Saturday, October 27, 2012

One Man's Midlife Crisis - "The Coup" - By John Updike

After reading Steve Sailer's references to John Updike's "The Coup" in random posts involving Obama, I decided to look for it at Half Priced Books. They managed to have a hardcover (score) copy for $5. After racing through some KGB books, I decided to read Updike's fictional account of a post-colonial African country and its interesting, revolutionary leader. The book has little details that showcase the Cold War post-colonial chaos that was sub-Saharan Africa. It is a fun read, and I recommend it. I have a different interpretation of this book though, and looking at the Amazon reviews, I dont think anyone else picked up on it. The book is written by the lead after the events as he is living in exile. This book is one man's midlife crisis and review of his life and masculinity. The women of this book tell the story of Ellellou, explain his problems, and reflect the life that created a revolutionary dictator.

The plot of the book follows Ellellou (age early 40s) in power as he comes in from the remote wild with a new mistress, Kutunda, back to the capitol. While in power, he visits his three wives and reflects on his life. He then goes on a mission to find the head of the executed king with his fourth wife, loses power due to a counter-revolutionary coup (as well as his 4th wife never to be seen again), lives as a nobody temporarily, and then returns to see his tree other wives carrying on, like his nation, without him. It is a nice little insert that there is a note that revolutions must set up a new system within five years or peter out, which is roughly where he is in his coup stage (five years on).

The Women

Kutunda - She is the mistress that he brings in from the wilderness. He has erectile dysfunction problems with her when he orders the king executed. She eventually plays him. If there was an outside force involved with a counter-revolutionary coup, it is easy to think that they planted Kutunda after seeing Ellellou take a 4th bride who was a plaything. She is far savvier than one would expect a backwoods girl. She flatters him after sex, addressing an intuition that somethign is wrong with him. He needs the encouragement now.

Sittina (3rd wife) - Ellellou visits Sittina first upon returning to the capitol. She is a beauty of his native Kush, who similar to him spent years in the US at university. They have no children together, and she has children from other men. He's a cuckold. She is his love from his return to Kush days in the old King's restored rule after colonialism fell. Those were his virile days, his days of building up teh revolution as well as carrying it out. He was in the prime of his life. She is closest to him in spirit of when he loves himself the best; the image of the educated revolutionary leader. She is the only one that he says "I love you" to, and she is the one he ends up with in exile. She is his love from his glory days of rising power, when he is a man at peak influence, thought and power.

Kadongolimi (1st wife) - Ellellou visited Kadongolimi second, and this is his nostalgia for old Kush and the tribal culture he grew up with before leaving Kush with the French army. She calls him Bini. She knows his secrets. Being of the family and tribe, she carries the common experience. She is a source of grounding. They were cousins bonded in marriage with all the tribal rituals. As he grew to manhood, she was his guide with knowing the world and women. She had to teach him things. They never had children (I doubt the story of the daughter after Kadongolimi's death), and he was a cuckold with big momma. She reflects his relationship with his country, his reign, his people. She went from skinny to fat, and she died along with his old country or Ellellou's dreams for his country during his removal from power. When he visits her home after his return, she is dead and just a burial site in the old home that would alwasy welcome him.

Candy Cunningham (2nd wife) - Candy is the American girl that he brought back from his university days. She sought him out. She is the Western guilt liberal who wants to use him, wants to be a part of the outside, and reflects how the elements he was exposed to in the US changed him and made him alien in his home country. It is at college that he was introduced and converted to Islam. It is at college that he learns about Marxism. Like Kang, she has a nickname for him and knows his dirt. He returns to Kush with these lessons, and Candy, to start a revolution. She was a phase for him that he was partially attached to, just as he is partially attached to his beliefs. He does not love her. They never had any children together. He lets her live a fantasy with him, which is completely destroyed upon going to Kush. Similar to his dreams of a glorious revolution. She leaves Kush in the end with a divorce just as Ellellou leaves Kush for exile and a normal life.

Sheba (4th wife) - Sheba is a teenage bride during his days of dictator. She is simple, beautiful, a bit drug dependent, and she is a chief's prize for ruling. There is a shallow connection, just as Ellellou has a shallow connection to his country the further he is from the revolution. She is like his Mercedes, a token of his power and rule. He never knows if she gets pregnant by him, but he imagines it. Sheba is that grasp at retaining young and fresh. Just as shallow as the connection was, she is gone in a flash the moment he slips from power. Sheba reflects that fleeting power phase of his life.

There is plenty of commentary on the US and USSR in the later stages of the Cold War as they scrambled for influence and clients in the 3rd world. The flashbacks tell the tale of late '50s America at the university stage and the black American community prior to the disruptions in the '60s. As far as our main character is involved, and his story, it is rather prsonal. This book doesn't explain the coup that brought Ellellou to power. It flirts with showing how Ellellou was deposed. This book is a story of how a man in his 40s reviewed his life up to that point. The women of the book tell his tale and reflect just who was that mysterious man that overthrew and killed the King but was gone in a flash.

UPDATE: The book is set as a memoir, so Ellellou's focus on the children of his wives not being his is telling. He has nothing to leave behind in exile. No country reformed, no children. He is obsessed with having no tangible legacy. What kind fo man has no legacy? Even at the end, a child says his name "Ellellou" does not mean freedom as Ellellou has previously explained in the book. What kind of man has a false identity? This is a rejection of even the basic claim of his manufactured identity, his very self.

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