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Book Review September 4, 2003
Smut for the Pious
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4
Perhaps, because a risible Italian chauvinism is one of Orizio's more entertaining idiocies. (And you really begin to appreciate the risible ones, believe me.) Encountering an Italian construction worker in Saudi Arabia, he finds the man "...building roads and houses, as [Italians] have done the world over since the days of the Roman Empire." One of the few times Orizio betrays real outrage is when the wife of his African guide, who has just returned from years of work as a housemaid in Italy, says "without a hint of irony" that Rome reminded her of Berengo, capital of Bokassa's realm. Presumably, her years of scrubbing Rome's toilets should have imbued her with a proper sense of awed inferiority.

When Orizio transcends Italo-chauvinism, it is only to fall into Euro-patriotism, as in his comic allusion to the "vast" Polish countryside or, far more damagingly, in his apparent unawareness that Bokassa's protracted supplication of France is more than farce -- is, in fact, a very serious revenge of the colonized, just as Amin's patronizing treatment of Elizabeth II was a serious revenge for centuries of British savagery in Africa.

Bokassa comes across as a man with a legitimate case against the French sponsors who used and betrayed him. He was not a brilliant comedian like Amin; instead, it was his very gullibility and servility which made for the pathos of his lifelong, tragic encounter with Europe.

Bokassa was a fifteen-minute sensation, whose fame came when he was accused of having hundreds of demonstrating students thrown to the crocodiles after they refused to pay for the school uniforms he had required them to wear. The uniforms were sold only in stores owned by the Bokassa family, and cost far more than students could afford. This aroused resentment, which Bokassa neutralized in a very memorable manner.

That most exciting part of the story -- the croc-feeding -- seems to be invented. But even after reading Orizio's chapter on Bokassa, I'm still not sure, because Orizio never bothers to check either the stories told about his subjects or their own version of events. This is particularly disastrous in the chapter on Bokassa, because the former Emperor talks coherently and at length, and tells a story very different from the conventional one. Again and again, the embittered and impoverished Bokassa, living in poverty in the country he once ruled, tells Orizio about his betrayal by the French -- and Orizio rarely even tries to find out the truth of Bokassa's charges.

Bokassa says Giscard d'Estaing took gifts of diamonds, enjoyed free elephant-hunting trips, and took Bokassa's "Empress" as concubine. True or not? Orizio won't say. Bokassa says the French deposed him because he "disobeyed" them. True or not? The reader never finds out. All we learn is that Bokassa's memoir, Ma Verite, was "pulped on the orders of Giscard d'Estaing." Orizio doesn't even seem to have find a copy.

Bokassa emerges from the chapter as gullible colonial soldier more than despot. Though his father was killed by the French, he enlisted and fought for them all over the world. Bokassa claims to have earned "the Croix de Guerre, two Croix de la Resistance, [and] the Legion d'honneur." Again, Orizio doesn't check the story, but on this point, at least, Bokassa may be telling the truth.

And his reward for serving, then trying to emulate his masters was mockery and betrayal. de Gaulle called him "le soudard (the grunt)" and "Papa Bock."

Bokassa's folly was believing. He thought that the European word "Emperor" had power, unaware of Stalin's quintessential summary of European hierarchies, "How many divisions has the Pope?" Bokassa's complaints are weirdly sad: "Bokassa did not deny [committing murders]. 'But I was not the only one. What about Ariel Sharon? Why has he been forgiven for...Sabra and Shatila, while I have been forgiven for nothing? Just because I'm African?" Orizio's only response is a sneer: "[Bokassa] seemed in good form that day. Perhaps he had taken his medicines."

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