Excerpt from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Snakewoman of Little Egypt

A Novel

by Robert Hellenga

Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2011, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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There were rumors, in fact, that Jackson had done away with Claude deep in the heart of the Ituri Forest. The rumors weren't true, of course - Claude had been like a father to Jackson - but it was impossible to stop them, and they created a certain mystique. His colleagues in the department joked about it - "Don't mess with Jackson" - but the important thing was that Warren hadn't believed the rumors; if he had, he might have killed Jackson. Instead he took it on himself to look after Jackson the way he'd looked after Claude.

The prospect of going back to Africa appealed to Jackson. He'd gone to the Congo when it was still Zaire, just as he was about to start his third year in graduate school. Some grant money had appeared out of nowhere, and Claude had tapped him to go along, probably because he spoke French and because he'd done well in Professor Steckley's two-semester Swahili course. Though there were others who had taken the course too and done just as well. Kingwana or "kitchen Swahili," a Bantu language, was the lingua franca in the Congo. The Negroes who lived along the edge of the Forest spoke it, and the polyglot Mbuti spoke it in the villages, though they spoke a dialect of their own among themselves in the Forest. Jackson wouldn't say he'd mastered this difficult dialect, but he'd learned it tolerably well in the four years he'd spent in the Forest. But what had given him the edge over the other graduate students was the fact that he played the harmonica, or the blues harp, at department parties, and Claude had got it into his head that Jackson was an ethnomusicologist who could help him record and preserve the Mbuti music.

Two and a half years after Claude's death Jackson had been arrested outside Étienne Rameau's huge mud mansion at Camp Rameau by two Bantu policemen. They'd been waiting for him to come out of the Forest for two months. Rumors of Claude's death had reached the authorities, and the authorities had done what authorities always do. But suspicion of murder? Assisted suicide, possibly, though Jackson didn't think the charge would have stuck in a court of law, and it hadn't come to that. He'd been taken to the American embassy at Kinshasa. No one wanted an international incident. Claude was not married but had an illegitimate daughter living in Lyon. It was the university - Thomas Ford University - that had wanted to know what had happened to Claude. Had he returned to France without telling anyone? Had something happened to him? No one, it turned out, had been inquiring after Jackson.

By the time Jackson was arrested his visa had long expired and none of his papers were in order. He didn't even have any papers, in fact. Not the kind of papers that the authorities wanted. Though he did manage to bring back Claude's notebooks, which Claude had given to him after Claude's first death in the Forest - before he was dead once and for all, absolutely and completely dead, as the Mbuti put it.

What had happened was, Jackson had gone native. He'd had a taste of something that he didn't think he could live without - ecstasy, or joy, or maybe simply a settled conviction of well-being, of being at home in the universe, of being where he belonged - though this settled conviction was punctuated by periods of incandescent... He couldn't find the words. Perhaps Romain Rolland's oceanic feeling, though Freud had regarded this oceanic feeling as a delusion.

Had what Jackson experienced been a delusion or an insight? A fantasy or a vision? But it wasn't like that at all, really. And how could an oceanic feeling be incandescent? He could still remember the feeling even if he couldn't name it. His body remembered. His skin remembered the overpowering moist heaviness of the gigantic trees; his eyes remembered the cool shadowy half-light that spooked the Negro villagers; his ears remembered the birdsong and the monkey chatter and the night sounds that might or might not be the cough of a leopard; his nose remembered the smell of the munu'asulu leaves used to wrap food to be cooked in the embers of a fire and the sweet body odor of the Mbuti men; his tongue remembered the bitterness of liko, brewed from berries and herbs, and the sharp tang of termites - an acquired taste - which provided the Mbuti, as it did our earliest hominid ancestors, with a rich supply of protein.

Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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