African Silences

by Peter Matthiessen. Random House, 1991. 225 pages, $21.00.

One of the most intriguing sentences in this book comes on page 100, where the author writes: "With the exception of the mokele mbembe, an elusive dinosaurlike denizen of the vast swamps of the Congo Basin, the pygmy elephant, Loxodonta pumilio, is regarded as the last large 'unknown' animal in Africa."

Dinosaurs in the Congo Basin? Nothing more is said about them, but they linger in the imagination as a sign that, just possibly, there are one or two more surprises to be found in the remoteness of central Africa.

African Silences describes two ambitious journeys. In 1978, Peter Matthiessen traveled through West Africa, the continent's most developed region, as part of an extensive wildlife survey. The results were not encouraging. In the Ivory Coast, the only wildlife Matthiessen's party saw outside a park was a single monkey.

After leaving West Africa he traveled to Zaire, where he watched gorillas and searched for the rare African peacock, and in 1986 he returned to Zaire and its neighboring countries for another wildlife survey, this time to estimate the population of forest elephants in the Congo Basin. Again, the results were not encouraging. After hazardous flights over thousands of miles of rain forest, where "a light plane would disappear into this greenness like a stone dropped from the air into the sea," he and the ecologist Jonah Western were convinced that the number of forest elephants (a smaller relative of the familiar bush elephant) was lower even than the most pessimistic earlier estimates.

Probably not since Hemingway has a major American writer been as familiar with Africa as Peter Matthiessen. There is even a touch of Hemingway in the starkness, quiet beauty, and emotional reticence of some of Matthiessen's prose. But there the similarities end. Matthiessen lacks the Hemingway swagger. A Zen Buddhist, his attitude toward Africa and its people is cooler and more complex than Hemingway's. He doesn't romanticize Africans, and his comments on the rudeness, arrogance, and incompetence of some African officials and guides can be scathing. The unstated comparison, though, is with the generosity, gracefulness, and good humor of those Africans who still live in the traditional way. Matthiessen's description of stalking elephants with the pygmies of the Ituri Forest is loving and detailed, and the pygmies' personalities come through clearly. It is obvious that he knows and relates to them as individuals. Yet despite his considerable experience in Africa and among Africans, he does not pretend to understand them completely.

Along with a sense of loss at the destruction of African wildlife and traditions, African Silences, like Matthiessen's harrowing stories "Lumumba Lives" and "On the River Styx," suggests the wide and dangerous cultural gulfs that can lie between people, even people of good will, who belong to different races. In the end, one of the most impressive things about this book is Matthiessen's willingness to take Africa on its own terms, rather than (like Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, or many other writers) treating it as a private estate or game park, and as material for the building of a personal myth.

Published in the Harvard Post, January 10, 1992.