Dan Sandman

05: The Interesting Narative by Olaudah Equiano

In Adventure, Autobiography, Books, Non-Fiction on 01/02/2013 at 12:00 pm

Camden Market has a number of curious second-hand bookshops hidden amongst the throng of tourists, juggling equipment and leather coats. There’s one I know in the market square amongst merchants competing for traveller’s coins; selling bags, food and incense candles. If you should ever pay it a visit, you will no doubt hear Radio 4 and smell old books upon your entrance. It’s a proper, old-fashioned purveyor of books; the sort of place where staff can be over heard complaining, with their eyes inside a good book, about the effects of the weather and the recession upon business. Don’t expect a warm welcome when entering and don’t expect a warm smile upon leaving.

“I was captivated by the beginning of the book where our hero paints a fascinating picture of his native land: a now distant African culture.”

However, places like this know their books, care about their books, and have a unique feel that you won’t find in Waterstone’s or Foyle’s. The truth is places like this are struggling and if we don’t keep going to places like this, they will be closed down. Where else could one discover two copies of The Interesting Narrative, a book first published in 1789, being promoted in the history section: the first copy, priced at £3.95, displayed sitting sideways on top of various books by black authors; the second copy, priced at £4.00, turned front-side out and given a separate stand. I studied the first page to gauge whether I enjoyed the writing style, read the blurb to gather whether the subject matter was of interest to me, and chose the £3.95 version as both books appeared to be identical.

If you would indulge me, I’d like to talk a little about why I choose certain books before going  on to talk about the book itself. I know of some people, those who are not concerned with spoiling the story, who will test a book by reading the last page – I am firmly opposed to this method. With regards to blurb reading, if I am reading fiction, I consistently ignore the blurb until I have finished the book when it will be viewed as a reward for my reading accomplishments. Some books will be recommended or given to me by friends, others I’ll hear about from the papers or the radio, and sometimes I’ll simply comb the shelves of any bookshop that I happen to come across. The Interesting Narrative was chosen through a combination of all of the above.

The narrative is an autobiographical account of a man’s journey across many lands; from being kidnapped in what would now be south eastern Nigeria to becoming a respected member of the anti-slavery movement in London. Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa (as was his given name) narrates a story that is full of adventures across high seas and shocking tales of brutality towards slaves. It is an attack on the unfair treatment of slave workers and an argument for the author’s Christian beliefs. Alongside the descriptive prose is self-penned poetry, quotes from the bible and a list of subscribers, many of whom would have been influential public figures.

My opinion of the book is that the first two-thirds of the book, leading up to Equiano acquiring his freedom, are more enlightening than the last third which gives attention to his conversion to Methodism. I was captivated by the beginning of the book where our hero paints a fascinating picture of his native land: a now distant African culture. I was moved and impressed by the cruel treatment of innocent Africans depicted in chapter V and the author’s accompanying political arguments. However, I started to loose interest towards the end of the book, when the adventure narrative becomes too focussed on religious rhetoric which may have worked more effectively in a smaller dose. The Interesting Narrative is a well written memoir, an important historic book, and a book that I am glad I stumbled across.

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