Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Tao-te-ching]

Kipling’s The Light that Failed

I admire Kipling’s dexterity with verse and his knowledge of India and of plotting. Even from a political point of view, he made an excellent exhibit A for Jonah Raskin in The Mythology of Imperialism (a few years after Kate Millet focused entirely on “male chauvinist” writers in Sexual Politics). On this point one might recall Engel’s famous remark in a letter to Margaret Harkness, pointing out the superiority of the depiction of society in the work of the royalist Balzac over consciously “revolutionary” authors like Zola, saying that “even in economic details” Balzac contains more than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.”
In this novel fighting the “fuzzies” is in the background, and what remains is Hollywood’s idea of the tragic. In fact, Wellman’s film with Ronald Colman and Walter Huston may well be a better work than the novel – movies were then a genre more congenial to the sentimental and the melodramatic. The view of the period’s artistic scene is quaint; that of the war illustrators picturesque.

By Popular Demand, The San Francisco Mime Troupe

Though I was pleased to find this book, I am afraid these plays are not the same on the printed page. The Mime Troupe should really be seen in a public park after the Gorilla Band has gathered passers-by (some of whom may never have witnessed live theater before). These newcomers then join the group’s aficionados (and the hip always say “meem”) who have seen America’s outstanding street theater company over the more than fifty years of its history. For those with personal experience, this collection of eight scripts will vividly recall the live performances. The Mime Troupe arose out of the Actors Studio, based in R. G. Davis’ training in mime and commedia dell’arte and produced between one and two hundred original shows, experiencing arrests and collectivization (after which Davis departed for Berkeley’s Epic West). Combining commedia dell’arte with slapstick, farce, vaudeville, and current popular culture they always delight the onlookers, who invariably have a high time, applauding and laughing at all the right places, and by the end it always seems as though they will surely head off into the streets and foment revolution then and there. Though this desideratum has not been achieved, the troupe has regularly staged excellent shows.

The Classic of the Way and Virtue, the Tao-te ching of Laozi including the third century commentary by Wang Bi, translated by Richard John Lynn (inconsistent transliteration from the book)

The Laozi, to use the most generally accepted form of the name today, is probably the Chinese classic most commonly translated into European languages. For those with no Chinese the choice is bewildering and many readers have found themselves reading, as I have, one version after another for the sake of what portions of one text or another we can digest.

Thus I shall not speak here of the general appeal of this most appealing work, but shall confine myself to the particular qualities of this edition. Lynn reminds the reader that a good deal of the book explicitly addresses governance. Laozi regarded role of the ruler in the nation as analogous to that of the patriarch in the family or the ego in the mind. To regulate any of these levels properly requires adherence to the same Way. This closely resembles Confucius’ approach, but differs sharply from that of the more anarchic Zhuangzi. Since the elder master was said to have been run out of the country himself, heading into unknown mountains, he was easily assimilated to the quietistic, antinomian thought that arose centuries after his day.

Another feature of this volume is its inclusion of the commentary by the philosopher Wang Bi of the Three Kingdoms era. Though his words sometimes seem to merely repeat, and occasionally to obfuscate, the text, it is often useful to see a paraphrase of the original verses by a savant of the direct tradition closer to the text than to us.

Occupy Wall Street

Several months ago I was discussing the decline of progressive politics with a friend who, like me, had been in university during the sixties. We marveled at the popularity of politicians whose actions harm their constituents and yet are elected repeatedly; radio hosts who gather enormous audiences while professing bizarre right-wing fringe views; and the size of a Tea Party that represents primarily the interests of a few masters of large corporations. Even more unlikely, the title of Christian seems to have been appropriated by people who share nothing whatever of Jesus’ pacifism or his solidarity with the poor, outcast, suffering, and oppressed.

My friend said that large numbers of citizens will not oppose the fat cats unless middle class people can be shown how big business is picking their own pocket. He argued that ordinary people do not sympathize with the underclass; indeed, the respectability of some lower middle class people is built on contempt for a group beneath them. The anger arising from economic anxiety or distress even of educated people is often directed at the weaker and poorer rather than at the powers that be. According to this analysis, campaigns for such righteous causes as gay marriage or for the environment are counterproductive because they fail to appeal to the masses and, indeed, alienate some potential allies in the larger economic struggle.

I recalled this conversation last month when the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began. Though the participants were criticized for lacking a specific set of demands, it is precisely this openness that allows people of all sorts to unite against the economic inequities in our system. The extraordinary tenacity of the New Yorkers and the remarkable proliferation of similar actions in other cities suggest that my friend’s analysis was accurate. Whether one likes it or not, most people will only move to seek their own advantage, and Occupy Wall Street has proclaimed the fact that nearly all of us are being cheated by the present system. The college students with onerous debt from student loan, youth who cannot find jobs, the transit workers whose new contract is worse than the one before, retired people seeing their investments shrink as social security is threatened, nursing home aides without medical benefits or pension, all these find themselves in the same slowly sinking boat. Only when these “mainstream” elements act in concert with advocates for smaller groups such as the disabled, welfare recipients, immigrants, gay people, ethnic minorities, and radicals can they move America.

Many unions, which had had no part in Occupy Wall Street at the beginning, saw the potential for a strong alliance and declared solidarity. On October 5 I joined a bus from the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation to support the demonstrators. Traveling with me were a crew of young Teamsters (with shirts reading “kicking ass for the working class”), representatives of other unions (teachers and nurses were well-represented, though it was a work-day), and a few older activists lit by new hope.

In the city we joined an even more diverse group: black and white; middleclass, working class, and underclass; toddlers and the elderly. The event itself was decentralized, in part because our numbers and the peculiar police lines kept the crowds in odd and awkward positions, leading occasionally to chants of “let us out” directed at law enforcement (as well as “Who pays the police? We pay the police!”). Far from a scripted rally (such as one sees at the national political party conventions), there was an amiable chaos. A loudspeaker carried some speaker’s words, but three-quarters of the crowd was more engaged with what was happening closer to hand. Three or four bands played in different areas, many people carried homemade signs. As the most popular chant of the day had it, “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”

In spite of the atmosphere of anarchy, people behaved in an exemplary fashion, obeying the General Assembly’s dictates about peace and orderliness. Once, when an excited marcher began loudly contesting with the only heckler I saw all day, several other marchers approached him to settle the scene. In the sixties, I had witnessed government agents provocateurs incite stone-throwing to justify a violent police attack. Such a gambit, it seemed, would have been immediately suppressed here.
My support of Occupy Wall Street is based on these considerations.

1. The group points to the correct source of America’s problems: maldistribution of wealth and corporate control. Society’s inequities are particularly evident when one considers the financial sector which produces nothing whatsoever and yet is absurdly highly compensated. The favored slogan “we are the 99%” expresses the fact that, though we do all useful work, the corporate parasites and those living on what is properly called “unearned income” take most of the wealth.

2. The occupiers have somehow maintained effective order within their own body, insisting on orderly demonstrations and absolute nonviolence, while maintaining a direct democracy, consensus-seeking decision-making process at the daily assemblies. They have to this day no leaders, no spokespeople, only a community of equal citizens calling for redress of grievances.

3. Because of its general character and the lack of specific demands, this action has succeeded in motivating youth and many otherwise unaffiliated individuals. Union actions, like those by environmental, feminist, ethnic, and neighborhood groups, though they have sometimes attracted large numbers of participants, have failed to ignite the interest of those not directly involved.

As filmmaker John Wellington Ennis said, “How can we not occupy Wall Street? Wall Street occupies US.”

The Pearl-Poet's Use of Link-Rhyme

The linking word system of the verse groups of 14th century alliterative poem The Pearl is a striking example of textual accommodation to the simultaneous demands of predictability (for intelligibility and internal coherence) and novelty (a wholly familiar work would have no particularity and thus no real independent existence). Verse especially can hardly avoid taking an explicit position between these poles. The rhyme scheme within the stanzas of The Pearl indicates the clearly equivocal pattern ABABABABBCBC. The very fact that the simple pattern of alternating lines rhyming has become established after eight lines allows a variation to appear though the new C-rhyme is welded to the old structure by the re-use of the B-rhyme. The same sort of ambivalence is evident in the linking words: they act at once to pull the text together and to articulate its changes.

A simple glance at a list of the linking words will suffice to demonstrate their primary unifying functions: spot, dub, more, precios, pyece in perles pyʒt, juel, deme, blysse, quen of cortayse, date, more, grace inoghe, ryʒte, perle, Jerusalem, lesse, mote, John, sunne ne mone, delyt, paye. The most apparent fact about this list is that virtually all the linking words are positive, even hyperbolic, and the accumulation of their associations tends to ring the poem with an appropriate nimbus corresponding in purely linguistic terms to the poet’s removal from everyday life as described in the text. This aura of glory is of course particularly strong about the Pearl herself and indeed, the word “pearl” is twice the linking word, while the semantically similar “jewel” is used once. The only negative sounding words (lesse, mote) are used only for litotes. Thus they function in context as positive markers. “More” occurs twice, as though to point to the transcendent aim of the poem.

As a unifying device, the linking words tie groups of stanzas and individual stanzas and link the end of the poem to the beginning. They even tend to begin with the same sound (three-quarters of them begin with one of five letters — an improbable result in a random word-list).

The divisive, particularizing aspect of the linking words, though, is also operative in every case. They generally avoid exact duplication of meaning even in the different occurrences of a single word, preferring to trace a field of semantic variation within which the term can oscillate between meanings. For example the first linking word “spot” is used in two different senses alternately through its ten repetitions. In the second group, the word “dub” is used as a noun and as a verb, while “more” in the third modifies different parts of speech.

In the fourth group, the link formula is a phrase rather than a word and sometimes only one of its terms is repeated, sometimes all four. In the fifth group, the word “juel” refers to the man (as jeweler) in some lines and to the woman (as precious) in others. This variation in meaning is not necessitated by the conditions of composition: it would have been possible to retain much closer the original meaning for each word. I believe the poet is consciously manipulating the value of these key-words and thus reflecting on the instability of the rest of his verbal creation. The fact that this variation is part of the design of the poem is more obvious when one notices that it intensifies toward the end of each sequence. There is a greater likelihood of new “complicating” meanings appearing in the very last use of each word, the one that is in a “foreign” strophe group. (See stanzas 31 where “deme” means simply say for the first time, 36 where “bliss” is lengthened to “blissful,” 45 where “date” means simply time, etc.)

There are a few linking words missing where one would expect them to be; this disruption is clearly possible only within a context of order. For instance, the failure to provide an expected linking word at the opening of stanza 61 announces the critical looseness that transforms “perle” into “maskel” as key-word of group XIII.

The potential for transformation from the mundane to the priceless is indeed the poem's theme, but it is also the poem's style.

Rereading the Classics [Burton]

This is the first of what I expect to be a series of essays along the lines of Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited, originally a feature in the Saturday Review during the later sixties when intelligent literary comment could still find a page in a magazine of more or less general circulation. Rexroth said that he was not engaged in picking a top forty, his own version of Dr. Eliot’s five foot shelf, but merely talking about books he loved. He had a good-sized list of topics he never reached, and the reader can regret the lack of his pithy words about Water Margin, say, or the essay he projected grouping Kropotkin with Ruskin and William Morris. Having, like Rexroth and my topic in the piece below, spent a good share of time in reading, I, like them, speak perhaps most precisely about myself when speaking about books.

Robert Burton, the British scholar and divine, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, enjoys something of a cult, which is only to say that, while he is not to the taste of many, his partisans feel immoderate affection for his book. What is more, his partisans include such contrasting sensibilities as Dr. Johnson and John Keats, as well as the ill-starred General Custer.

During the same period when Burton chose to investigate the human psyche in his monumental work, sometimes called the earliest comprehensive text on psychiatry, Francis Bacon was pursuing truth in other realms of natural history. As a courtier (Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans and Lord Chancellor of England) Bacon wrote several accomplished if unimpressive poems in pious and classicizing veins. In his philosophic writing, however, he regularly emphasizes the fictive quality of poetry, calling it “feigned history.” Though “a part of learning,” poetry “being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.” He cites “One of the fathers” who called “poesy vinum daemonum, because it fireth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie.” Its only power was “to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things denies it.” [1]

Burton might have argued in turn that all he knew was his own mind and thus to report this knowledge is the veriest direct observation. Surely, too, his pages contain the fruits of exhaustive research and a plenitude of cases for inductive analysis. And many a reader will testify to having found more than a “shadow of satisfaction” in their books. In the twenty-first century, we can scarcely avoid observing that Bacon’s descendants have immensely expanded the privileges of science and technology, though psychiatry has been reduced to diagnosing and prescribing, and humanistic studies have, especially in recent years, withered.

A writer’s writer, Burton weighs each element of syntax and constructs dynamic and elegant mobiles of words. A scholar for whom Classical citations constitute a good share of discourse, he refers to authorities obscure even at Oxford with perfectly natural familiarity. Further, he is a true philosopher, in the old sense of Buddha and Socrates, for whom the primary question, the really important one, is how to find happiness in life. Finally, many readers through the years have found his Anatomy, the only book he wrote other than a satire in Latin, to be a most entertaining volume, suitable for taking up and putting down at any point. In this extraordinary book, while discussing the capacity of vicious spirits to bring melancholy, he manages to swerve into an inquest on the corporeality of spirits with prodigious batteries of experts testifying on either side, and he turns then to the natural question of whether, if they be bodily, they must then have excrement. [2] Other authorities, we hear, believe all spirits to be strictly spherical in shape. Burton exhibits the views of the learned; the reader may decide on the evidence.

Though Burton provides a rigorous outline plan, his tendency always is to wander in what can approach stream of consciousness. Focusing on infirmities of the mind, he finds occasion to discuss human psychology in an all but unrestricted way. After all, according to Burton, all men are depressive. And for him the term melancholy is broad enough to take in mania as well as depression, as well as the derangements of every deadly sin, and countless other irregular forms of behavior. While he reviews the entire world (or at least a library reflecting the entire world), he tells his readers his motivation is intimately personal: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” [3] His true topic, though, goes beyond even psychology and tends toward the encyclopedic. Burton declares, “I had a great desire. . .to have some smattering in all, to be aliquis in omnibus, nullus in singulis.” Wishing to consume all knowledge, this “roving humour” has led to systemless study: “I have read many books, but to little purpose, for want of good method. I have confusedly tumbled over divers authors in our libraries, with small profit for want of art, order, memory, judgment.” Yet Burton’s mental life was teeming, and he found his academic seclusion, “a monastic life ipse mihi theatrum.” [4]

The universal scope of his interests is consistent with his wandering style which moves from one thing to another naturally but unpredictably. Though never shy about expressing opinions on these multifarious issues, he tends, as real life does, to simply present the evidence and leave the contradictions for the reader to sort.

Because of his desultory style and constant patchwork of quotation, Burton may be claimed by post-modernists as a bricoleur, pasting together as he does a tissue of others’ utterances Only perhaps in the pages of Athenaeus does the reader find a like delight in moving from one thing fluidly to another, engaging with all that is human, making an unmapped voyage of discovery by dead reckoning, and thus reproducing the quality of lived experience.
Burton’s ultimate contribution is his attitude, his convincing pose as the man who has researched the cosmos, and, familiar with the endless odd vagaries of the human mind, has become broadly tolerant, accepting, and moderate in all things. Sex, food, party politics, he is easy-going in most things. His intimate acquaintance with the past has brought him a sophisticated recognition of what never changes. The passions of our hearts – romantic, religious, and simply depressive -- are too familiar to dismiss lightly yet too absurd to take seriously. Like the Epicureans of late antiquity, has achieved a sort of weary acceptance, facing up to the terrible terms of existence with dignity and a redemptive style, spinning the most wonderful tapestries of words while waiting to die. He is, of course, nominally a Christian (indeed a vicar and a rector), and he asserts conventional Christian doctrine and Christian prejudices, but the reader may doubt that that role sufficiently characterizes his spirituality or what he offers to a modern.

Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism was a central text of my own early literary education, regards the anatomy as a subgenre of Menippean satire, and the spirit of Menippus the Cynic (and his teacher Leucippus) does inform Burton’s work. Yet, if Burton never cared to deflate the holy afflatus as his models Leucippus and Democritus had done, he did gaze at life with the same wide open eyes and then managed to so relish words that he built a fabulous monument of them, sometimes resembling Seneca, of whom he thought so much, and sometimes looking more like one of those weird and endless outsider art constructions like Cheval’s Palais Ideal or Henry Darger’s endless illustrations.
Democritus, whose character he assumes, was said to leave his retreat now and then to walk to the port and “laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects, which there he saw.” As Juvenal tells us, Democritus “found food for laughter at every meeting with his kind: his wisdom shows us that men of high distinction and destined to set great examples may be born in a dullard air, and in the land of mutton-heads.” [5] In the same way, when Burton’s depression weighed upon him, unrelieved by either his beloved books or his eloquent pen, he would walk to the Bridge-foot in Oxford and his spirits would rise as he listened to the barge-men scolding and storming and swearing at each other. There must have been a grand edge to that laughter, and we know from his book that Burton would have found the very king’s court equally ridiculous.

1. The Advancement of Learning. Bacon refers to Augustine in Contra Academicas (386). In light of these views, it is amusing to recall the faction over the centuries that has maintained that Bacon, a “concealed poet,” was the true source of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. These topics are covered in one small section of Pt. I, Sec. 2, Mem. I, subs. 2.

3. 20 in the 1932 Everyman edition.

4. 17-18

5. This translation by G. G. Ramsay.

Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels

The reader will notice that this list is rather dated. It is directly transcribed from the notebook I kept while teaching in what was then Bendel State (now Delta State) in Nigeria. Posted to a bush school a couple of miles from the nearest village, I was dependent on the periodic visits of the library’s bookmobile from which I read Evans-Pritchard’s excellent book on the Zande Trickster, a number of random literary classics including much of Byron, odd bits of history and criticism donated or left by Brits, and a good number of African novels, most of them Anglophone. Perhaps these instant reactions might be useful to someone drawing up a reading list.

Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy is lit by some memorable characters, but, for the most part, slides by on post-Hemingway simple laconic phrase with occasionally eloquent elongations. The story of Xuma is at times pat or melodramatic, especially in Paddy’s speeches and the sentimental conclusion. The slummy local color is convincing.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a transition novel with sometimes creaking literary and psychological machinery. Okonko’s tragedy proceeds in sparse and expectable figures with a plodding flatness of sentence structure.

I found Achebe’s Arrow of God richer and weightier than Things Fall Apart, far more complex and mature (including more obscenity). Ezeulu is a stronger character than Okonkwo (whose fall was formal and slow like Eisenstein’s Ivan). The many proverbs were a pleasure, though at times the obligatory anthropological data from our cultural ambassador get in the way. Achebe’s style seems only half developed.

Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, despite melodrama over the upright and passive and transition stereotyping, the story of Okonkwo’s grandson Obi displays an exuberant mastery of narrative time with effective flashbacks and fades. I enjoyed also what sometimes seemed and delighted detailing of scenes for their own sake. Is Africa allowing itself an aesthete?

Achebe’s A Man of the People offers first-rate social analysis, many perceptive and expressive scenes, and eloquent pidgin marred by a jejune first person narrator.

T, M. Aluko’s One Man, One Matchet had in its best moments a nicely ironic tone and some absurd situations reminiscent of Waugh. I found also thick-fingered manipulation and an intention to be grave while seeming a bit silly.

In spite of some clever flashes, Aluko’s One Man One Wife the fundamental poverty of invention is clear in the repetition of incident and situation and such devices as filling space with hymn texts.

Elechi Amadi’s The Great Ponds is another painfully inexorable procession toward ruin as two villages war over fishing rights. The book includes good evocations of social structure and magic (which here is efficacious), compelling storytelling throughout, but marred by the cheap end of Wago’s suicide (not to mention the flu epidemic). So much pain! – difficult to wade through it all.

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is refreshing with its obscenity, its nimble language, and especially its lovely revelation of rot and ugliness. I’m afraid the social theme, though right-on, remains simplistic. Yogi is a Myshkin-like hero, engaging to follow, but the ugly banister and the bathroom slime seem likely to prove more lasting.

Armah’s Fragments is supported by the same rich sense of corruption as Beautyful Ones but is more sophisticated and complex. Baako, a sensitive writer, struggles against his suffocating family and his crass society while Naana plays the ancient noble savage. The book has some finely understated lines, some overfamiliar moralizing. Madness is portrayed with less sense of real whirling instability than in Bessie Head.

This Earth My Brother by Kofi Awoonor has some fine lyric lines and haunting dreamlike recollection scenes. Its highly complex texture is generally well-handled; the mythic structure actually works, a few gaucheries in the modernist line.

Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City approaches a kind of charm in its pulp tough guy hero but always falls short. The book has simply incompetent passages as well as sexuality more adolescent than Kerouac’s.

Ekwensi’s Burning Grass is more spare, dignified, and effective by far. The narrative line here includes a fine drawn wire of tradition. Yet too often the author indulges in overwrought passages of description and the bumpy plot, based on an unlikely journey, is finally unsatisfying.

Alex la Guma’s The Stone Countryy is a surprisingly unpolitical South African prison story with marvelous nicknames and slang and some impressive surrealist humor especially in the prisoners’ stories.

Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a South African journey of the soul in which the thought swarms of madness and mental attachments are handled as equivalent to holy pursuits for all their undiminished horror. Dizzying, tiring phantasmagoria, sometimes beautiful and moving, sometimes overdone. Near the end more lucid, vulnerable, contrary to life, with memorable phrases.

The Naked Gods by Chakwuemeka Ike is an altogether silly university story with howling errors of fact and idiom and some dreary machinery of titillation, local color, and satire, all disunited vectors, like brief lost fireworks.

Camara Laye’s The African Child (from L'Enfant noir in Guinean French) is a nostalgic recreation of childhood. After threads of magic at first, it turns to sentiment, smooth and graceful but uninteresting. Truffaut should make the movie.

In Many Thing Begin for Change by Adaora Lily Ulasi is an Ibo woman’s comic story told for outsiders. It is flawed by the inappropriate use of pidgin among villagers speaking to each other in 1935, the ubiquity of telephones (not yet a reality) and other anachronisms. Limp story line and unlikely development sink the plot.

Naguib Mafouz’ Madiq Alley is an Egyptian macramé of lives well-knotted: vivid and convincing yet dramatic and highly colored. Neatly worked absorbing characters though with a somewhat diffuse impact.

Oil Man of Obange by John Munonye is the excruciating story of Jeri’s sacrifices for his children’s education in a life of grinding poverty. The singleminded intense plot becomes hard to take but it is well-executed and simply but tastefully written. Its modest and clearly defined goals are fulfilled.

The Kenyan James Ngugi (Ngugi waThiongo) produced in The River Between a verbally varied and sophisticated transition novel (though the hero is as usual virtuous and wronged). The book has some very effective images, but little jolt behind its skill.

Ngugi’s Weep Not, Child is fundamentally still another idealistic village boy transition novel, but here the Mau Mau theme is unfortunately reductive – gone is the delicate lyricism of The River Between, leaving little. Having read of his recent detention, I think his heart is in the right place, but politics can be an almost irresistible red herring for an ethical African.

Nkem Nwanko’s Danda has a refreshing ne’er-do-well hero and some high-spirited lines. In spite of a number of memorable comic moments in an original tale, the plot wanders, lost, and ends inconclusively. The book needs more structural bones.

Gabriel Okara’s The Voice is an experimental stab with intriguing systematic distortion of language, but I found its existentialist quest vapid at last and I became fatigued with inside Ijaw lore. For the most part the book is a transition novel hiding in embarrassment, though it has some moving and well-written dream sequences.

The Victims by Isidore Okpewho, a classicist from the Urhobo Division) tells the sordid story of Obanua and his two wives. The plot moves consistently toward death despite a trickle of comedy and a steady background of natural description that never quite meshes with the narrative. Sometimes trite or vapid, the novel is at times effective and occasionally pretty. The plot is neatly wrought with well-realized characters and an exquisite sense of the fatalistic life of the drunk.

God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmene is a heroic proletarian novel. One’s interest is always sustained in the history, sporadically in the particulars, leading to a bit of a scattered effect on the whole. The reader finds persuasive detail but no surprises with what feel like predetermined themes on women and religion. His movies are better.

In Houseboy Ferdinand Oyono of the Cameroons has an insubstantial motif supported by some real wit, particularly in the early parts. The pathetic denouement is thin and confused.

Sol T. Plaatje’s 1917 South African novel Mhudi is a melodrama reflecting true glints despite dialogue sometimes reminiscent of old movie titles and some descriptions brittle with cliché. Some engaging oratory, proverbs, a solid image in Halley’s Comet, sun and moon. Subtle, prismatic shifting sympathy between Boers, Barolong, and Matabele is far more revealing than Things Fall Apart though with the same corrective idealization of custom (dark areas projected as well). A remarkable man with a Standard III education who wrote on “the social ethos of black-white sex relationships” and worked as a political leader.

Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard is a powerful driving linear narrative that synthesizes folk motifs more successfully than, say, Jaime de Angulo: wonderful quaint locutions, strange changes, dream and folktale turns, appetite and fear and terrible babies, merciless as Trickster. The first African novel to gain a wide readership, touted by Dylan Thomas, it is no wonder than the celebrity of this “naïve” work annoyed the more literate African writers, yet the novel is strong regardless of such concerns. I do recall when Tutuola was brought to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and was completely dumbfounded by the questions of scholars and critics. I only wish he had written a novel about life in Iowa City.