by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 307 pp., $5.95
Farquharson’s Physique: And What It Did to His Mind
by David Knight
Stein & Day, 478 pp., $7.95
by Ezekiel Mphahlele
Macmillan, 351 pp., $6.95
This Earth, My Brother
An Allegorical Tale of Africa
by Kofi Awoonor
Doubleday, 232 pp., $5.95
Bound to Violence
by Yambo Ouologuem, translated by Ralph Manheim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 182 pp., $5.95
Toward the end of Paul Theroux’s novel, Jungle Lovers, there is a bit of dialogue between two young men. They are somewhere in Malawi, a lesser nation of Central Africa. One of them is a citizen of that land, the other an American. Their circumstances at the moment are bizarre, but, for Theroux’s Malawi, only quotidianly so. What matters is the general circumstance: Africa.
“We suffer,” said Mwase. “You can leave if you wish and go back to America. But where can we go?… God punished us with this useless country. God hates us, everybody does…. You have chances. We have no chances. We are hopeless. Hobbies—have you read Thomas Hobbies? He was right, life in Africa is nasty, British and short.”
And if works of fiction render verdicts, then such is the verdict of these novels by Paul Theroux, David Knight, and three African writers, Kofi Awoonor, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and Yambo Ouologuem. The sordid, the obscene, the offensive indeed pervade all these lives; colonialism, or their obsession with colonialism, still grips them in its mortmain (if not British then Afrikaaner, French, Arab); and sudden death is always just around the corner. Theroux’s joke summarizes what all these writers feel. Africa is benighted again, only a decade after the fireworks of independence.
For African writers of course this is tragic. Perhaps even the courage and skill some of them show in writing about the tragedies of their own people can be, for them, small consolation; yet, if they escape death or imprisonment, they do write of the tragedy. For the white writer in Africa, all of it is really only an embarrassment—as Theroux’s joke, again, shows.
The difference seems to go right through the center of the earth and it is not easy to talk about. Even the white reviewer must be aware of some awkwardness. An African says, in Jungle Lovers, “No white man can ever be friends with an African,” but that African is also said to be a liar, and he is. We are all members of one species and we can do with one another, or to one another, anything individuals within a species can do: we can work together, breed, hate, love, and be comrades. In Mphahlele’s book, The Wanderers, a character says, “Africa’s no more for us whites.” Now that is another story.
It is probably true that Africa is not for white writers any more, hasn’t been for some time—except, of course, that writers have their ways of getting around even such prohibitive conditions as this. Theroux’s book, and Knight’s, are really about the set of affairs that makes this so, just as, when worst really comes to worst, writers can always write about silence or about the impossibility of writing anything at all. Still, both are lesser books than the three by Africans. It may be just a matter of talent but I do not think so.
The expatriate chroniclers …