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The Viceroy of Ouidah Paperback – June 7, 1988

4.2 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A masterpiece which everybody should read...It deserves to become a classic" -- Auberon Waugh "No lunacy too weird, no irony too oblique, heart too tender, mischief too black, to dodge the sharp angle of his eye. He slips from the hilarious to the macabre, he celebrates the comedy and plumbs the tragedy of Francisco's life - and of Africa - in prose that grabs you with its precision" Observer "Outstanding, finely written" Independent "It is hard to know how posterity will regard this remarkable writer, but his terse, honed language was built to last" -- Colin Thubron Sunday Times --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Bruce Chatwin (1940–1989) was the author of In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, The Songlines, and Utz. His other books are What Am I Doing Here and Anatomy of Restlessness, posthumous anthologies of shorter works, and Far Journeys, a collection of his photographs that also includes selections from his travel notebooks.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reissue edition (June 7, 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140112901
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140112900
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.4 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #429,498 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bruce Chatwin reinvented British travel writing with his first book, In Patagonia, and followed it with many travel books and novels, each unique and extraordinary. He died in 1989.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As an aspiring travel writer who has yet to publish anything, I turned green with envy on reading Bruce Chatwin's novel. In terse, spare prose, he summons up images that seem drawn from photography or haiku rather than from ordinary literature. He presents distant times (late 18th and early 19th century) and places (Brazil and Dahomey) linking them seamlessly with the steamy, sordid present---the paranoid military dictatorship of Benin in the crumbling West African post-colonial 1970s. Every page is redolent of color, smell, sound, and imminent disaster: every scene appears like a bead in a necklace of decay, corruption, cruelty and disaster. There are no wasted moments, no lagging sections. A poor boy from the Brazilian backlands becomes a rich, powerful slave trader in West Africa, but his background betrays him at home, his connections in Africa ultimately do the same. His largely illegitimate family continues into the seedy Benin of the present. My only criticism of this work is that Chatwin chose to concentrate solely on the Brazilian side of things, leaving the Africans as part of the backdrop--more acted upon than actors. Dahomey was a fascinating society and besides the anthropological researches of M. Herskovits, one can read Frank Yerby's "The Dahomeyan", though Yerby's prose pales in comparison to Chatwin's. A far better book, one which focuses on the Dahomeyan connection to Brazil as well, is Judith Gleason's "Agõtime", a possible antidote to the slant taken by Chatwin. Otherwise, this book contains superlative writing on every page, writing redolent with human nature, the mysteries of the soul, and the mundane horrors of much of human history. "The Viceroy of Ouidah" has the power to open periods and locations for readers that have seldom featured in Anglo-American writing. It is a stunning book.
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Format: Paperback
The Viceroy of Ouidah was Francisco Manoel De Souza, (da Silva in Chatwin's book) who came to Ouidah (also spelled "Whydah"; part of the Abomey Empire, later called "the Slave Coast", Dahomey, and currently, Benin) in the 1750s and eventually became the main broker between African slave sellers and European slave buyers. He played a significant role in the nation's history, and was actually named Viceroy of Ouidah by an Abomey king.
Chatwin's "The Viceroy of Ouidah" (his fist novel, written after visiting West Africa) is a very well written book. I found it a pleasure to read, hard to put down (it is one of the few books I have read in a single sitting). It is a short book: nothing in Chatwin's text is extraneous; every sentence advances his story, which is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, past and present.
Werner Herzog made a film titled "Cobra Verde" (1988, starring Klaus Kinski) which is based on "The Viceroy of Ouidah". In his "Wonders of the African World" book and television program Henry Louis Gates, Jr. travels to modern-day Ouidah and encounters the descendents of De Souza, who still live on his estate.
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Format: Paperback
For sheer dripping tropical lushness of prose that at the same time is watertight and flowing, nothing can beat Chatwin's VICEROY OF OUIDAH. I have long admired the author's essays, and this is only my second (and far from last) foray into his fiction. Picture to yourself a story in two parts, each occupying roughly half the book. The first is a gathering of Francisco da Silva's descendents years after his death; the second follows his life from its humble beginnings in Brazil to his glory days as a much-loved and much-hated slave-trader and finally ending in his slow undoing in the vortex of passions, jealousies, and greed in the West African society in which he lives.
That same society was described by another great writer almost a century earlier. Sir Richard Francis Burton's A MISSION TO GELELE, KING OF DAHOMEY captures the scene perfectly some 50 years or so after da Silva's passing, including the all-female army regiments of the King and the weird dysfunctionality of his court. Chatwin seems to have taken a few leaves from Burton's book and woven a fascinating study of the rise and fall of a very limited man.
We never really see into da Silva's mind: In the first part of the book, he is merely a revered forefather; in the second, an adventurer whose decline is as precipitate as Citizen Kane's. The King's Amazon warriors howl at his passing: "It was not the leopard that killed him. Not the buffalo that killed him. It was night. Night that killed him." That -- and everything else.
At no time does da Silva understand the irony of his being a slave broker whom the slaving ship captains could trust. We do not follow the slavers to the New World, just see them off at the docks as they begin their grim voyage. The Dahomean kings use da Silva, but profoundly distrust him.
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Format: Paperback
I am not a great fan of this novel. For me, this is Chatwin at his most show offy. This book followed hot on the heels of his thumpingly successful debut 'In Patagonia' and Chatwin was clearly garnering a reputation for describing far flung places in an original and inventive way. This he does in the Viceroy of Ouidah, a short biographical novel about the Brazillian Manoel de Silva who rose from poverty and obscurity to become the head of slave trading in Dahomey, now Benin in West Africa. A potentially brilliant framework for Chatwin's prose style to let rip you might think, but I think he goes overboard on the lush descriptions of the geography, climate and people of the regions he illuminates and loses sight of how to really engage the reader in the novel.

This novel was not all that well received when it first came out. His next work 'On the Black Hill' reveived the 1982 Whitbread Literary Award for Best First Novel, overlooking the fact that Chatwin had alreay published Viceroy previously and I think this is telling. I found the novel lacking in the gripping substance, intangible though that may be that really makes a great novel. Like one of the many works of art Chatwin catalogued when he was working at Sotheby's, it is a glistening gem, but beneath the surface, there is little that stirs the soul and lodges in the memory as passages of great fiction do.

Still worth reading though, as Chatwin at his worst is better than many writers at their best.
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