory, Eugene Mallabar, has a theory that chimps are peaceful, docile animals that can teach homo sapiens a thing or two about social cooperation.

Upon this popular thesis he has constructed a research design that has gotten money from foundations and governments. The thesis was the basis for a best-selling book and the principle behind his latest effort: his magnum opus. This culmination of his life's work will cement Mallabar's place in history and make him even wealthier.

There is one slight problem: The thesis is wrong. The female protagonist of "Brazzaville Beach," Hope Clearwater, has discovered that chimps aren't any more docile and peaceful than homo sapiens. This dirty little secret threatens Mallabar's reputation, his book and his place in history.

What does one do when a subordinate usurps control? Mr. Boyd offers a parable in the proem to one of the chapters. It concerns the 1966-'70 civil war in Nigeria, which is sometimes called the "Biafran War."

The Biafran army, outgunned and outnumbered, fought with a tenacity and desperation, even for men who know their cause is lost. This zeal and effort was the result of superstition. The majority of the officers were under the sway of spiritualist priests. These priests, or "prophets," were so integrated into the structure of the army that many of them were officially attached to military units. By 1970 their influence was so powerful that officers refused to order attacks or lead their men in battle unless the prophets deemed it opportune. Officers regularly left their units at the front line to attend prayer meetings organized by the most influential prophets in the rear.

General Ojukwa, leader of the Biafran regime, realized he was on the verge of losing control of his army and tried to curtail the spiritualists' influence. His first move was to arrest one of the most charismatic and popular prophets, a Mr. Ezenweta, and accuse him of "vicarious murder." At a military tribunal he was found guilty and swiftly executed.

The morale of the Biafran army collapsed totally and immediately. . . . The death of Mr. Ezenweta foreshadowed the death of his country.

At least two points in this parable are: 1. Man's ability to control events is limited. 2. When he refuses to view reality honestly, disaster is the result.

In a parallel story about Hope's failed marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, a similar thesis is developed. The two stories work well together. Even Hope herself is drawn into failures of ambition's hubris.

The themes in Mr. Boyd's latest novel are universal. The story is compelling. The setting is exotic. In virtually every respect I am enthusiastic about "Brazzaville Beach." It does what I believe a fine novel should do: tell a good story and stimulate us to think about important issues.

My only problem with the book is the answer Mr. Boyd proposes: Ultimately, events are greater than man and this requires us merely to roll with the punches.

Certainly, "rolling with the punches" is important, but it sets us exactly on par with Mallabar's chimpanzees if that's all we can do. Still, Mr. Boyd has written a remarkable book that deserves to be read by a large audience.

Mr. Boylan is a poet and novelist who resides in the Washington area.

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