12/2017 HOTTENTOT VENUS

Author   Barbara Chase-Riboud is not a stranger to controversy. Her novels  about  the intimate relationship between third U.S. President Thomas  Jefferson  and a slave he owned named Sally Hemings (Sally Hemings and The President's Daughter)   elicited equal measures of praise and condemnation. And 10 years ago,   she received a $10-million settlement from the Dreamworks film studio   over the  movie Amistad, after she accused Dreamworks of infringing on her novel Echo of Lions, which was also about the famed slave-ship rebellion. 

In  Hottentot  Venus, takes on another contentious subject: the sad saga of  a Khoe  Khoe (also spelled "Khoi Khoi" woman from South Africa was  displayed  throughout Britain and continental Europe during the early  years of the  19th century. The woman was known by a succession of  names: Ssehura, the  name her people gave her; Saartjie and Sarah  Baartman, which she  received as a servant in Dutch and English colonial  households; and  finally the Hottentot Venus, which combined a  derogatory identifier for  the Khoe Khoe and and a snide reference to  the Greco-Roman goddess of  love and beauty.

Because   Europeans of the early 1800s had little or no knowledge of the Khoe   Khoe people, they they viewed Sarah as a freak of nature' an oddity, a   "missing link" between the human and the subhuman. The primary reason   for this perception was a characteristic called "steatopygia," an   excessive development of the hips and buttocks that was  characteristic   of her people.

Chase-Riboud  chronicles this  story primarily through the voice of Sarah herself,  along with those of  her captors, companions, and contemporaries. Sarah  is a victim of  circumstances well beyond her control. Yet she is not a  passive object  in the tragi-drama of her life. She is the one who  decides to leave her  homeland, which is besieged by rapacious European  colonists. She  agrees to accompany a pair of rogues to England, where  she will  supposedly receive a share of the profits from her purported   performances will earn. When she boards a ship departing from Cape  Town,  she cannot be expected to know that she never see Africa again --  not,  at least, while she is alive.

And  if she  did know, it might not have mattered to her, as her people faced   dispossession and slavery at best, and extermination at worst. Putting   herself on display in a faraway land would have seemed a small price to   pay for freedom from the deadly prison South Africa was becoming for   anyone who was not white.

Alas,  once she set  foot on British soil, Sarah learned that the contract into  which she  had entered with her two "benefactors" bound her to them as  securely as  the fetters that shackle a slave. Her "performances"  consisted of  sitting, standing, walking and dancing, sometimes on a  stage, sometimes  in a cage. Sometimes she sang and played a guitar.  Whatever she did,  the crowds that clamored to gawk at her viewed her as  an example of a  "lower order" of humanity, or perhaps not human at all.

Chase-Riboud   counterbalances the quiet dignity of "The Venus" with the  reprehensible  behavior of the jeering, sneering, object-tossing  audiences that pay to  see the woman from afar. Yet despite this deluge  of degradation, Sarah  tries to adapt to her surroundings. She becomes a  connoisseur of  clothing (especially gloves) and learns to speak Dutch,  English and  French competently, if not fluently. She also discovers  alcohol, which  soothes her sorrows but threatens to steal her soul.

Because   of the terms of the contract, Sarah's "masters" control her body. The   contract gets divided and resold, and is eventually claimed as winnings   in a card game by a dissolute Frenchman named Sieur Reaux. Reaux takes   Sarah to France, where she becomes just as much of a sensation as she   had been in England. She also attracts the interest of Baron Georges   Cuvier, a leading biologist of the time, who has a special interest in   the classification of humans and the hierarchy of races. He is a   proponent of a pre-evolutionary concept called "The Great Chain of   Being," and he is determined to discern where "The Venus" and her race   fit in that chain.

Cuvier  arranges for Sarah to  be examined by a group of notable anatomists,  naturalists,  physiologists and other scientists whose behavior is far  more  circumspect than that of the crowds at her performances. But their   curiosity is just as avid, and their respect for Sarah's personal   dignity just as lacking.

Even  after the  examination ends, Cuvier continues to stalk Sarah like a  patient  predator. And while Reaux counts his profits, his "Venus"  succumbs to  the ravages of alcoholism, depression and the myriad  European diseases  to which she has no immunity.

On  New Year's Day  of 1816, Sarah dies at the age of 27 of pleurisy and  tuberculosis.  Cuvier swoops in and claims her corpse for dissection.  Venturing into  the realm of magic realism, Chase-Ribaud enables Sarah's  spirit to  speak in the afterlife. Thus, Sarah witnesses her own  dismemberment at  the deft hands of Cuvier and his colleagues. 

The   indignities continue. Under Cuvier's supervision, Sarah's corpse is   stripped of skin and skeleton. Both the bones and the stuffed skin are   put on display in a glass case -- a transparent cage.   

Time   passes. Sarah's spirit remains tied by invisible tethers to her   preserved remains. The lens through which she is viewed changes.   Twentieth-century campaigns for her liberation from the museum and   return to her homeland gained momentum in both France and South Africa.   Finally, in 2002, her remains are repatriated amid great ceremony amid   crowds that venerate her.

Hottentot Venus is   a sweeping saga, replete with subtle nuances and hard truths, rooted   firmly in its colonial Africa and Napoleonic Europe contexts. The   characters -- both good and bad, and there are some  who are good,  both black and white -- are fully realized.   Ssehura/Saartjie/Sarah/Venus is a tragic figure, but she does not  become  a broken one until the end of her short life.

This book is not light reading. But in its indictment of attitudes that continue to this day, it is essential reading. 

There   are only a couple of speed bumps in the narrative. Chase-riboud   mentions the term "evolution" fairly often. But that concept was only  in  its infancy during Sarah Baartman's time. And Charles Darwin was  then  only a boy. He does make an appearance toward the end of the  novel. 

Also,  Chase-Riboud places in Africa  animals that do not occur there  naturally, such as wolves, coyotes, and  lynx. These are just quibbles,  though, well within the bounds of  literary license.

One  final note of irony.  During the late 1800s, a certain fashion trend  flourished for a while  among women in Europe and North America. It  involved the fitting of a  wickerwork construction called a "bustle" to a  woman's backside,  beneath the long dresses of the day. The bustle made  its wearers looks  as though they had steatopygia. 

Had she lived long enough, what might the Hottentot Venus have thought of that particular fashion statement?

Bet she would have laughed her ass off.