Arthur Japin's first novel The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, ably translated by Ina Rilke, is based on the experiences of two Ashanti princes taken to Holland for their education in matters European in 1837. It is written in the first person by one of them--the eponymous Kwasi Boachi--who is the son of the king of the Ashanti, but not the heir to the throne because succession is matrilineal.
The novel provides a fascinating account of many developments in 19th-century European and colonial history from Kwasi's singular vantage point. Revered by the royalty in Holland because he too is royal, despised and feared by most of his schoolmates because he is black and exotic, unable to return home because he is now more Dutch than Ashanti, unable fully to become Dutch, Kwasi is perpetually out of place. This gives him fresh insight into many of the developments we associate with the 19th century--the invention of the photograph, ethnographic freak shows, phrenology, to name a few.
Kwasi's attempts to integrate are contrasted with those of his cousin, Kwame, who eschews things western and longs for home. Their diverging aspirations and destinies poignantly counterpoint each other. Japin has written a superb and sophisticated novel, refusing all the easy dichotomies--black/white, self/other, civilised/primitive--that structure so many imaginings of the colonial world. The novel carries its immense learning with remarkable lightness, never allowing its asides on Ashanti customs, colonial intrigue or Dutch dynastic squabbles to distract from a gripping and moving story.--Neville Hoad