The Viceroy of Ouidah

Bruce Chatwin

Pan Books 1982
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
From around West Africa the myriad descendants of Dom Francisco gather every year in Ouidah, Dahomey, to honour his memory. This time their living link to the past, a centenarian daughter born at the end of Francisco's life, lies dying. Her life has been one of disappointments: the English lieutenant she loved abandoned her; a favourite nephew died of cholera; and the clergy refused to go along with her attempt to convert Dom Francisco's bedroom into a shrine.

After this entree, The Viceroy of Ouidah follows the course of Francisco's life: a poor childhood in Brazil, friendship with a scion of a wealthy family, arrival in Ouidah in 1812 and years working as a slave trade factor, rise with a change of rulers to a lofty position as King's Viceroy at Ouidah, and old age and death in fallen state. It's an extraordinary rags-to-riches-to-rags tale.

Made up of short, intense vignettes loosely strung together, rather than a steady narrative, The Viceroy of Ouidah nevertheless moves along effortlessly. It is emotionally restrained, maintaining an even tone for the comic and the tragic, for the macabre and the lyrical, but with such a dramatic and compelling story and setting, and such vivid descriptions, no playing with the heart-strings is necessary. Connecting two continents and spanning two centuries, The Viceroy of Ouidah effectively conveys a feel for cultural and geographical distances and the passing of time. It is hard to believe that the entire book is barely one hundred pages long, even after one goes back and counts pages: there's more here than in most six hundred page novels.

April 2003

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%T The Viceroy of Ouidah
%A Chatwin, Bruce
%I Pan Books
%D 1982
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0330266136
%P 126pp