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, then, are a bit embarrassed by Africa. Not that these writers are so timid or so condescending that they will not show black nations being fully as unpleasant as the Africans themselves say they are. That would really be unworthy. Rather, it seems to me, their embarrassment can allow them only a mutual and rather irrelevant deprecation. The Africans are fools and knaves, in the background; in the foreground are the white witnesses and victims, equally fools and knaves.
All of these writers might say that the continent is Conrad’s once again, “a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets…the smell of damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night….” Today it is the smell of city night soil rather than jungle muck in the darkness of corruption; and the heart of that darkness is located now in Africa itself, rather than, as by Conrad, back home in London and Brussels, and so fearfully that his readers have often missed the real terror of his vision. That was probably the last really serious view a white writer could hold, and still take himself seriously. (Women do not need views, or excuses, to be places. Isak Dinesen and Nadine Gordimer are bound to Africa by the sheer power of their love.)
No real heroes or villains, then, in these books, no Marlow, no Kurtz—there is horror but it is in quite another tradition of African adventure. Paul Theroux’s Malawi—there is a real Malawi, ruled by a Dr. Hastings Banda rather than by Theroux’s “Dr. Hastings Osbong,” and Theroux served there in the Peace Corps—his Malawi reminds one very much of that great African nation of which Evelyn Waugh was sole owner and proprietor, where Basil Seal so loyally directed the Modernization program of Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of Arts of Oxford University. We ought to be happy to have this ancient kingdom recalled to us, although there is a slight embarrassment about it today. I would suppose also that Paul Theroux would be glad enough to have his Malawi drawn on the same charts with Azania. (Even the name of the country, like almost everything else in Black Mischief, 1932, was prophetic in a cruel and cockeyed way. One of Malawi’s neighboring sovereign states calls itself Tanzania.)
Like Basil Seal, Theroux’s Calvin Mullet often neglects his grooming, yet somehow in the young American the effect is different. Of Seal, the London beauties spoke thus.
“My dear, he’s enchanting….”
“It’s nice his being so dirty.”
“My word, he is a corker.”
Mullet is nobody’s corker. Nor does he command Basil’s alarming shrewdness or encyclopedic lore, nor any of Basil’s ruthlessness, total as an infant’s. Some bits of these qualities, not enough to help, are given to another figure in Jungle Lovers. In counterpoint to Mullet’s somnolent and bizarre decline as an insurance salesman, Theroux presents the violent and bizarre decline of a young revolutionary.
This Marais, a Canadian would-be Guevara, has bombed a Johannesburg post office and now proposes to liberate Malawi with a small rabble of wild men. His downward course is even more disillusioning than that of Che in Bolivia. There is something worse than a lazy dictatorship, and that is liberation. Liberation is extortion, rape, murder, and anarchy, much like Modernization in Azania. Marais learns this the hard way, and dies. The book ends as Mullet’s beautiful black wife bears him a child not his, while he putters about, daydreaming of a return with his family to the States.
Theroux’s Malawi is as feckless and as cruel, then, as Waugh’s Azania, but endemic to it is a certain chronic, low-grade sympathy for the ridiculous suffering of the Africans, a mild affliction rather like Mullet’s alcoholism which confines itself to beer. This sympathy does not ever let the story quite fall through the strictures of satire, but it grounds it on another level than that of the cheerful old-fashioned brutality of Black Mischief’s slapstick racism.
Theroux writes very well and this is a clever, funny, and depressing novel. “People missed the point about Africans,” Mullet muses. “Strangers upset the African by making him ashamed and calling his harmonic sense of peace laziness.” But this is only Mullet, in the beer-drowned dregs of New England embarrassment at his own harmonious sense of peace. Nothing he could say or do would matter anywhere, least of all in Africa. Why send him there?
In another country, Nigeria, another sad sack of a white man, a university teacher of English literature, meditates. “He considered the folly of coming to convey any one civilization to another.” Thus Farquharson, of David Knight’s novel, Farquharson’s Physique: And What It Did to His Mind. This is a week-by-week chronicle of events in the carefully described University of Ibadan during the rough period preceding the Biafran war. All the circumstances of the life of an expatriate academic are presented in full detail, the housing problems, servant problems, shopping problems, colleague problems, student problems—and then, for some reason, a lot of additional problems: sex, disease, robbery, murder, terrorism, and, with these, there arrives an exhaustion that comes to us as we must envision a life that makes no sense at all. The author plainly does not really like Farquharson, a big muscular blundering man, and tells us that nobody else likes him much either, not his friends or his wife or his lovers. He is rather funny looking, we are told.
We might wonder why David Knight sent him all this long way to Nigeria, with his household inventory and his Yoruba phrases, his classroom notes and his child and his unloving wife, only to have him suffer dully and then, almost at random, get his head blown off by the trigger-happy Nigerian soldiery. Could this be an experiment, designed to make a protagonist of the character clearly destined to be a minor figure in novels, the one who survives because he has no real heart or soul, while the hero dies? Are we to learn to care for Farquharson in the end just because he has been willed by his creator to be such a hapless fellow? Or perhaps the point is simply that the chap didn’t belong in Africa in the first place. Who would have supposed he did?
David Knight has certainly been there and has seen a lot of things quite clearly. His snapshots are sharp but too often this odd person Farquharson is there just getting in the way, blocking the view while the lecture goes on and on. Yet at the last moment I do remember Farquharson, so I may be wrong about him.
The University of Ibadan figures also in The Wanderers by Ezekiel Mphahlele. It is called the University of Takora, in the country of Iboyoru. Mphahlele exercises the novelist’s traditional privilege of claiming real places for his own by renaming them, as Johannesburg in his book becomes Tirong but is still in South Africa; Lagos is Sogali; Oshogbo is Ogbo; Nairobi is Kambani. The real cities can remain where they are, but they exist again in the geography of this book. And they exist here with a unique propriety. No other author has ever earned the right to so much of Africa as has Ezekiel Mphahlele. In the English language, he established the strength of African literature in our time.
Mphahlele was born in South Africa and grew up there, herding out on the land and then as a city boy. He acquired an education despite the obstacles the white rulers erect for Africans. He became a teacher, a father for his family, and a writer, again despite the brutal barriers put everywhere in his way. He became something of a father too for a generation of young South African writers who learned from him in craft and in courage, who worked on the journal Drum as he had, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi. Finally Mphahlele had to leave, as they later had to leave, to exile or to death. He got his family out, and worked in West Africa and in East Africa, becoming, as his writings in fiction, criticism, and scholarship became known—and his presence—something of a father also for the generation of East and West African writers who began to come into their own with the spread of independence in the early 1960s.
Yet there was no real place for him in Africa. He worked, he taught, by his presence he upheld human dignity and the honor of Africa. He did not meddle in the politics of the nations of his exile. But he is now in the United States.
I give this brief account of his life because this substantially is the story of his novel The Wanderers. Its hero is called Timi Tabane, his wife is Kaborah. They follow Mphahlele’s path, and the hero has his character; in the novel, characteristically, Tabane makes little mention of his own writings, and the author does not choose to give his hero any of his own eminence in modern African culture, or his international reputation.
As a novel, the book is always fully involved with its central theme, that of how an honest man must seek a place where there is at least enough justice to let him do the work he must do, to help the young and to support his family. The novel has but small concern for refined literary strategies, and no concern at all with rhetorical flourishes. It is of the Naturalist school. Character and circumstance are not matters of elusive sensibility, but of action and of straightforward speech. People argue, and argue coherently, in the old-fashioned way, about important matters. This is not to say that they are simple figures, but only that their lives have a purpose to be won or lost and they know this.
Their Africa is not mysterious, it is not exotic, not absurd. It may be dangerous, very dangerous indeed, as when Tabane, as a reporter, is investigating penal slavery in South Africa. This is no weird or occult danger, but that of brutal Afrikaaner farmers with whips and shotguns who enjoy functional immunity before the law. But typically, Tabane seems so absorbed in doing his job (and in lusting after a female associate) that he forgets to say much about the danger.
The Wanderers, then, is a book that tells us in the most straightforward way how things are in many lands, by a man who has been there for serious purposes. Mphahlele knows Africa at every level of society; his learning has not separated him from the ancient oral wisdom or from respect for physical labor. Thus he can speak to Africa with an earned right that few men have: “Sing and dance and laugh but don’t tell me you’re proud of having invented nothing.”
Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet and scholar, has written a novel, This Earth, My Brother, which superficially stands at an opposite pole to Mphahlele’s but is joined to it at the center of knowledge and honesty. As Wole Soyinka did in his novel The Interpreters, Awoonor uses the most advanced literary techniques of Western fiction to present the whole scale of an African society, from the most “primitive” to the most “advanced.” His story takes a man from his birth in a back-country Ewe village through his education and his successful career at the bar in Accra to his mental and emotional breakdown and death.
The story is given to us in a series of scenes at crucial or at casual moments, interspersed with internal dreamlike monologues. Every one of these episodes or reveries is presented in such a brilliant light that at first the reader may have an impression of a glowing but disordered kaleidoscope. Actually, as the reader soon realizes, this is a very economical means of giving us, in a little over two hundred pages, a knowledge of the inner life of a man and of the society that drives such a man to his final despair.
The reveries, we soon see, are those of a man in a madhouse. They are wild and in the vein of poetry that we know often represents the eruption of the unconscious: “A mermaid was sitting on my lap. Dripping water. Her feet, tail were fins spread-eagled in fans. Sitting on my lap. Her eyes were rolling in circles of little fire, her breasts balls of flames; she was breathing pollen gold and cinnamon down my neck; her teeth rows of sapphires and corals. She was shedding tears of moondust.” But even these fantasies are anchored in reality, in the homely details of life. “Then I would rise from the floor on my knees marked by the pattern of the linoleum….” Amamu walks with the mermaid and out of his childhood his father’s voice says, “You have neglected your daily chores; you no longer read your Reader Six.”
The narrative sections present the village, the mission school, Empire Day, the boys going off to be soldiers, London, and the Accra of a leading lawyer, his work, his marriage, his mistress, the politicians, and the bureaucrats. These scenes have the sudden microscopic accuracy of appearance and the perfect pitch of speech and dialect that have made reality for us in the prose art of this century. Accra is there as Joyce’s Dublin is there and Faulkner’s Jefferson is, except that this is a very short book, and then, it is very nearly a novel of despair. Corruption befouls Ghana from the lowest servant to Nkrumah alone behind the bulletproof glass of his Rolls Royce. Piles of ordure and filth rot under the moonlit palms, and, following the Rolls, the night soil vans roar through the street. “Fear death by shit trucks….”
Amamu cannot bear his own eminence, and refuses the exemption from suffering that his attainments could bring him. “All listening intently to the lawyers. These brilliant children of our soil who have wrenched from the white man the magic of his wisdom.” There is much of that guilt in the brilliant English of the best African writing today; see how Chinua Achebe and Awoonor deal with the problem of translating into their English the African tongues of their people. But that is their problem, not ours. We have now a few books like This Earth, My Brother which are bound to stand, it seems to me, not only as chronicles of the first tragic era of African independence but as noble contributions to the art of the world.
Bound to Violence, by Yambo Ouologuem, was first published in France as Le Devoir de violence in 1968 and received one of the better literary awards, the Prix Théophraste Renaudot. The book has also had much favorable attention here, as a revelation of a kind of African history not generally known to Americans and as a literary achievement of originality and power. It has been said that Bound to Violence “shows us an unblocked black sexuality that reveals our own erotic revolution as primitive. Mythic and epic, horrifying and beautiful…. The authentic voice of Black Africa.” But this is a voice of many tones in strange scales, and Ralph Manheim, the translator, must have had the devil of a time with it. There is not simply the difficulty of figuring out just what nègre can mean at different times—Manheim has it both “Black” and “nigger”—there is the very large problem of trying to find equivalents in English for Ouologuem’s parodies, flights of rhetoric, and omni-present irony.
The scenes that might be taken to be “erotic” are usually, in fact, presented in such a way as to seem comic or revolting. The phrases, accurately rendered by Manheim, are those of the more flowery sort of pornography, ridiculing the act they decorate. “Her mouth was still hungry for this man’s pink, plump mollusk, and the tongue in her mouth itched to suck at the pearl of sumptuous orient that flowed, foaming as though regretfully, from the stem….” “Foaming as though regretfully” is not quite so funny as “écumante comme à regret,” since the French word includes without needing qualification both “foam” as of a liquid and a whipped-up state of emotion. “Foaming at the mouth,” we might say, but still the personification of the penis, so dear to dirty writers, is exploited for comedy more easily in the original language.
A flowing cup—Awa—a lavish board!… The administrator, discovering the ardent landscape of this feminine kingdom, kept her there day after day, and, his soul in ecstasy, lived a fanatical, panting, frenzied passion.
The violence itself, page after page of it, is recounted with somewhat the same air of disgust and ridicule. Such hecatombs are slain in a sentence, such elaborate tortures consummated in a paragraph, again and again—let us spare ourselves quotation—that, although we know these things really happened, and happen recurrently throughout human history, here we must regard the scenes as a kind of caricature of those who perform them, a farce of cruelty, just as we see the erotic performances as foolish.
With all that, I think, Manheim deals well. But because the tones of the book are so various, the structure and phrasing so unfamiliar, minor slips are disconcerting and sometimes the reader is uncertain whether or not an absurdity is intentional. Unschooled as I am in saurian behavior, I still thought it unlikely that three crocodiles could first seize a man and then “cut him in two with a snap of their powerful tails.” And indeed, in Le Devoir de violence, we see that the unfortunate victim suffered more plausibly: he was first whacked up by the crocs’ tails and seized after that. And strange echoes of familiar quotations from the English poets have found their way in here; but perhaps they are meant to represent something English readers would otherwise miss—enough of that. Burlesque, parody, satire, these are notoriously difficult to get from one language into another.
In substance, Bound to Violence covers about 800 years of the Arabic empires in the lands around the Niger River now called Mali and Senegal. Much of this part of the story is recited in the manner of the West African troubadors, the griot: “And now, behold….” Then, in more detail, in this century, the arrival of the French, of anthropologists (an idiot called Shrobenius), and the emergence of a class educated by the French—blacks who, in the end, like proper graduates of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, are making speeches about the “absurd.” They are as full of guile and murder as were their ancient masters; nothing seems really to have changed.
So although this is a strange book, more strange, it seems to me, than has generally been let on, the burden of it is much the same as that of other books by modern Africans: the deep cruelty of Africa, the profundity of its past, its inaccessibility to European minds, the uselessness of European ideas and institutions to Africa. And there is a bitter sense of betrayal by modern Africa. These novelists are successful, they have written books that must be considered among the best of those that have anywhere aspired to forge the uncreated conscience of a race. And still, these men sound as if they might find themselves in agreement with Rajat Neogy, editor of Transition (the journal recently revived in Ghana after Neogy’s expulsion from Uganda). “With a handful of exceptions, the intellectual in Africa has failed both as an intellectual and a man.” And then, too, with Achebe: “The role of a writer depends to some extent on the state of health of his society.” And Achebe goes on to say that he does not know of a healthy one.
Ah, but Africa. We outsiders are likely to think of it in all the marvels of its seas and its lands so different from ours, all the ancient ways more than a world away from us now. We can still see them there. That fact and those marvels are of course matters of total indifference to Africans, just as though we should come singing goofy songs to them about palm trees in the moonlight. Yet even if we try to think of the continent as they must, we cannot believe that lands which produce Awoonor and Mphahlele and Ouologuem can give up. And then, why should we have to give them up? We may regret political frontiers, and just so we may regret the deeper barriers of racial frontiers, but then there is something deep in us too that draws us on to cross borders, to lands different from ours, other soils and seas, men and women different from ourselves.
September 23, 1971