Have you ever met an Englishman abroad? I travel regularly, often alone, and always make an effort to interact with the locals. Most of the time people are warm and friendly, at least outwardly, but there’s an unmistakable caution below the surface. You’re English? Yes. It feels like an admission of guilt. Perhaps I should apologise? How English that would be. It’s the same in bars and hotels. The workers are happy to take your money, but it’s clear that the reputation of your kind preceeds you. You’re eyed as something like a cross between a cash-cow and a pirate. Your role is to plunder and spend. It’s the only time that I am allowed a glimpse into what it feels like to be marked, to be judged, instantly and negatively, without having done anything to justify it myself. Why are you here? I’m here to goose your women and pave your streets with the contents of my stomach.
It’s worse at the weekends. Spend two or three weeks in a foreign country and you will come to see it yourself. Or hear it, rather. The pounding drums and clattering hoofbeats of the English arriving on the Friday evening. Of course we aren’t always so savage. Quite the contrary. Our national disease is our repression, our inability to express ourselves, our shame. Being emotionally disabled is our cultural signature. It is only when we are away, when we are somewhere and something unrecognisable, that we feel free, but moral and emotional freedom is too much for our weak constitution. We are the dog that has managed to break into the larder. We are the dog that has gorged itself then shit all over the living room floor.
“I threw myself recklessly into the inescapable maelstrom of the passions with the same determination which others use to subdue them. I envied Clotilde, to whom wickedness came naturally, whereas I had to try very hard to outdo her by committing acts of unbelievable folly.”
Hecate and Her Dogs is the story of a man, now sixty, who returns to Africa after thirty years. After a brief introduction, very little of the action takes place in the present, with the majority of the novel being a retelling of his past experiences of a place he swore he would never visit again, a place where ‘I left my youth and spent the worst years of my life.’ It’s a well-worn, but always intriguing set-up. One continues eagerly, awaiting the revelation, the answer to the question: why the worst? My anticipation was especially heightened by some of the reviews I had seen. In fact, I must admit that I was drawn to the novel mostly because it has been described as ‘repellent’ and ‘unnerving,’ amongst other things. Having read it, however, I wonder if these readers were particularly sensitive or, more likely, influenced by the unsavoury aspects of the author’s biography. Morand was not, to say the least, the most tolerant or enlightened of men. It is well documented that he was an elitist, a supporter of the Nazis, and an anti-semite. While the most ‘shocking’ aspect of the book doesn’t relate to Jews or the war, Morand’s unpleasant views do make the pages feel a little grimier to the touch.
With this in mind, one might anticipate that Morand’s Africa will be something like Celine’s or Conrad’s, which is to say hostile and primitive. Thankfully, surprisingly, that isn’t really the case. The book is actually set in Tangier, and therefore the closest literary comparison would be the work of Paul Bowles, which, in spite of its more positive reputation, has always struck me as being dubious also. In any case, there is one use of the word swarthy, one line about all arabs being called Ibrahim, and various references to the laidback, easy-going atmosphere. This latter point is important, because it – the local way of life – is used to contrast the personality and values of the narrator, which is often the case in novels of this sort. However, the difference here is that one gets the impression that the author, or the narrator at least, is being critical of the European, of himself, not the African. It is also telling that the novel’s dark heart, the Hecate of the title, is also a European who [seemingly] preys upon innocent local children.
Before considering the villain of the piece I want to focus upon the narrator in more detail. As previously noted, he is particularly self-critical. He describes himself as ‘square-shaped,’ ‘stiff,’ and ‘lacking in social graces.’ As with the Englishman abroad, he finds that new territory affords him the opportunity to reinvent himself, to indulge himself, to let himself go, but he does so inexpertly, without imagination. He did not, he writes, know ‘how to breathe.’ Indeed, his ideas about what letting himself go actually means are comically innocent, such that Morand starts to resemble a satirist: ‘I wanted to go out without a hat, stroll to the office without carrying a leather briefcase, don a suit of close-woven grey cloth, something that in Europe would have struck me as being scandalously raffish.’ I found this aspect of the narrative fascinating. It reminded me of the voice of Serenus Zeitblom in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Even when the narrator does eventually let down his hair, he does so by copying the style of another. In other words, he imitates Clotilde, he appropriates her fantasies and desires.
Clotilde is initially portrayed as being a ‘blank,’ as ‘lacking lustre.’ She is graceful, and attractive, but in an obvious, predictable kind of way. Again, in spite of Morand’s elitist, classist, and racist views, he appears to be poking fun at the wealthy white European, who is ‘distinguished, not distinctive.’ Yet there is, of course, something about her that is distinctive, which is her apparent sexual interest in children. I say apparent for two reasons, because one never sees her doing anything wrong, one never witnesses the acts themselves, and her admissions, if you could call them that bearing in mind their vague nature, are all given at night, sometimes in her sleep. If one did want to point the accusing finger at Morand, then one might argue that it is Africa’s role to be the corruptor, rather than simply the conduit, but I really did not get that from the novel. It could, in my opinion, have been set anywhere, it just had to be somewhere else.
Nor do I think Hecate and Her Dogs is about sex, repellant or otherwise. To focus on that in reviews is misleading, albeit understandable. Yes, the narrator is influenced by Clotilde until he finds that her perversions ‘suited my taste,’ and there is something interesting about the power of suggestion, about the malleability of our sexual fantasies; but, as I mentioned previously, that is merely further evidence of his lack of imagination. For me, this is a book about what happens when you give an average man, a repressed dolt, a bit of rope, or a lot of rope, when you give him freedom. It is not necessary that he will do something so extreme or immoral, as he does here, but, in my experience, he will certainly do something out of character, he will gorge himself. And then he will shit all over the living room floor, of course.