In this season’s
, Fintan O’Toole, an Irish writer, speculates that the enduring appeal of the British monarch is that she makes the British crowd feel good about itself, about its manners, its patience. During the Golden Jubilee, O’Toole noticed that hordes of people would wait for a view of the Queen and even anticipate with proud yet self-deprecating humor the resignation they would feel afterward about having glimpsed only, say, her hat, or the tip of her hat, or her sleeve, or–worse–only Philip.
Monarchy means different things to different people. While the cover of Granta is graced with a portrait of Elizabeth R II, silver-haired and honest-looking in a blue suit, a black-and-white picture inside the magazine shows the late Emperor of the Central African Republic, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, in fur-trimmed crown and robe, seated on a gilt throne overarched by an eagle that would do a German fascist proud.
What I dislike about Riccardo Orizio’s Bokassa story is how easily it falls into subtle colonial arrogance, how it laughs up its sleeve at this ridiculous African. Of course, one hated Bokassa for his foolishness, too, as well as for his thuggery and his drawersful of diamonds and his murder not only of his enemies but of thousands of elephants for the ivory trade, etc., etc. Bokassa was a monster and a creep and a killer, but what can’t be forgiven–in addition–is that he was a buffoon; because of that, it’s permissible for Orizio, a well-known Italian travel writer, to disdain him in print the way Westerners have historically done with Africans, legendary or not.
The worst charge leveled against Bokassa is that he indulged in cannibalism. Western literature about Africa abounds with lavish descriptions of cannibal ritual, so it was unlikely that a tyrant like Bokassa would escape this, even though assertions about African and Polynesian cannibalism have been widely disputed by anthropologists and other social scientists. Yet Orizio rehashes the rumors: French troops supposedly found human cadavers in a freezer near Bokassa’s kitchens after he was deposed with French support in 1979, and this gruesome anatomical trove was promptly cited as “evidence.”
Even when Elizabeth behaved badly about Diana’s death and her subjects were a tad shocked at her coldness, no one charged her with eating her in-laws. Why? Because white people don’t do that. I hate to defend Bokassa’s rep against anything, but an unfounded charge of cannibalism, with its taint of cultural stereotype, trivializes the other really bad things the Emperor did, and turns both him and his victims into inky-skinned, white-toothed figures of derision.