Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brazzaville BeachBrazzaville Beach by William Boyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Boyd's "Brazzaville Beach" has been exhaustively discussed and reviewed during the 23 years since it was published. It has served as book club fare probably thousands of times. Everybody who has read it has an opinion on what the novel is about. Some say it is about scientists being only human. Others say it is about the similarities between chimpanzee and human behavior. One arrogant bozo, trying to ride the fashionable bandwagon, even posits the book is about "emancipation of women". Bollocks! Being a mathematician, I will suggest, with equal arrogance, that "Brazzaville Beach" is about the difference between continuous and discontinuous types of change and between predictable and chaotic phenomena. Calculus needs continuity, as Mr. Boyd mentions himself. Despite all its pretentiousness, it is an extraordinary novel. The author tells a great story and does it so well that I can forgive him the excitement about how clever he is. The brazen attempts at using results of mathematics as metaphors for certain aspects of human life are excused too.

The story is mostly narrated by Dr. Hope Clearwater, a Ph.D. in ethology. We first meet her when she collects a chimpanzee's feces. The novel interleaves plots occurring in two different periods of Hope Clearwater's life. The earlier one is the story of her marriage to John, a mathematician on the verge of brilliance, and her work surveying an ancient and historic estate in South Dorset, England. The later thread is located in Africa, where Hope - employed by a world-famous primate research center - studies the behavior of large groups of chimpanzees.

"Brazzaville Beach" is a complex novel and Mr. Boyd handles the complexity well. We have a totally fascinating and beautifully presented layer of observations of chimpanzee behavior. Then there is a layer dealing with nastiness in science, where people go to extremes trying to defend their theories. There is a still higher-level layer, that of Hope reflecting on the direction or lack of it in her life. The war between various factions in an African country provides a background layer. Threads on the Dorset estate survey and on a man's slow descent into mental illness complete the exquisite structure. Mr. Boyd connects all layers with references to mathematics.

The passage about Hope's visit to her father's 70th birthday party is beautifully written and the "digging episodes" and horsefly-powered airplanes have left a deep imprint in my memory. Wonderful stuff. On the other hand, Mr. Boyd uses the phrase "susurrus of prurience". Yikes. Also, the grandiose "three questions" reek of pretense.

Four and a half stars (today I am rounding up, because of "my" mathematics, but maybe I will change my mind one day).

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