A review of The Cattle Killing, by John Edgar Wideman
Published October 24th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
’Til the Cows Come Home
By John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin, $22
Wideman released his last book, Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, in 1994, but he hasn’t published any fiction since 1990, when his masterful Philadelphia Fire won him his second PEN/Faulkner award. So his new novel, The Cattle Killing, arrives amid a flurry of critical expectation.
The novel’s title refers to the South African Xhosa’s infamous 1856 cattle killing. The Xhosa were a peaceful, agrarian people whose livelihoods depended on their cattle, but with the Europeans invading physically, intellectually, and religiously, the tribe reached a moment of truth. In a fit of hysteria, Nongqawuse, the daughter of a tribal priest, received a vision ordering the Xhosa to kill all their cattle.
Wideman recounts the words of the prophecy:
Spread my message to all the clans, daughter. Bid them hear me well. This evil world is dying. A new one is on its way. The whites will be driven out. The ancestors will return and dwell again on the earth, bringing with them endless herds of cattle to fill our kraals.
But only those who kill all their cattle will be welcomed in this new world. The people must kill their cattle now if they wish to live forever in peace and harmony when their ancestors return.
Although this act meant suicide for the Xhosa, they eventually saw that they had no other earthly chance against the encroaching whites. And while not all of them followed the prophecy, they ultimately destroyed 400,000 of their cattle, causing a famine that killed more than 40,000 Xhosa.
Wideman uses this episode as the centerpiece of The Cattle Killing, and even though the novel’s main action takes place in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, the narrative circles around it, drawing the various characters in toward it.
Framing the novel with a kind of metafictional meditation, Wideman himself is drawn into this spiral as a character. Within this frame, however, the real narrator, an unnamed former slave turned itinerant preacher, takes over as the novel’s central intelligence. The preacher begins by explaining that he has visions (probably brought on by epilepsy) that take him to unimaginable planes of consciousness, giving him an almost godlike clarity. But the visions invariably give way to violent, horrific fits that cause him to lose track of time.
The narrative shifts constantly, and it’s never really clear whom the preacher’s addressing when he’s speaking. He tells his story in first, second, and third person, and, if that isn’t confusing enough, as the novel progresses, other voices arise to fill the gaps that he leaves. His main audience seems to be one of two incarnations of an African maid whom he meets on his way to Philadelphia. When he first comes across her, she’s fleeing the plague-ridden city with a dead white baby, and he watches her carry it into a lake and disappear forever.
Upon reaching Philadelphia (where he aims to help fight the plague), he hears rumors of her story and finds that the whites believe the blacks to be not only immune to the plague, but to be its cause. He pieces together the rumors to find that a prominent white family had expelled her from their quarantined home because their child became sick. They forced her to take the child outside the city to die, and thus begins the spiral of events that follow (or, rather, lead up to) her encounter with the preacher.
If all of this sounds perplexing, it probably doesn’t cover a fifth of The Cattle Killing’s layered storytelling. The preacher tells his story to his audience, who tells her own story, and within their stories, their memories tell their own stories. But it all leads to one culminating central image: the cattle killing.
A parable encompassing hundreds of years of racial horror, The Cattle Killing succeeds on a level that exceeds even mythmaking to become truth. Wideman’s prose sears, using the written word to transform the horror of history into something beautiful. Reaffirming the regenerative power of storytelling, The Cattle Killing leaves the reader exhausted but inspired:
Tell me, finally, what is a man. What is a woman. Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space enchanted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening.
The New Republic calls Wideman “our leading black male writer.” While this is certainly true, it’s like calling Franz Kafka the greatest German Jewish writer from Czechoslovakia, or Aretha Franklin the greatest female soul singer. Of course it’s absurd to separate Wideman’s writing from his race and culture, but such appellations, however accurate, miss the point. Wideman’s body of work, especially this novel, distinguishes him as one of the greatest writers—and minds—of our time.