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Telltale Hearts

A densely descriptive historical novel about two African princes caught in the web of Dutch imperialism invests familiar territory with newfound mystery.

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At first glance, the title of Arthur Japin's subtle novel of race, assimilation, and identity in the nineteenth century may strike you as a bit Hallmark, but once you've reached the quietly devastating final few pages of The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, you'll realize just how apt it is. The two hearts belong to a real-life Ashanti prince who, along with his first cousin, was taken from his native land in 1837 to be raised in Holland as a guest of the royal family: The heart he was born with is, we're meant to think, black, and the other heart -- the one he acquired in Europe -- is white. But that's far from being the only, or even the most interesting, duality you find in this densely detailed, sometimes slow, but ultimately moving fiction. Japin constructs an elaborate series of "twos" -- doublings and parallels -- that, by the end of the novel, bring home the great irony of institutionalized racism: However "opposite" black and white may look, they're the same. We keep seeing two when there's only one.

The book takes the form of a memoir, written by the aged Kwasi in 1900, on the eve of a grand fête being given to honor the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival in Java -- the colonial outpost where, after a stellar youth as a favorite at court, he's ended up a mysterious failure, a highly educated man whose attempts to build a successful career as a mining engineer have inexplicably come to naught. (He now manages a failing coffee plantation.) Although it's a bit of a cliché of historical fiction by now, the first-person narrative allows the author to re-create Kwasi's life in an insider's intimate detail. Japin obligingly provides the dazzling set pieces of the kind you want and expect of this genre: a vivid evocation of the glittering court of the Asentehene, the Ashanti king and Kwasi's father, with its elaborate etiquette ("when the Asentehene spat on the ground, we saw his bodyguards take up the royal fluid and rub it into their skins") and its eunuchs and bazaars and ritual funeral sacrifices of royal slaves; a meticulously realized evocation of life in the Delft boarding school in which Kwasi and his beloved cousin Kwame Poku spend their adolescent years as objects of fascination, and revulsion, to their schoolmates. (Kwame, unable to assimilate as easily as Kwasi, eventually returns to Africa, only to realize that he has become a foreigner there too.) And to this first-person narrative Japin adds official documents and letters that have a nice, authentic ring: the expedition journals of John van Drunen, the officer who first took Kwasi and Kwame from home, thinking he was saving them; the increasingly despondent letters that Kwame writes to Kwasi from Africa, where the career advancement that Kwame has been promised by his Dutch superiors fails to materialize.

Sometimes, there's too much detail; you occasionally feel that Japin is including material simply because he knows about it (he's researched it, damn it, and he's going to use it), and there are points when you start losing the narrative forest in all of the scrupulously described trees. This is always a danger in novels based on true stories -- you have to stick to the real-life facts, and real life rarely has the nice shape that fiction does -- and it's particularly problematic in a novel that is, in the end, designed as a kind of mystery. Who has kept Kwasi from becoming a success in his chosen field, the career his "superior" Western education has destined him for? What is the mysterious "mandate" that's always mentioned as the reason Kwasi has been turned down for yet another promotion? Only in the last third of The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi does this mystery device really kick in, when a few revelatory documents are uncovered; it's a great way to keep the reader's interest, but it feels a bit halfhearted, as if someone had told Japin that he had to jazz up Boachi's life story if he was going to get some foreign sales. I love a mystery, but not if you hear the gears and wheels clinking and clanking in the background.

Still, given the richness of the scene Japin paints, and the brilliance of his hues, these are minor complaints. In the end, what gives all the spectacle historical depth and moral texture is that distinctive double vision, the carefully established structural doublings. First, the historical disaster of European colonialism, the way it irrevocably destroyed native cultures while never delivering on its promises of acculturation and "progress," is beautifully evoked here by means of the twinned experiences of the two cousins. There's Kwasi, who believes he can fit in, lose his blackness, by becoming fully Europeanized -- a process that involves what can only be described as willing self-abasement -- simply to find how much a pawn he's been. And then there's Kwame, who believes he's retained his blackness only to realize, upon his return to Africa, just how white he's become. Then the corrosive dynamic of the master-slave bond is delicately explored in Japin's depiction of Kwasi's strange relationship with his former schoolmate and current employer, Cornelius de Groot. De Groot's pleasure in shaming his former friend stems from social humiliations similar to those endured by Kwasi.

The story's most ironic doubling, however, may be the one that links Van Drunen, the man who "civilized" Kwasi, and Kwasi himself. In the last few pages of the book, the two men are brought together for a climactic reunion; here, you realize that they are essentially the same person. For Van Drunen, like his ward, ended up cast out of his native society (after he realizes the duplicitousness of his superiors' dealings with the Africans, he leaves the army and goes to live with the natives); like Kwasi, Van Drunen loses his social standing, rank, and honors, and ends up at the close of his life with next to nothing. But unlike his ward -- and here's the terrible poignancy -- Van Drunen never made "the old mistake of believing I could become their equal. I was different, and tolerated as such in their midst." Kwasi's tragedy is that he realizes too late that being tolerated is not the same as being accepted.

That belated realization provides the wrenching context for the final revelation of the mystery: the nature of the obscure official mandate that has been used by various functionaries to prevent Kwasi's success. I won't reveal what this is, except to say that what's contained in the paper that Van Drunen triumphantly produces for Kwasi's perusal is at once so obvious and yet so devastating that it manages to be satisfyingly climactic and, as Kwasi ruefully tells Van Drunen, "stale" news at the same time. That, as it happens, is a perfect description of Japin's achievement in this book. However uneven it may be, it takes a subject that by now may look stale -- or should I say gray? -- and gives it back its rich and tragic color.


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