Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos seems nothing like his other novels. It is a bit stately and constrained by the conventions of historical writing. His efforts to make it seem as though a true history of the forty year friendship between Samuel Clemons and Henry Morton Stanley deprive us of the passion and power of his other novels such as the famous The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Throughout the book we are treated to letters, narratives, diary entries and notes by Clemons, Stanley and Stanley’s wife Dorothy Tennant. All of them are fictional. Such is Hijuelos’ craft that each writer has their own voice, a voice that reflects their character. With this, he was helped by the abundance of research he did on their lives, reading their writings, visiting where they lived, handling their artifacts. It is a fact that they were friends of long acquaintance but all else is imagined by Hijuelos.
The novel focuses mainly on Stanley, probably a wise choice since today people already have a image of Twain in their minds from so many portrayals of him in books and film. Stanley is often known only for saying “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” something he probably did not say at the time, but invented as a later embellishment.
Both Stanley and Twain were writers and adventurous men who traveled far and wide. They were very different, though, in temperament. Stanley’s childhood was cruel and without much love, raised in an orphanage, illegitimate and abandoned, he was insecure and desperate for attention and approval, often jealous, often angry. Twain had an ideal childhood, one he called a paradise, filled with love and family and the bucolic pastimes of a country life. This gave me a relaxed self-confidence and a mildly bemused temperament. Perhaps their differences were complementary, or perhaps their mutual love of adventure and writing trumped their differences. For whatever reason, they were good friends.
The politics of the time, from slavery to abolition, exploration and imperialism, are a backdrop to their story. Hijuelos, through Twain’s voice, acquits Stanley of his sins in Africa, sins that many believe inspired the classic by Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness. Having read Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, it is not so easy to do so. Stanley murdered hundreds of people, enabled the most horrific imperialist enslavement of the Congo and to this day, the people of the Congo are marked by the terrors brought by Stanley’s service to Leopold. Most of the blame has been placed on those who traveled with Stanley, the worst excesses relegated to the travelers who conveniently died, but for example, one of Stanley’s expedition bought an 11 year old girl whom he gave to cannibals, so he could sketch them killing, dismembering and eating her. That’s not in this book because Stanley alone narrates the events of his expeditions–and one thing we know from history and from this novel, Stanley is an unreliable narrator.
The story begins with Stanley’s narrative of Twain and his adventures on the Mississippi, in New Orleans and in Cuba. We learn from Twain, early in the book, that the narrative was not quite as he remembered it and in the end, we learn a modified version from Twain, who is ever respectful of Stanley, even when correcting the record.
So, do Twain and Stanley enter paradise? There are occasional conversations between them bout faith, religion and the afterlife. They have different ideas of paradise, more earthly ones. These conversations are some of the most interesting passages in the novel.
I enjoyed Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise. In a someone unjust way, I might have enjoyed it more if written by someone else. I have loved Hijuelos’ writing for many years and enjoyed his novels so much that I had a certain expectation when opening this book, however, Hijuelos so successfully captured Stanley, Twain and presumably Tennant’s voice, that his own was not visible other than in the themes and ideas he focused on. This gave the novel a formal tone and structure, a stiffness that I did not expect. It was effective in making the book seem so real, as though a true history with the true words and thoughts of the characters. I guess Hijuelos would think that a success, that it felt like it was written by Stanley and Twain and not by Hijuelos. On the other hand, I love Hijuelos writing. It was his final novel and even though I know every word of it came from Hijuelos, it seems sad that his last novel was not in his own distinct and wonderful voice.