Water Music

by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Penguin, 1983 (originally published 1981). 437 pages.

Before Livingstone and Stanley there was Mungo Park: a young Scotsman fired by a love of adventure who set out to unlock what was to Europeans one of the great geographical mysteries of the age: the course of the Niger River.

Park made two very different expeditions to West Africa to solve this mystery. On his first, beginning in 1795, he traveled on foot and on camelback, disguised as a Muslim, alone or with one or two guides. Without funding or official backing, he suffered hunger, thirst, constant danger, and the mockery of the Moors and local villagers who suspected he was an infidel. Yet he succeeded in reaching the Niger, and returned to Europe to write Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, an unvarnished travel account, now largely forgotten, that was a bestseller in its time.

In 1805 Mungo Park returned to West Africa, this time as the leader of a well-funded and well-armed expedition heavily laden with trade goods. After reaching the Niger again he set out to follow its course to the Atlantic, hoping it would not peter out in the interior or drain into remote Lake Chad. The valuable stores carried by the expedition attracted thieves and bandits, and once he was afloat Park's policy was to stop for nothing and to shoot anyone who attempted to stop him, or even came too close. Instead of relying on stamina, alertness, and inconspicuousness, as he had the first time, he bulled his way through Africa by force -- a decision that would have tragic consequences.

In Water Music, T. Coraghessan Boyle takes what is known about Mungo Park's two adventures and applies his imagination, linguistic inventiveness, and raucous sense of humor to create a sprawling picaresque novel that brings alive not only the explorer but the Africa and Britain of his time.

A number of invented characters help pull together the threads of this far-flung tale. Foremost of these is Ned Rise, an enterprising and seemingly indestructible con man who ekes out a living selling dyed frogs' eggs as caviar, who crosses paths with Beau Brummell and other celebrities of the day, and who escapes probable death on a pestilential West African prison ship by finding his way onto Mungo Park's second expedition. Another is Dassoud, the ferocious Moor who captures Park on the first expedition, only to have him escape, and who crosses the desert seeking revenge when he hears his nemesis has returned. And then there's the old crone with the screeching laugh and the gold ring through her lip, who turns up in a series of unlikely places.

In real life, Mungo Park was guided on his first journey by a rotund, Western-educated African man named Johnson, and on his second by a man named Isaaco. In Water Music, Johnson and Isaaco are one and the same. Taken by a crocodile during the first journey while Park looks on helplessly, Johnson saves himself through courage and quick thinking, but loses his trust in the explorer. When the two meet again he calls himself by his new name and refuses at first to admit that he is Park's former friend and companion. He joins the second expedition only with great reluctance and abandons it when Park refuses to heed his warnings.

Water Music is outrageously entertaining, in an uproarious vein that is thoroughly appropriate to the turn of the 19th century. It's peppered with anachronisms: there are phrases borrowed from popular songs (one chapter is headed "Oh Mama, Can This Really Be the End?") and Johnson/Isaaco is often made to sound like an urban hipster of the mid-twentieth century. But the author has obviously done his homework on the climate, geography, and culture of West Africa circa 1800, and he subjects African villages and their inhabitants to the same unsparing treatment that he gives to the reeking streets of London. In addition to telling a compelling story, he restores the dirt, disease, stupidity, cowardice, and accident that are so often left out of the standard heroic tales of the great explorers.

From Water Music:

Segu. A rainy afternoon in mid-September, 1805. Beneath the high whitewashed walls of Mansong's compound, a huddled queue of supplicants awaits the call to enter and pay obeisance to the potentate. They are a motley crew: tribal officials from the west in soggy sarongs and limp feathers, petulant-looking Moors with slabs of salt wrapped in antelope skin, old men in rags crouched over sorry goats, bullocks and monkeys. There are lepers and wastrels, singing men, beggars, slaves. And then there are the women. Big, broad-beamed village scolds with rolls of spun cloth, wicker baskets, caged songbirds and serval cats on leashes, ancient hags clutching baskets of wild tamarind to their withered dugs, barefoot girls, bright and nubile in indigo gowns and copper bracelets, lined up for inspection like birds of paradise.

At the far end of the queue, footsore and soaked to the skin, stand the forlorn figures of Serenummo and Dosita Sanoo, servants of Isaaco the scribe and emissaries of the tobaubo Park. The asses beside them are laden with rare and exquisite gifts intended for Mansong and his son Da. Gifts that range from the purely practical (silver tureens, double-barreled guns and kegs of black powder), to the epicurean (a case of Whitbread's beer and a string of blood sausage), to the merely fanciful (six pairs of velvet gloves, a pince-nez on a gold chain and a music box that grinds out the first eight bars of the "Ombra mai fu" aria from Xerxes). More importantly, these humble envoys have been entrusted with a letter from explorer to potentate, a letter written and conveyed with the utmost secrecy, three slips of paper the explorer seemed to consider as precious as gold, as potent as a saphie.