Literary Review, October 1993

Sucking Pig and Yams Explain their Torpor


OBSCURE KINGDOMS By Edward Fox (Hamish Hamilton 258pp £16.99)

IN AN AMBITIOUS attempt to explore the nature of kingship in its ceremonial, spiritual and political aspects, and to understand the reasons for its survival in places as disparate as Tonga, Oman, Nigeria, Swaziland and Indonesia, it is the spiritual dimension which most intrigues Edward Fox: how and why rulers create and maintain the perception and acceptance in their subjects of a link between temporal and divine power; why there is always an element of the sacred associated with the person and office of the king. Fox sets out to interview the rulers themselves, to ask them directly how they view their roles and tasks, especially their relationship with the sacred.

His choice of Eshu, the Yoruba deity , as guide and mentor for such an undertaking is not such a good idea; he is after all the Trickster God in the pantheon of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, amoral and wont to use and confuse mere mortals for his own amusement. He is said to accompany travellers, frequently leading them astray down difficult and dangerous paths. It is all credit to Fox's tenacity that after long delays and much kicking of heels in the antechambers of the mighty he manages to have meetings with his chosen subjects everywhere but Swaziland, although his contact with Sultan Qaboos of Oman is limited to a limp handshake. It is hardly surprising that all are reluctant to give the game away, to reveal any links their rule may have with the spiritual or divine.

The only one to provide more than a hint is Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, perhaps because Javanese culture and cosmology are so precisely codified. By contrast Fox comes up against an absolute and rigid refusal when attempting to gain access to the young King Mswati III: the cordon of advisers and interest groups remains totally impenetrable, exemplifying the truth of the Swazi national motto: 'Siyinqaba', 'We are the fortress'.

The visits to the five countries are prompted by a desire to investigate kingdoms untouched by European influence; a tall order and naive hope, given the once-pervasive presence (and still sometimes relevant imprint) of the British everywhere but Indonesia -- and even here Fox unearths a rather tenuous link between Stamford Raffles and the present authority of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta.

There is a certain irony in reading descriptions of rulers who have all realised the necessity of achieving a balance between distance and proximity, between awe-inspiring majesty on the one hand and approachability and concern on the other, and comparing their varying degrees of success with the recent dismal record of the British royal family.

Much of Obscure Kingdoms is taken up with waiting for the call to the palace, for Fox to put on his ceremonial costume of Brooks Brothers' blue and white seersucker suit and sally forth. It is in fact the waiting, rather than the eventual meetings with rulers, which provides most of the interest of this sometimes haphazard but frequently engrossing book. Fox supplies many interesting snippets from history and anthropology .He writes of the manner in which Qaboos engineered the overthrow of his father in 1970 with the help of a conveniently available SAS detachment -- no easy task when he had been his father's prisoner for the previous six years. Sultan Sa'id had become increasingly eccentric during his reign, installing telescopes in his palace to watch over his subjects at all times. He would occasionally overstep the mark, for example telephoning the British Consulate in Muscat across the bay to protest whenever he saw someone smoking on the verandah.

Fox describes the acceptance by Yoruba people of the power of witchcraft in everyday life in Nigeria, where a national newspaper tells how a mother angry with her son caused an accident to his brand-new car from which he barely escaped alive. Fox (an American educated in the UK) also notes the close resemblance between the British and the Swazi, quoting a saying to emphasise his point: 'Liswati nalingisi, Zulu nelibhunu'  -- 'Let the Swazi and the English deceive each other with polite- ness, and the Zulu and the Boer have it out with clubs.' In Yogyakarta he realises that not only the person of the Sultan, but also his palace, Mount Merapi, and the beach of Parangkusumo have their place in a specific and preordained symbolism where sacred geography joins with the holiness inherent in the person of Hamengkubuwono to create a coherent whole.

Obscure Kingdoms brings to life many of the people and the cultures with which Fox comes into contact during his search for the meaning of kingship. Omani society is so eerily calm and enclosed that few foreigners gain any real access. The chief failure is Tonga, which remains flat on the page perhaps because it was the first country visited before Fox fully refined his technique of dealing with royalty. His interview with the king is arranged with ridiculous ease compared to the tribulations encountered elsewhere, but it is notable for its banality. It may well also be that Tonga itself breeds torpor; the amount of food eaten (with vast quantities of sucking pig and yams central to the menu) would certainly be conducive to extreme laziness.