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"Ethiopia" | John Updike's Complete Stories Summary Analysis

“Ethiopia” (1973)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories

(Click to order)

This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013), edited by Christopher Carduff. Updike wrote some 230 stories in five and a half decades. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition in anticipation of a subsequent volume collecting those. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.

[Written in 1973, “Ethiopia” was published in the Jan. 14, 1974 issue of The New Yorker, collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]

An enigmatic, confused and confusing story that attempts to make something of John and Mary Updike’s trip to Africa in 1973, including Ethiopia, but that doesn’t get much past the artificial confines of hotel lobbies and trips to see animals.


A young American couple is visiting Addis Ababa in the early 1970s. They’re staying in a hotel with a cross-shaped swimming pool and the view, in one direction, of the Emperor’s palace and, in the other, along with acres of tin shacks, “a church on a hill like the nipple on a breast of dust,” one of the more arresting similes in the repository of Updike similes. The double reference to god or religion does not portend anything: the rest of the story doesn’t touch religion or spirituality, though it features an anti-Semitic local who declares that Hitler left the job of killing Jews undone. The young couple brought a polar blast with them. That’s the state of their relationship. “The silence between them grated the plates and made the silver clash with the fury of swords.”

The story is rich in descriptions of the locale, with lists of animals and magazines thrown in at times for ironic effect (the wife reads the Brazilian edition of Newsweek, but in what, Portuguese?), and twice locals are said to look like Sammy Davis Jr., one of those times a bit offensively: “but, then, so many men in Ethiopia look like Sammy Davis Jr.” Only someone who’s spent a matter of days in a place can be silly enough to make such a statement.

It’s not done. The thinness of the story crackles through its repeated focus on color, even when blackness is presented more sympathetically. A woman is referred to as the Queen of Sheeba. Why, we are never told. It’s part of the story’s enigma, or self-indulgence. “Her blackness was the shade in which God had designed Adam and Eve, a color from which the young American couple felt their own whiteness a catastrophic falling off.” The line, beautifully crafted, has as much the weight of a mercurial metaphor as it smells of Africa’s equivalent of Orientalism. It’s something Chateaubriand would have written had he been to Ethiopia.

The Queen of Sheeba–itself as cliche a character as Updike could have picked in East Africa–becomes the man’s obsession, and the desk clerk called Prester John may or may not be his wife’s interest. The husband hopes he is, to alleviate his own guilt as he fantasizes about Sheba. Incidentally, the couple are the only guests at the hotel, after a busload of Germans decamp. Sheeba runs the gift shop. Prester John is very generous eith his time, ensuring that the couple get to see the hippo they missed while spying other animals elsewhere. Prster John and Sheeba throw them a party. Prester John is a prestidigitateur, though his feats of magic are ambiguous.

Th couple sleep in twin beds, which echoes the Maples’ “Twin Beds in Rome” excursion 10 years earlier. There’s a feeble attempt at magical realism here, but it doesn’t soar nearly as high as the words try to make it soar, as with this oblique ending about the young American’s wife, who is scared of crashing on an Ethiopian plane and hopes Prester John’s magic will prevent it, as he drives them to the airport: “She feels she is already on the airplane–all of Ethiopia is an airplane, thousands of feet above sea level; and it cannot crash. This is true.”

The insistence of that last sentence is an indication that even the author is not convinced of what he’s just written, as the irony of the line does, in fact, crash.

–P.T.

John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)

Title
Year Written
First Published
First Collected
Ace In the Hole
1954
New Yorker, April 9, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Friends From Philadelphia
1954
New Yorker, Oct. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
A Game of Botticelli
1954
The Liberal Context, Fall 1963
Collected Early Stories (2013)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth
1955
New Yorker, Apr. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
Dentistry and Doubt
1955
New Yorker, Oct. 29, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)
1955
New Yorker, Jan. 21, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
The Kid's Whistling
1955
New Yorker, Dec. 3, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Toward Evening
1955
New Yorker, Feb. 11, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow
1956
New Yorker, April 7, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Wife-wooing (The Maples)
1960
New Yorker, March 12, 1960
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
Giving Blood (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, April 6, 1963
The Music School (1966)
Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, February 6, 1964
The Music School (1966)
The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)
1964
New Yorker, March 13, 1965
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech in Rumania
1966
New Yorker, Oct. 8, 1966
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Takes Pot Luck
1968
New Yorker, Oct. 7, 1968
Bech: A Book (1970)
Rich in Russia (Bech)
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Swings?
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Panics
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Enters Heaven
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
The Gun Shop
1972
New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1972
Problems (1979)
Believers
1972
Harper's, July 1972
Problems (1979)
How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time
1972
New Yorker, Aug. 19, 1972
Problems (1979)
Nevada
1972
Playboy, January 1974
Problems (1979)
Sons
1973
New Yorker, April 21, 1973
Problems (1979)
Daughter, Last Glimpse Of
1973
New Yorker, November 5, 1973
Problems (1979)
Ethiopia
1973
New Yorker, Jan. 14, 1974
Problems (1979)
Transaction
1973
Oui, March 1974
Problems (1979)
Augustine's Concubine
1974
The Atlantic, April 1975
Problems (1979)
Except for most of the Maples stories and the Henry Bech stories, the summaries and analyses are based on the texts presented in the two-volume Library of America edition of the complete stories (2013).
 

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