By Barbara Chase-Riboud
Doubleday, 320 pp., $24
Barbara Chase-Riboud's "Hottentot Venus" is a bravura act of outrage and grace.
Written with shattering passion, this novel is based on the short, tortured life of Sarah Baartman, the young African woman who was brutally exploited as the "Hottentot Venus" in early 19th century Europe. Her pronounced buttocks and genitalia were common among aboriginal tribeswomen on the eastern coast of South Africa. Yet when she was taken to London and Paris, Baartman was branded a freak and sold to a circus. Nearly naked and displayed in a bamboo cage, she was featured as an exotic curiosity to paying customers.
After her death from alcoholism and pleurisy in 1816, Baartman was publicly dissected by Baron Georges Cuvier, Napoleon's surgeon general, who touted her physical differences as proof of his theories about the inferiority of blacks.
After nearly two centuries as an odd historical footnote, Baartman's life and suffering become palpable in Chase-Riboud's devastating novel. Granting her the voice denied in her lifetime, Chase-Riboud allows Baartman to narrate her own story. "My humanness," Baartman says in the book, "was the only thing I possessed," and, in this fiercely rendered novel, Chase-Riboud reveals and champions that humanity.
Packed with graphic details about the hardships Baartman endured, "Hottentot Venus" is a harrowing story, beginning with Baartman's interrupted childhood in South Africa, where she was born in 1789. As Chase-Riboud tells it, the young Baartman witnessed her mother's decapitation by murderous white raiders. Five years later, when Baartman was 9, her father would also die at the hands of these marauders.
White people called Baartman's tribe "Hottentots," or stutterers, a pejorative reference to their native language, which was "so filled with clicks and clacks it was impossible to speak," the author, speaking as Baartman, recalls. Baartman was eventually sold to a minister, who changed her given name, Ssehura, to Saartjie, "little Sarah" in Dutch.
After a brief return to her war-ravaged family, Baartman decides to go to Cape Town to seek work. She is warned by a local woman that if she goes, her soul will be "lost for a million moons. If you go, you will never return to the Khoekhoe [her native tribe]. A hundred winters will pass and still your spirit will wander, and the spirit of your spirit." Still, Baartman leaves, believing a better life awaits her away from her decimated village.
In Cape Town, Baartman meets William Dunlop, a British officer who, with promises of fame and wealth, convinces Baartman to accompany him to England. Within months, Dunlop rented a hall in Piccadilly Circus and billed Baartman as the "Hottentot Venus," the "missing link of evolution," and "a scientific wonder." For two shillings, people lined up to gawk and point. Men poked her with canes as women jabbed at her with parasols to ascertain if she was "natural."
"From the first, I was astonished by the viciousness and the voracity of my audience," Baartman says. "On the very first night, hundreds of people dressed to the nines pushed and elbowed the crowds, craning their already long necks, winking and chewing tobacco, shouting and waving, stomping, cheering and hurling epithets." Later, she observes, "These people gaping at me were the same -- the same race that had murdered my mother and my father with the same mindless cruelty, the same unyielding desire to devour and destroy."
Chase-Riboud's own indignation at Baartman's travails pulsates on every page, and some might find this intrusive. Indeed, this novel's overriding themes -- racism, sexism, and colonialism -- have inspired the author before, most notably in her best-selling historical novel "Sally Hemings." This was also the story of a black woman nearly erased from history after her exploitation by a powerful white man -- in Hemings's case, Thomas Jefferson, who owned her as a slave and is now widely believed to have fathered several of her children.
At least Hemings and her children were freed after Jefferson's death. The indignities of Baartman's life continued after she died. Once she was dissected, her skeleton and genitals were displayed in a French museum until the 1970s. In 2002, France finally agreed to return Baartman's remains to South Africa. She is now buried near the Cape Town harbor from which she left for Europe seeking fame and solace, only to find horror and heartbreak.