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

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.

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