Adam Foulds, The Broken Word

Apparently when white guys write about Africa I must compare them to Conrad (it is possible that I am overdoing it in this case). Oh well. This must be why I’m always nervous about writing about poetry. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about The Broken Word though–particularly with regard to its treatment of one rape and one attempted rape (why must so many books be ruined for me by dubiously-done rapes?) but perhaps that’s for a later post when I’ve gathered my thoughts more.

From this weekend’s column:


The announcement of Granta’s once-a-decade list of the Best of Young British Novelists created something of a stir earlier this week. One of the names I was pleased to see on the list was that of Adam Foulds, whose 2009 novel The Quickening Maze impressed me (and others, presumably, since it made it to the Booker shortlist that year). Foulds’ presence on the Granta list provided the impetus to read his second book, a verse novel titled The Broken Word.

The Broken Word is set in Kenya and England, during the years of the Mau Mau Uprising. At the centre of the book (most of it is told from his perspective) is Tom, a young English boy just out of an English boarding school who has returned to Africa before going off to university. Tom finds himself working to violently suppress the rebellion; at no point a particularly purposeful character he almost drifts into the awful things he will do. Eventually he will return to England and to university, yet his life has been touched by extreme violence and that fact cannot be escaped.

And the violence of the British reaction is inescapable in this book. Foulds allows these horrors to unfold in a series of almost cinematic images rendered vivid and alien by unlikely metaphor (this is all very much in the tradition of Craig Raine, who is mentioned in the afterword). We see “sores growing on the prisoners like coral”, men, “heavily edited. Between them: / nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles”. One man Tom kills by beating him with his gun “swung and swung/ across the breaking stave/ of the man’s forearms and collar bone”, the image ruthless in its sheer economy, evoking the act, the broken body and the form of the poem itself.

It’s either a sign of that book’s greatness or of my own lack of imagination that I can’t help frequently going back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One of many possible criticisms (see, for example, Chinua Achebe’s for the most famous) of the book’s treatment of race lies in its relegation of Africa and Africans to the background. Colonialism is bad, it seems to suggest, not because of the violence committed upon Africans but because it is making good Europeans into monsters. In The Broken Word it’s Tom whose eyes we see this story through, Tom whose future life at university is marked by violent dreams and acts—including the attempted rape of a young woman. One of the few moments when we slip out of his perspective seems engineered so that someone else, not he, will be responsible for a brutal rape.

And I think Foulds is at least partly aware of this—which does not absolve him of perpetuating the pattern. Against the attempts of the European characters to reduce the Africans to objects is the text’s insistence on our knowledge of their humanity. The fact of violence is forced upon us, and the civilised rituals of the European characters appear monstrous in comparison.

But there’s another reason I think Foulds might be drawing directly upon Conrad. At the end of Heart of Darkness, as Marlow takes the news of Kurtz to a woman whom he’d left behind, we see a piano with its ivory keys. Ivory from Africa; a reminder of why we (I say “we”, not “they” because the reader is never given the possibility of shared subjectivity with anyone other than the European man) are there in the first place.

Tom’s courtship ends with his girlfriend (the woman whom he attempted to rape) suggesting that he ask her to marry him and buy her an engagement ring: “…usually/ young men start looking,/ you know, do I have to/ spell it out? In jewellers’ windows”. By now it ought to be difficult for a twenty first century reader to think of the traditional diamond engagement ring and not immediately think of blood diamonds.


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