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
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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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Print Excerpt


Living in the Garden of Eden. Not figuratively, but literally. That's what Claude had concluded, and that was what he wanted Jackson to convey to the learned world. But it was a huge job. Jackson would have to decipher Claude's baroque French handwriting, and then he'd have to edit what was essentially a collection of disjointed field notes. And there were other problems. He didn't want to make himself a laughingstock, or damage Claude's legacy.

Claude's reputation rested on a series of authoritative ethnographies, written in French and subsequently translated into all the major Europe an languages, of the various "pygmy" peoples of central and western Africa - the Batwa, the Bayaka, the Bagyeli, and finally, the Bambuti. ("Ba" simply means "people.") But recently Claude's work had come under attack by other anthropologists: for understating serious problems, such as the persecution of old women for being witches or the unequal treatment of women in general, or for treating wife beatings, abuse of animals, and quarrels that escalated into violence in a tone of lighthearted amusement. What would happen now to Claude's legacy if his claim - which he had never published - to have located the Garden of Eden, right on the border between Uganda and the Demo cratic Republic of the Congo, came to light?

Jackson's own more modest reputation rested on his book My Life as an Mbuti, which had drawn the ire of fellow anthropologists. Why? Because Jackson hadn't played by the rules. On the one hand, he'd been too involved with the natives to see them clearly; the book was too subjective. On the other hand, he'd made the cardinal mistake of the old anthropology by assuming that Mbuti culture enacted a set of values and norms and cognitive frameworks and then by reifying conceptually convenient binary oppositions instead of unpacking and problematizing them.

But what really frosted his critics was that My Life as an Mbuti had been a national best seller and that in it Jackson had revealed what many anthropologists regarded as a dirty little secret that ought to be kept a secret: he'd slept with the natives. One of the natives. Sibaku, daughter of Asumali, the great storyteller, and Makela, who supervised the elima.

If you'd asked Jackson who the president of the United States was when he came out of the Forest, he wouldn't have been able to tell you, wouldn't have known that Reagan had defeated Mondale in a landslide, or that Gorbachev was the new leader of the Soviet Union or that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by one of her bodyguards, or that the Challenger had exploded off the coast of Florida after one of the O-ring seals failed at liftoff.

He had applied for a visa to return to Africa shortly after his return to the States - he wanted to see Sibaku, and he wanted to see his daughter - but his request had been denied. He hadn't been able to produce a notarized letter from a host or friend in what was then Zaire, and with Claude dead and Camp Rameau abandoned, he wasn't likely to get one. He'd been persona non grata, and neither the State Department nor Mobutu's government was interested in having him return. But Mobutu's government had been overthrown in 1997 by Laurent- Désiré Kabila and had become the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila, a man with a reputation for burning his critics alive at the stake, was promising reforms, but the borders with Uganda and Rwanda were too unstable. Travel warnings had been issued. A cease- fire had been signed in July between Kabila and the Uganda- and Rwanda- backed rebels, but there was no question of trying to get across the border from Uganda or Rwanda. Or from Sudan. If he got someone to ferry him across the Congo River from the Republic of Congo in the west, where would he be? Five hundred miles from where he wanted to be. He could imagine surviving for a week in the heart of the Forest itself, living on nuts and tubers, mushrooms and honey, but not the five or six weeks it would take to reach the Epulu River, if he could find his way, which was doubtful. Besides, he didn't think he could get from Brazzaville to Stanleyville without papers.

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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