The Scent of Eucalyptus, by John Dillon, 451 Editions, 420 pp, €15.95, ISBN: 978-1999907563
A novel about Ethiopia at the time when much of sub-Saharan Africa was coming to independence, written by an Irish professor of classical Greek, might lead to expectations of an account of African history and politics viewed through the prism of ancient philosophy and tragedy. The best African reportage by a non-African I know of is by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who wrote about Africa from the early 1960s on, and one of whose final books was Travels With Herodotus. A sensitivity to empire, ancient and more recent, to the predominance of religious beliefs, to lives lived on what others deem the periphery, might seem a good basis on which to approach a sub-continent at a very particular moment in its history, a moment of some optimism. Alternatively, an account of a young Oxford male virgin graduate heading to Addis Ababa in 1961 to teach in a prestigious English school geared to servicing the needs of expatriate and privileged Ethiopian mixed-sex youth might bring to mind Evelyn Waugh or even Kingsley Amis: The Decline and Fall of Scoop, or perhaps Lucky John.
But The Scent of Eucalyptus is in fact a realist and unironic account of the life of such a teacher, Luke LaTouche: a man who managed to get through his undergraduate years at Oxford in the late 1950s without ever encountering the angry young men, and who could learn to play jazz trumpet while never encountering sex and/or drugs, which might leave a player technically good but devoid of feeling. But if LaTouche’s life is somewhat more than sheltered, it is not without its ennui; cold war gloom and confusion about his Anglo-Irish identity leave him in a state of some paralysis which the offer of a job by way of his very well-connected cousin, Sir James, in Addis might alleviate. In his prefatory note, John Dillon says The Scent of Eucalyptus is something of a roman à clef, but he exaggerates his hero’s distance from Ireland by making LaTouche of Irish Huguenot origin, born in Malaya of a father killed by the Japanese. Thus LaTouche fits in immediately and seamlessly with the expatriate and old colonial scene which hangs on in Ethiopia after the British had cleared the Italians out. As such, perhaps unintentionally, it is a case study of a man who could go from Britain to the colonies and fit in effortlessly with the class system, both imported and indigenous, and all the privileges that entails. Had he arrived in Africa forty years earlier, LaTouche could have made himself a comfortable career as an imperial administrator, keeping the books straight, hanging natives as required and ending with a knighthood. But those days had come to an end.
LaTouche throws himself with vigour into expatriate Addis life, facilitated by his uncle’s connections to the highest levels of banking and the law, and his own friendship with an Ethiopian prince with radical pretensions he had known in Oxford. He takes up residence in the school compound, has meals made by his servant and never refuses a drink. He buys a car: only at a very late stage does it dawn on him that the only way to see an African city is on foot. Up to now, LaTouche has been unsure about himself and women: suddenly, he is something of a hit. It never occurs to him that his popularity might be closely connected to his rarity: that, as Auden nearly said, as love requires an object, almost anything will do.
He also gets to know bar girls, who in much of Africa double as prostitutes. He sleeps with them, but never gets to understand their circumstances: how and why they are where they are, what life holds for them. As so often in these circumstances he invents a fantasy –a faux closeness ‑ to protect himself from the reality of what he is doing: like his trumpet-playing, technique substitutes for depth. The West still tut-tuts at the devilishness of the Japanese in their treatment of “comfort girls” in Korea. The British empire across Asia and Africa did exactly the same, with one difference: it privatised supply so as not to be directly implicated in what was happening. Against this background, the plot is very well managed –twists are introduced that keep it going and finally young LaTouche can wake up in the morning and look at himself in the mirror and say “that is a man”.
That is one side of Ireland and empire. But there was a Tommy Dillon, a close cousin of John’s father, who was in the IRB, learned Irish in Frongoch and went on to be a professor of chemistry in Galway, where he worked on how to turn seaweed and iodine into an industry: development, as it is now called. As a youngster in the 1960s I went to Connemara to learn Irish: there I met men and women who were still very much from the country; their rhythms governed by the seasons, by livestock, even though many now commuted seasonally to foreign cities to work. The men stayed on one side of the church, the women on the other, and they said hello to you as you passed on the road. And they spoke a different language, which you were there to learn. Many years later, I was sitting on my own in a garden near Dar es Salaam when a man came over and told me he couldn’t see me sitting on my own. I joined the company and it gradually dawned on me that I had met people like this before. Maybe those kind of anti-colonial connections between Ireland and Africa are also coming to an end: nowadays, there is a healthy Nigerian science fiction-writing scene; something new – different empires ‑ to talk about.
Eoin Dillon works on the history and theory of the African state.