"The first ten years of my life I was not black." Thus begins this startlingly eloquent and beautiful tale based on the true story of Kwasi Boachi, a 19th- century African prince who was sent with his cousin, Kwame, to be raised in Holland as a guest of the royal family. Narrated by Kwasi himself, the story movingly portrays the perplexing dichotomy of the cousins' situation: black men of royal ancestry, they are subject to insidious bigotry even as they enjoy status among Europe's highest echelons. As their lives wind down different paths-Kwame back to Africa where he enlists in the Dutch army, Kwasi to an Indonesian coffee plantation where success remains mysteriously elusive-they become aware of a terrible truth that lies at the heart of their experiences. Vivid, subtle, poignant and profound, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi is an exquisite masterpiece of story and craft, a heartrending work that places Arthur Japin on a shelf that includes Joseph Conrad, J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Nadine Gordimer.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Dutch singer/actor Japin's debut draws on extraordinary real-life material: in 1837 two young Ashanti princes, Kwasi and Kwame, were taken to Holland, ostensibly to receive a European education, but in fact as peons in a cynical exchange between the Ashanti king (Kwame's father) and the still active slave traders. Kwasi tells the strange story as a gentle, peevish old man living on a failed coffee plantation in Java at the turn of the century. He remembers his jungle boyhood with cousin Kwame, the coming of the Dutch traders and his and Kwame's early years as curiosities at a Dutch school. Later embraced by the royal court, the two went on to college and became offbeat figures in Dutch society, struggling to persuade themselves that they had really found a new life. Kwasi, the more adaptable, cherished a passion for a Dutch princess until she married elsewhere for convenience. Kwame, deeply uneasy at his equivocal role, joined the army and was posted back to Africa where, eventually realizing that he was a mere plaything of the Dutch, he killed himself. Only toward the end of his life is Kwasi aware that he, too, has lived in self-deception. Japin tells the tale with imaginative empathy and, in the case of Kwame, truly powerful poetic re-creation. However, his incorporation of text from authentic 19th-century documents is disconcerting. This is an unusual story that could appeal to an appetite for the odd corners of history, but perhaps is too close to history to please the lovers of literary fiction who would at first seem to be its natural readers. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 10, 2002
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Excerpt from The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi by Arthur Japin
The first ten years of my life I was not black. I was in many ways different from those around me, but not darker. That much I know. Then came the day when I became aware that my colour had deepened. Later, once I was black, I paled again.
On every tea field I had, I always planted some poinsettias, also called flame-leaf or euphorbia. A touch of scarlet amid the green every hundred yards or so prevents blindness among the pickers. Seeing the same colour for hours on end causes the vision to blur, like staring into the sun. A single flash of a different hue restores the contrast.
Such a lone red plant has a remarkable effect on its surroundings. Everything that is green draws together. Before the eye, all the variegated shades of green in the tea bushes, which were clearly distinguishable at first, blend into one sea of colour. Differences disappear. The decor becomes monotonous. What else is there to say other than--yes, how green it all is. A very green sort of green. Or rather: it is offensively un-red!
Conversely, the red plant itself burns a brighter red when set off by the green than when it grows among its peers. In the bed I always reserved for poinsettia seedlings, there was little to distinguish one plant from its neighbours. My poinsettia did not turn scarlet until I planted it out in new surroundings. Colour is not something one has, colour is bestowed on one by others.
It is 1900. Anniversary celebrations are popular this year in Buitenzorg society. Wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of Grandmother's demise, Madame's umpteenth change of hair colour. Anything for a celebration. Indeed the new century is being f?ted week in week out, and only so that ghosts may be laid. Everyone wishes to convince themselves and each other that all is well and that bygones should be bygones. A great show is made of having no fears about the future.
And so word has been put about that it is half a century since I arrived in the Indies. Congratulations for nothing! Notwithstanding my profound reluctance, Adeline Renselaar, Mrs. van Zadelhof's cousin, has set her mind on having a celebration. She has already involved three families in her machinations, and was even seen in the Deer Park last week, chattering to the governor about this very matter.
A small committee of organizers sprang a visit on me this morning to discuss the timing and location of my jubilee. They enquired after the sensitivities of my elderly stomach, so that they might take them into account when planning the menu for the banquet. The style of 1850, which is the date of my arrival in Java, is to prevail in every detail. It is no concern of mine. The expense appears to be immaterial.
"We do not see much of you at our social gatherings," said Mrs. Renselaar, that stout harpy with her eagle beak. "Of course that is your business entirely, but you cannot deny us the right to celebrate on your behalf. That would be unfair. One cannot grudge other people their pleasures. Besides, I wish to deepen our acquaintance. To think that we have been exchanging greetings all these years without the faintest idea of what was going on in each other's lives. But now, now that my husband has told me about your, well, about the affair . . . What I mean is, the least we can do now is pay tribute!"
I only heard half of what she said, because the whole time our farcical exchange lasted I could smell my coffee fields burning. I saw Willem Gongrijp give a little shudder of glee at each gust that came our way. He is the self-appointed master of ceremonies, while everyone knows he cannot wait for me to croak so that he can get his hands on my land. With him on the committee there is no need for a wicked fairy. I answered their questions with due civility, but when I finally got rid of them, the sense of time running out weighed heavily in my room. I crossed the river and sought eternity in Wayeng's lap--twice in fact--but there is no love strong enough to deflect me from my thoughts.
I left her embrace in the night. I needed fresh air. Aquasi Junior, who lay beside us, woke up and wheedled for attention. So as not to disturb Wayeng I took my son outside. We sat together for a while, until he fell asleep with his head on my knees. Not being used to this, at first I hardly dared move. Now and then, however, I had to shift my position because my muscles had become stiff. He did not seem to notice. He turned over and lay sprawled on his back, utterly serene. I brought my hand to his face and traced the contours without touching him. After a while I became bolder and stroked his hair. It is soft and loosely curled, quite unlike mine. I stroked it again and could not stop. I was brimming with love. The sky was overcast, but now and then the moon emerged to show me a glimpse of his face.