“Yes, it’s true. My great-great grandfather’s grandfather was a slave trader.”
Professor Schiff, the novel’s eponymous hero, makes this confession at the start of his trial before a special tribunal set up to apply “the law for the prosecution of slave traders, their abettors, their heirs and those who enjoy their profits.” This world-precedent setting legislation was enacted in an unnamed African republic shortly before the professor’s arrival from Israel, and he is the first and only prisoner to be prosecuted under the new law.
The professor has gone to Africa to trace the story of his ancestor, Jewish slave trader Klonimus Zelig Schiff, who converted his slaves to Judaism, become their leader, and then led them to a tragic end.
But it isn’t only the urge to uncover his family roots that has awakened the muddle-headed professor’s interest in the Black Continent. About a year earlier, he fell in love with Lucille, an African migrant worker in Tel Aviv, who in dubious circumstances had popped into the bourgeois lives of the professor and his wife Tami. Spurred on by Tami, a well-meaning social activist, this exotic, mysterious creature is about to disrupt the peaceful lives of the couple.
From his comfortable prison in a villa surrounded by a tropical garden, Professor Schiff meets a diverse bunch of characters from whom he learns about the impact of the heritage of slavery on Africa. He is even invited to meet the prime minister, a former football star who struts with regal airs. The hesitant professor is forced to contemplate not only the original guilt of his forefather, but also his own, 21st century guilt. Is his attraction toward Lucille in reality an expression of a covert racism? Is his love for Africa merely a fashionable pose, no more than the hypocrisy of an arrogant and self-righteous westerner?
And is the book that he is secretly writing about his experiences in Africa nothing but a contemporary and ingenious version of the slave trade?