In his life, John Updike was considered to be one of, if not the, premier American novelists of the 20th century-his Rabbit Angstrom books are still considered to be one of the best satires of the archetypical downtrodden American husband and father (the genre arguably started by Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit), full of broken dreams and mediocrity as he struggles against the changes of the world around him.
But that’s not what I’ve come here to discuss:
My favorite of his works is the 1978 best seller The Coup, an excellent read in its own right, but so much more than that: For The Coup is quite possibly the only satire of post-colonial Africa (or at least, the only one I’m aware of). More to the point, in satirizing latter 20th-century Marxist states, The Coup shines a light on some aspects of modern leftist ideology that confuse and infuriate us today, and shows that even back then there were competing camps in the leftist “big tent”. And of course, there is an implicit message of “Imperialism will hurt the empire in the long run”, which is most relevant to America in its current decline.
The main character of the book is Colonel Hakim Ellelou, dictator of the fictional Francophonic Sub-Saharan nation of Kush, who at first appears to be nothing more than your standard tinpot tyrant who lived a life similar to other Third World dictators: Former soldier of the colonial forces used to fight other rebellious indigenes (in this case, being sent to fight the Viet Minh immediately after World War II), grew attracted to Marxism when looking at the inequality between him and the colonials, seized power in the chaos of decolonization, and latched onto the Soviet Union to consolidate his power.
However, as the book cleverly reveals, there are a few things that separate him from the standard dictator: For starters, he actually seems to believe in the nonsense he preaches (and considering that his doctrine is explicitly named the oxymoronic “Islamo-Marxism”, Page 128, ‘nonsense’ is the best word to describe it). Secondly, and most notably for an anti-American dictator, he is extensively knowledgeable of the United States for he studied and lived there for several years, long enough to take a blonde American wife back with him to Kush. The book then follows Colonel Ellelou, his government, and his four wives as they try to weather drought and famine in the nation, criticism of their hypocritical embrace of Marxism and Islam simultaneously, and eventually the eponymous Coup that seeks his overthrow.
Reading the book, you will notice how similar fiction is to reality, and not just in the ahem applications of religion: From the anti-Western Ellelou codifying the highly French concept of Elan in his military strategy to his squabbles with his fellow African heads of state over being less principled in taking aid from powerful countries, one can see much resemblance to African politics in both the Cold War and today: …”He flooded my purified, penniless, but proud country with buses full of toubabs” (pg 210)
But where the book truly excels is when it satirizes two intertwined aspects of the post-colonial world: the struggles that third world countries have in dragging their populations into modernity, and the clueless white liberals who give them a never-ending supply of “blank checks” that cause catastrophic failure.
The struggles of Kush’s attempts to remove itself from the mire of its colonial exploitation are familiar to any who have studied third worldism: Tribal, cultural, and religious conflict amongst the peoples of the nation, colonial internalization combined with a culture that seems to resist any attempt at modernization, and the boneheaded attempts of its leaders to force modernity upon them. And then there are distinctly African examples such as witch doctors being used to “animate” severed heads to spout Soviet propaganda.
Personally, what I enjoyed the most was the second theme: that of Ellelou’s interactions with white people. Early on in the book, we are told that agitating from French leftists in the 1960s, combined the struggles of the Fifth Republic, is what led to Kush being set free from the empire (Page 167). While still in Kush, we see a USAID bureaucrat catastrophically fail to interpret the reaction of a crowd of Kushites and get martyred for it – a martyr burned to death on a pyre of Cheerios and Spam – a fitting end for an ambassador of the Empire of Commerce, snarks Ellelou.
(As a side note, it is interesting to note that many of this African Marxist’s criticisms of America are identical to those of paleo-cons and the alt-right. “Stopped clocks” and all that…)
The book then periodically switches between Ellelou’s current status as the leader of Kush, and flashbacks to his young adulthood as a student at the University of Wisconsin, and his experience as a real legitimate black person interacting with the 1950s version of social justice warriors. It is very heavily implied that his hatred for the United States started here, whether it be from his African Studies professor giving him a B-, his clashes with the other minority students and their varying reactions to the burgeoning civil rights movement, or society at large’s reaction to him beginning to date and eventually marrying a white woman. His relationship with his American wife and the emotions surrounding it are by far the funniest part of the novel: every 5 or so pages I was saying “Nothing’s Changed!”: Starting from the explicit declaration that the woman wanted to date this “Negro ragamuffin” purely to spite her father, to the admonishments Ellelou receives from both whites and blacks as he contemplates the doctrine of the Nation of Islam, the arguments for and against this particular relationship have largely remained the same despite 60 years of “progress”. While he ostensibly leaves the Nation of Islam, Ellelou internalizes “a sort of idealism made of severity, isolation, decency, and xenophobia” (p. 201), ironically basing his anti-American ideology on an American religious group.
The paragraph above elucidates the two core themes of the book beyond the post-colonialism: the shift from traditional Marxism to cultural Marxism, and how the spread of American culture is inexorable even to the most virulent anti-American. Being set in the 1950s, we can see what Ellelou refers to as the “marginal Americans” slowly being disgruntled with the slowness of “progress” and demanding more (worth noting is the appearance of what a decidedly familiar Afrocentric historiography on (Page 152)
As the book continues, we see the Colonel’s grip on his nation slowly weaken as his hardline Marxism is defeated by the encroachment of America’s soft imperialism and the eponymous coup: “This is the revolution, the triumph of the unnecessary. If Marx saw his English proles now, he wouldn’t recognize their softness, soaked through with ale and television…great fanatics can no longer arise, they are swamped with distraction” (p. 189). And as the titular Coup takes place, Ellelou manages to become something of a mythical hero to his countrymen, even as he manages to survive and his country goes completely off the rails he had planned for it to travel on. And in the end, even he succumbs to the West, feebly thumbing the eye of the USA in a last bout of defiance as he retreats to exile in France, his former colonial master.
As detailed above, the plot is written crisply and sharply-While most of the other characters are not nearly as fleshed out as the Ellelou family, the characterization that is given is sufficient to drive the story, and their dialogue is funny and illuminating. In addition, the descriptive portrayals of both Africa and Middle America, and the culture clash there in, is very entertaining as well.
If the book can be said to have any one flaw, it is that it ends too optimistically…in a manner of speaking. While the Colonel’s story is obviously one that ends bittersweetly at best, the optimism is an optimism specific to a Cold War American audience: the book (correctly) predicts that despite all of America’s bungling it will win the cold war because capitalism makes people happier than communism, and the third world will reject Soviet-style Marxism. While that did indeed happen, Updike didn’t predict that America would wholeheartedly embrace cultural Marxism and replace the USSR as the world’s #1 purveyor of leftist ideology. But I suppose that would be too much to ask of anyone to predict.
And finally, as we debate the “Great Wall of Trump”, let me say that the book ends with a paragraph that describes the concept of “imperial backwash” better than any other body of text I’ve ever seen:
“The good people of France do not look up at the sight of noirs on their avenues. Their empire backed up on them a bit like those other reservoirs. For a century flooded with Europeans and now doused the home country with a stream of dark diplomats, students, laborers, and exiles”.
If you want to understand modern leftism, Third World-ism, or politics in general, read this.
Buy The Coup here