It takes a bold writer to tackle a hackneyed theme and repackage it in fresh wrappings so that the most jaded reader finds the story imaginative. For the most part, Kira Salak is that writer, giving us a contemporary version of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness (1903); engaging readers a hundred years after Conrad provoked his readers. Ironically, if Conrad’s late Victorian readers didn’t understand the attack on their own racist views, Salak’s shouldn’t miss the rebuke on their own narrow-minded ethnocentrism, assuming they read The White Mary to its bitter end.
Salak’s Kurtz?called Lewis in her novel?explains to Marika Vecera, the novel’s protagonist, who has followed her hero to the end of the world, “[Americans] never had anything really bad happen to them. They’ve never witnessed a massacre. They’ve never been raped or tortured or seen family members shot. You know how you can tell when you’re with one of those people? Because they’re obsessed with what’s pointless, thinking it matters. Try telling them about a genocide in Rwanda or East Timor. They have no … mechanism …to grasp what you’re talking about. They’ve grown up in a world where everything horrible has been turned into entertainment, made into some goddamn movie. The only thing that wakes them up is if something awful suddenly lands on their doorstep, throwing them into flames.”
Unfortunately, the only thing that lands on their doorsteps is the morning newspaper, and it’s not in flames?though its contents may describe those fires. More likely, on the front page the headlines proclaim the results of the latest high school football or basketball game, with anything about the real world buried in a brief paragraph deep inside the paper. Which is only to say that most Americans keep their heads in the sand whenever the topic becomes unpleasant. How else does one explain Americans’ proclivity for permitting their government to unleash the most unspeakable acts against others around the world? Repeatedly, I should add, not in an isolated incident.
It is those unspeakable acts that Kira Salak writes about in The White Mary, though her focus is not on what America has done overseas but what traditional societies and governments inflict on their own people?simply another source of mayhem. Sierra Leone, Chechyna, Sir Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda?these are the areas that the author of this horrific narrative describes for her readers. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; I’ll certainly admit to that.
To get to Lewis’s diatribe above, Salak?an award-winning journalist, who has reported about the major trouble spots in the world during the past eight years?drags the reader through atrocities in the Congo, East Timor and in Papua New Guinea, the setting for most of her riveting novel. No one escapes the lash of her venom, including United Nations peacekeepers who stand aside and watch mankind’s inhumanity, as long as their own lives are not threatened.
The real question behind Kira Salak’s story, however, is what it is that keeps the journalist who reports on the worst atrocities mankind inflicts on its fellow citizens returning home from such unbearable carnage and then, months later, moving on to the next trouble spot in the world where the violence?the total lack of respect for another person’s body?may even be worse? Danger? Perversity? Sadism? Witnessing? A simple love of blood and gore? Of Marika, the author remarks, “What Marika hated to admit to herself was that she felt at home in such places. The danger gave her an increased sense of purpose. Her life?the great senselessness of it, the mystery of it that she hade never understood?found direction in a place like Bodo [in the Congo]. She felt absolute, unequivocal confidence that there, finally, was a place that wanted her and could use her. She had only one issue to face at all times: living or dying. Everything else fell into the realm of the meaningless.”
And much later, almost at the end of the story, Salak adds, “Real courage isn’t about visiting the world’s hells and returning alive to tell about it?it’s easy to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed. What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs. Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out.”
The White Mary?a term that Papua New Guineans use for white women during the time of their monthly cycle?is an ambitious but flawed novel. The questions that Kira Salak asks, she answers convincingly; the plotting is fast-placed and full of imaginative twists and turns; but some of the writing (and too often the dialogue) is stilted. Salak creates real people, places them in extreme situations, and then has them speak in unbelievable voices.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Under African Skies, Worlds of Fiction, The Ordeal of the African Writer and Academia Nuts. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org