Viceroy of Ouidah

Chatwin, Bruce. The Viceroy of Ouidah. New York: Summit Books, 1980.

In the simplest of terms this short (155 pg) novella follows the life of Brazilian slave trader Francisco Manoel da Silva from 1812 to 1857 in the West African region of Dahomey. This is not a book full of character development and ambling plot lines. The writing is concise and what Chatwin doesn’t say is almost more important as what makes it onto the page. He takes a true story and weaves magic into it. Francisco grows up destined to be a slave trader. Orphaned at a young age, he was coldly indifferent to the sufferings of man. He knew early on that feelings were a sign of weakness. As he grew older he wandered from job to job, each one taking him closer to destiny; branding cattle until he moved on to work with a man who sold the equipment of slavery, for example. Francisco too a fascination with slave dealings watching the boats come in and the “cargo” unloaded.

Lines I liked: “His boot crushed a begonia as he went” (p 19) because it connects to the last line of the book, “…crushing a cockroach under the hell of his combat boot” (p 155). One final quote, “Each year, with the dry season, he would slough off the habits of civilization and go to war” (p 116).

Reason read: November is a sexy time to visit Brazil. This book may not inspire that trip, though.

Author fact: Chatwin was art auctioneer for Sotheby & Co.

Book trivia: The Viceroy of Ouidah feels like the ugly, less famous brother of a rock star; a brother deemed unworthy of even a corner of the red carpet. When holding The Viceroy of Ouidah in our hands, no less than nine times are we reminded that Chatwin also wrote In Patagonia in addition to The Viceroy of Ouidah. In fact, the entire back cover of Viceroy is dedicated to the praise of In Patagonia. It made me think I was reading the wrong book and that The Viceroy of Ouidah wasn’t worth my time. It was off putting to open a book only to read about the “other” one.

BookLust Twist: Even though The Viceroy of Ouidah was inspired by real people and real events Chatwin decided to call this a work of “the imagination” because of “the patchiness of my material” (preface, The Viceroy of Ouidah), but that didn’t stop Pearl for including it in the chapter called “True Adventures” (More Book Lust, p 224).



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