Free at Last

Hottentot Venus: A Novel
By Barbara Chase-Riboud.
320 pp. New York:
Doubleday. $24.

by Andrew Santella
from the New York Times Book Review

When debate erupts in the amphitheater of Paris’ Museum of Natural History late in Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel, the nineteenth century academics in attendance jump at the chance to try out their pseudoscientific, pre-Darwinian theories of race on their peers. The anatomists have their say, the phrenologists respond, and even the visual artists chime in. About the only person present who doesn’t speak up is the subject of the symposium, a young woman from South Africa’s eastern cape who stands on a stage at the front of the amphitheater, silent, frightened and nearly naked.

Her name is Sarah Baartman and the indignities she endures at the hands of the leading figures of the French academy examining her that afternoon are all too typical of the life she has found so far from her home. Baartman has been cajoled, coerced and conned into pursuing a fortune in Europe, where she is exhibited as the Hottentot Venus, "the virgin Eve risen from the Garden of Creation to the first, primitive level of humanity," as the barker’s pitch puts it. 

The historical Sarah Baartman created a sensation when she appeared in London beginning in 1810. Raised among the Khoekhoe people of southern Africa, she possessed the enlarged backside and sexual organs that her people cultivated as an ideal of feminine beauty. As a young woman in colonial Cape Town, she had caught the attention of a British ship’s doctor named Dunlop, who deceived her into following him to England, where he displayed her, in the most degrading conditions, as a sideshow curiosity. The people came to gawk, grope and leer, and intellectuals of the day found in the Hottentot Venus confirmation of their theories of European superiority.

After her death in 1816, her exploitation continued. Her remains were put on display at the Musée de L’Homme, and only in 2002 was Sarah Baartman returned to South Africa for a dignified burial. In the interim, observers continued to speculate, like the academics in the amphitheater in Chase-Riboud’s novel, about the meaning of the Hottentot Venus. The Venus became a potent emblem to be deployed in discussions of race, gender, even international relations. When Baartman’s body finally returned to her homeland, South African president Thabo Mbeki made her role as cultural symbol explicit, stating, "The story of Sarah Baartman is the story of the African people."

Chase-Riboud’s novel aims to give Baartman, at last, the voice to tell her own story. In five previous historical novels, Chase-Riboud has similarly explored other figures silenced by history, most notably in her 1979 work "Sally Hemings." Also an accomplished poet and sculptor, Chase-Riboud is responsible for the monumental bronze "Africa Rising" in Foley Square, partly inspired by the story of the Hottentot Venus. 

Her novelistic take on the subject is full of ideas, but works most powerfully when it zeroes in on the plain misery of Baartman’s life. "How come I here?" she asks, and the only answers lie in the cruelties of colonialism. Chase-Riboud demonstrates a talent for marshalling statements on the public record against the Great Men of history, revealing them in all their bombastic cluelessness. The chief villain is the renowned naturalist Baron Cuvier, Napoleon’s surgeon general. Taking an interest in assigning the Venus a place in "the great Chain of Being," Cuvier arranges for doctors and anthropologists to examine her, and later performs a grisly postmortem violation of her corpse. "I have the honor to present to the Academy the genital organs of this, my Venus Hottentot," he announces. In a note at the end of the novel, Chase-Riboud explains that some of the uglier inanities uttered by Cuvier and his colleagues in the novel are taken verbatim from 19th century scientific works. 

But she does not always demonstrate convincing command of the historical context. Anachronisms and puzzling inconsistencies distract the reader, and too many of the inevitable Famous Person walk-ons--Napoleon, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, among others--seem gratuitous or simply silly. 

Most critically, Sarah Baartman herself remains an elusive figure, still more emblem than flesh and blood. Her voice swerves between naivete and near omniscience, and too often she seems to be speaking for the author. Barbara Chase-Riboud must be lauded for attempting such a difficult and richly deserving story, but her effort is more earnest than artful. []