By Andrew Santella
From the New York Times Book Review
HOTTENTOT VENUS: A NOVEL
By Barbara Chase-Riboud.
320 pp. New York:
When debate erupts in the amphitheater of Paris Museum of
Natural History late in Barbara Chase-Ribouds novel, the nineteenth
century academics in attendance jump at the chance to try out their
pseudoscientific, pre-Darwinian theories of race on their peers.
The anatomists have their say, the phrenologists respond, and even
the visual artists chime in. About the only person present who doesnt
speak up is the subject of the symposium, a young woman from South
Africas eastern cape who stands on a stage at the front of
the amphitheater, silent, frightened and nearly naked.
Her name is Sarah Baartman and the indignities she endures at the
hands of the leading figures of the French academy examining her
that afternoon are all too typical of the life she has found so
far from her home. Baartman has been cajoled, coerced and conned
into pursuing a fortune in Europe, where she is exhibited as the
Hottentot Venus, "the virgin Eve risen from the Garden of Creation
to the first, primitive level of humanity," as the barkers
pitch puts it.
The historical Sarah Baartman created a sensation when she appeared
in London beginning in 1810. Raised among the Khoekhoe people of
southern Africa, she possessed the enlarged backside and sexual
organs that her people cultivated as an ideal of feminine beauty.
As a young woman in colonial Cape Town, she had caught the attention
of a British ships doctor named Dunlop, who deceived her into
following him to England, where he displayed her, in the most degrading
conditions, as a sideshow curiosity. The people came to gawk, grope
and leer, and intellectuals of the day found in the Hottentot Venus
confirmation of their theories of European superiority.
After her death in 1816, her exploitation continued. Her remains
were put on display at the Musée de LHomme, and only
in 2002 was Sarah Baartman returned to South Africa for a dignified
burial. In the interim, observers continued to speculate, like the
academics in the amphitheater in Chase-Ribouds novel, about
the meaning of the Hottentot Venus. The Venus became a potent emblem
to be deployed in discussions of race, gender, even international
relations. When Baartmans body finally returned to her homeland,
South African president Thabo Mbeki made her role as cultural symbol
explicit, stating, "The story of Sarah Baartman is the story
of the African people."
Chase-Ribouds novel aims to give Baartman, at last, the voice
to tell her own story. In five previous historical novels, Chase-Riboud
has similarly explored other figures silenced by history, most notably
in her 1979 work "Sally Hemings." Also an accomplished
poet and sculptor, Chase-Riboud is responsible for the monumental
bronze "Africa Rising" in Foley Square, partly inspired
by the story of the Hottentot Venus.
Her novelistic take on the subject is full of ideas, but works most
powerfully when it zeroes in on the plain misery of Baartmans
life. "How come I here?" she asks, and the only answers
lie in the cruelties of colonialism. Chase-Riboud demonstrates a
talent for marshalling statements on the public record against the
Great Men of history, revealing them in all their bombastic cluelessness.
The chief villain is the renowned naturalist Baron Cuvier, Napoleons
surgeon general. Taking an interest in assigning the Venus a place
in "the great Chain of Being," Cuvier arranges for doctors
and anthropologists to examine her, and later performs a grisly
postmortem violation of her corpse. "I have the honor to present
to the Academy the genital organs of this, my Venus Hottentot,"
he announces. In a note at the end of the novel, Chase-Riboud explains
that some of the uglier inanities uttered by Cuvier and his colleagues
in the novel are taken verbatim from 19th century scientific works.
But she does not always demonstrate convincing command of the historical
context. Anachronisms and puzzling inconsistencies distract the
reader, and too many of the inevitable Famous Person walk-ons--Napoleon,
Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, among others--seem gratuitous or simply
Sarah Baartman herself remains an elusive figure, still more emblem
than flesh and blood. Her voice swerves between naivete and near
omniscience, and too often she seems to be speaking for the author.
Barbara Chase-Riboud must be lauded for attempting such a difficult
and richly deserving story, but her effort is more earnest than