“Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow

I sort of liked the “adventure” parts but the philosophy was pretty much lost on me.  Recommend skipping unless you are an English undergrad…

Eugene Henderson is born into wealth, but by his forties/fifties he is frustrated with a lack of purpose.  He thinks he might want to be a doctor; his wife humiliates him by laughing at such a dream at his age.  He has a chance to accompany a friend to Africa and feels like there, in the wild, he might find whatever he is looking for.

The first tribe he spends time with, the Arnui (sp? Audio book…), are friendly but suffering from a plague of frogs in their water cistern, which means they can’t give it to their cows.  Henderson thinks that here is my chance, here is my purpose – to help these poor people.  He had some experience with explosives in the war and so rigs up a bomb to kill the frogs.  It does; but also breaks the cistern, making the Arnui’s problems infinitely worse.

He and his guide quickly make tracks, and end up in the tribe of the Wariri (sp?).  They are kind of suspicious people, but during a rain ceremony he once again jumps in to “save the day” when the village strongman fails to budge the huge statue of their goddess Mumma.  Henderson is a big, strong fellow and is able to move the statue with some effort.  He didn’t know it beforehand, but this entitles him to be the Sungo, the rain king.  He becomes friends with the actual king, Dafu, and becomes familiar with their customs: when a king first shows signs of weakness, he is murdered by his harem.  The body is dragged to the bush and left, but kept under observation.  No beasts are allowed to eat the corpse, except for a lion cub.  The cub is marked and released – this cub is said to now possess the soul of the dead king.  The Sungo gets to be the new king, and after some period of time his duty is to capture the now grown up cub and keep him as a pet of sorts.

Well, King Dafu captures a different lion in his first attempt, and decides to keep it.  He therefore is now facing insurrection as all other lions besides the old king are considered to be magical troublemakers.  Dafu admires lions in general; and embarks on program of familiarizing Henderson with the lion in an up close and personal manner, so that he takes on some lion qualities – nobility, confidence.  Soon, the actual lion Dafu is supposed to capture his spotted, but Dafu dies in the capture attempt (might have been sabotage by his enemies).

Henderson is held captive until his “coronation” but wisely escapes this death trap.  Before he goes, he swipes the lion cub designated for Dafu and flies it back to the states.  He resolves to become a doctor after all.

What’s the meaning here?  Maybe to follow your dream.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  One quote from near the end: “What is the universe?  Big.  And what are we?  Little.  So I might as well stay at home, where my wife loves me.  Or, if she is only pretending to love me, maybe that’s good enough, too.”

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