Bleeding-hearts liberal

The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi

Race is a tricky subject to discuss. As Berkeley Breathed, cartoonist behind Bloom County, discussed in an interview with the Onion AV Club:

Don't touch it. Run. Hide. Smile and say you love everybody equally, and don't make any jokes as you back out of the room [...]. There isn't a shade of a chance for anything resembling a real discussion about race occurring publicly in this country for another... well, ever. Tirades, yes. Conversations that don't become tirades after the first sentence spoken? No.

In European culture we have a much weaker "race issue" than exists in the States, arising from a feeling of self-righteousness over the fact that, if we didn't actually jettison slavery before the US, then at least we were nicer about it The primary effect, and probably function, of Japin's The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi is to explode both this myth and the idea that the noble savage can be somehow tamed and Europeanized like Kafka's Affe.

Writing about racism---as with sexism, ageism, or any kind of discrimination against a persecuted minority that perceives itself as such---is generally best carried out by the disinterested. However, early European racism is clearly Japin's bête noire (as it were) and The Two Hearts... suffers because of it. The arc of the book is strong, and individual scenes harden on reading into tough kernels of authorial intent thanks to their simplicity and directness. Mesoscopically, however, the narrative is unevenly paced and cluttered with explications of Dutch crypto-slavery in the 19th Century. The irony present in the scene-setting at the beginning, when the two princes Kwasi and Kwame are taken from their African homeland to be educated in Holland in return for "slave" trading, is confusingly and lengthily expounded; the corresponding revelations at the end of the book, where Kwasi finally uncovers the extent of bureaucratic embodiment of the "noblesse de peau" that has dogged him throughout his attempts at a civil service career, are clumsily handled, and lead to less of a reconciliation of complex and conflicting threads of his life than the extended, half-chapter shrug of an old man in his dotage.

It doesn't help that this period of Dutch history is so obscure, and the book suffers further harm at the hands of the confusing cast of characters in the higher echelons of Dutch society. Three or four Willems (it isn't clear) and at least two Sophies make descriptions of life at court obscure, and often the resultant confusion overlaps what would otherwise be a powerful scene.

But perhaps we shouldn't blame Japin for the difficulties that his historical premise have unavoidably placed in his path, and be grateful that he hasn't forced the reader to wade through appendices and family trees. A flawed book, then: but one that shares many of its flaws with any account of a previously neglected period of history; unlike its drier cousins, The Two Hearts... has a worthiness that manages to penetrate the necessary tangle of humdrum, unavoidable fact.