“I agree. But she got away and now you can write.”
“You shouldn’t have interfered,” said Bruce.
Depressed at having found no new information in Nigeria, Bruce crossed back into Benin to meet Sebastian de Souza, a descendant of the slaver. On January 14, his research was cut short in a dramatic fashion by a coup d’état.
Bruce’s experience of the coup grew in the retelling. The first version bears little resemblance to the last, published seven years later in Grantaas a “story” — a word, wrote Bruce, “intended to alert the reader to the fact that however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.” In the gap between the two versions is found the clue to Bruce’s storytelling process. The inflations, distortions, confabulations are all there.
His initial account is written in his diary. It starts in Porto Novo: “Sunday morning began with me under the mosquito net in the bedroom in Sebastian de Souza’s yard.” Sebastian appears, dressed in brown, elegant for a football match in Togo. The two of them walk to the autogarein Porto Novo and squash into the back of a crowded Peugeot 405. On the coast road to Cotonou, they notice people waving from cars. “C’est la guerre à Cotonou,” they are told.
They about-turn and drive back to Porto Novo, rejoining Sebastian’s anxious wife. They sit down on her leatherette chairs and listen to President Kérékou broadcasting on the radio. Mercenaries have landed at Cotonou airport in a DC8. “L’heure est grave.” All citizens are invited to block the roads and go with guns to secure the airport.
Bruce waits a short time before “gingerly” stepping outside.
In the street, a waving crowd shouts, “Mercenaires, mercenaires.” Bruce is wearing khaki shorts with patch pockets. He finds a gendarme, who bundles him into a ã van — “for your own protection.” He is taken to the gendarmerie, then ordered into a police vehicle and driven to Cotonou. At the Camp Ghézo, he joins a cheerful crowd of between 300 and 400 blacks and whites, all down to their underpants. After being stripped — he is wearing “pink and white boxer shorts from Brooks Brothers” — Bruce is ordered back aboard the truck and taken to the Sûreté Nationale and led before the commandant, a man with thin red eyes and white woolly hair.
These are the five words Bruce writes next: “Foreign prints: ‘Kicked by Amazon.’” It is not clear what these words describe. In his journal, nothing happens at this point. But in his Grantaarticle of seven years later, there appears at this point a fearsome woman in the mold of the 19th-century warriors observed by Bruce’s childhood hero, Richard Burton: “I stood like a schoolboy, in the corner,” Bruce wrote, “until a female sergeant took me away for fingerprinting. She was a very large sergeant. My head was throbbing: and when I tried to manoeuvre my little finger onto the inkpad, she bent it back double; I yelled ‘Ayee!,’ and her boot slammed down on my sandalled foot.” There is certainly no mention of the brutal sergeant in the notes he took at the time. Then to what do the words “Foreign prints: ‘Kicked by Amazon’” refer? Was Bruce assaulted? Or was he projecting himself into a scene from a print that animated, say, the pages of his Richard Burton?
A year later, the story has metamorphosed further. On February 3, 1978, Bruce told the diarist James Lees-Milne of certain “hair-raising experiences” that had occurred on this journey. Lees-Milne recorded their conversation in his diary. “In one little country — I forget which — he was arrested for some misdemeanor, passport not visa-ed, and beaten up. He was hit in the face, stripped of all his clothes — what a pretty sight to be sure — and humiliated in public. ‘How awful!’ I said. ‘Well,’ he replied. ‘I must confess to having rather enjoyed it.’ ‘Then you are a masochist, I surmise.’ ‘Just a bit,’ he answered.”
Only to his doctor and to his wife does Bruce appear to have confessed the story of his “gang rape,” which may owe less to Richard Burton than to Rimbaud (who was gang-raped in the Paris commune) or T.E. Lawrence (who alleged a similar assault by Turkish soldiers). According to Elizabeth, the incident took place “a few days after he left Benin.” Bruce’s journal simply reports how the coup petered out. Detained overnight, he is hauled up before an apologetic police tribunal at 1 p.m. “Actually made them laugh and got out.” He moved into the Hotel de Plage, where Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians had been filmed, and three days later flew to Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.
In Bruce’s version to Elizabeth, he was raped here. She says, “He was waiting to go to Brazil. He got a room in some cheap hotel and couldn’t lock the door, and soldiers came in for money and raped him. That’s what he told me. He could barely say it. ‘I didn’t do anything. There were several of them.’”