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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 1: Narrative Situation


This discussion of narrative found in African literature will follow, in the principal items of its terminology, Franz Stanzel's Narrative Situations in the Novel. [1] Analysis of African narratives reveals a broad range of type, including every point on Stanzel's typological continuum. The authorial situation is most clearly evident in works which are influenced in their narrative strategy by the inherited tradition of the oral story-teller. The extreme point in the continuum, therefore, is denoted by works which actually draw on this tradition for some of their material. Such works as Bernard Dadié's Le pagne noir and Birago Diop's Les contes d'Amadou Koumba in the francophone literature and Taban lo Liyong's Eating Chiefs offer examples of this situation. [2]

Other works, although not totally conceived in the authorial mode, give it substantial emphasis. Of Achebe's works, No Longer at Ease is the one exhibiting this characteristic to the greatest degree, while all of Ngugi's long narratives tend to be authorial, as do Okara's The Voice, Ousmane's Les bouts de bois de Dieu, and Soyinka's two novels. [3]

First-person narratives are found in disguised and fictional autobiographies, such as Achebe's A Man of the People, Armah's Why Are We So Blest? Mongo Beti's Le pauvre Christ de Bomba and Mission terminée, and Ferdinand Oyono's Une vie de boy. [4] Mugo Gatheru's A Child of Two Worlds, like Camara Laye's L'enfant noir, is an overt autobiography with fictionalized aspects, while the latter's Dramouss is a fictional autobiography. [5] The form has also been utilized by Mbella Sonne Dipoko, Cyprian Ekwensi, Samuel Kahiga and Aubrey Kachingwe. [6]

The exclusively figural mode is as rare in this field as elsewhere, and no such works in fact exist. However, most works use the figural situation at least in passing, while a number concentrate almost exclusively on the consciousness of one persona. Important figures of this kind are Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Ezeulu in Arrow of God, the 'man' of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and Samba Diallo of L'aventure ambiguë, while the collective consciousness of Two Thousand Seasons is a special case of particular interest. [7]

In the last ten years, a small number of writers have begun to experiment with unconventional or complex narrative situations. Especially notable among these are Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother with its dual narratives, and the four novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, the first three of which contain dual or triple situations, while the last is an experiment with a unique figural situation. [8] Meanwhile, other writers, including some who have published a number of books like Cyprian Ekwensi, T. M. Aluko and John Munonye, continue to produce novels in which there is no sense of a need to experiment with narrative forms. The discussion which follows presents an analysis of five significant novels with regard to their technical and thematic use of narrative situation.

Agatha Moudio's Son

In the traditional African setting, the oral story-teller would be manifest as narrator: the situation would be primarily authorial. However, the story-teller might well be recounting an incident from the more recent past in which he himself played a part: the situation would then tend to be first-person. A novel which plays on the fiction of such a narrative situation is Agatha Moudio's Son by Francis Bebey. [9]

On numerous occasions the narrator pretends to address the reader, not in the manner of the novelist, but in that of the story-teller. A digression near the beginning of the work draws attention to the 'orality' of the narrative by claiming primacy for the spoken word over the written:

... the book in no way deserves this excess of confidence for it is, fundamentally, the most indiscreet of friends: tell it that you have just made a discovery and it forthwith sets about divulging it to the world, as if the matter concerned the whole world. This system of having no secrets from anyone is in the end the best way of not informing anyone, since everybody knows very well that what is written is not intended for him, personally. (p. 17)

The irony of the passage allows the work to have it both ways: the fictive act of oral telling implies the personal communication, while its appearance in a book obviously allows it to reach 'the world'. As opposed to the reader of such a book however, the audience for the present narrative is putatively composed of people of the area. This is indicated by such parenthetical remarks as: "You, who know Maa Medi, you know that she really meant what she had just said..." (p. 14); and "The news spread throughout Douala; indeed I am surprised that it didn't reach your ears." (p. 33)

The presence of the specific audience is implied in the narration on many other occasions, in phrases such as: "as you know"; "you will see later"; "when I tell you"; "you will remember"; "you know why"; "you know as well as I do"; and "I wouldn't want to bore you with the details". Although at some points the narrator refers to his 'scenic presentation' [10] of events: "... the whole shameful spectacle which you have just been watching"; (p. 85) at others he refers more characteristically to the temporal extension of the narrative: "And I had been busy at this job when that imbecile Dooh had made me so furious, as I was telling you a minute ago." (p. 125) It is noticeable that as the work proceeds the narrator loses his self-consciousness, [11] and there are no such indications, either of role consciousness or of collusion with the reader, for the last thirty pages.

Although containing these authorial indications of the fictive audience, Agatha Moudio's Son is largely a typical first-person narrative, in which the distinction between narrating andÊexperiencing selves takes on a functional significance. [12] The narrator's temporal vantage point is some few years after the birth of the 'son' of the title, whose parentage is one of the turning-points of the action. A discourse on the stupidity of racism as seen from this vantage point appears near the end of the book, making explicit the main thematic concern of the work and summarising the educative process experienced by the narrator. The last sentence begins : "And, since I have come to understand this, I look back with loathing on the melancholy smile I still used to have sometimes, for long months after the birth of the child ..." Thus, the design of the book is such that its thematic centre and the experience of its narrator coincide; in this way it derives much of its force from the narrative situation.

Given this, it is noticeable that the narrative is not consistent throughout with regard to the point of observation. On at least five occasions, moments in the action at which the narrator is not present are presented scenically. At these points the narrative may be said to use the licence provided by its authorial aspect to present these scenes neutrally or figurally. In one instance the narrator specifically excludes an observer: "Then she went home, promising herself secretly that if 'their son' amused himself by doing 'such a thing' to them, she 'would cut the thread of pregnancy in his two wives.' Only the calm night heard the low threats of Mother Evil-Eye." (p. 118). Such a specific exclusiveness may cause a sense of strain in a reader, particularly one of Stanzel's 'second type' with a 'lower degree of pictorial intensity', and he may experience this moment as an inconsistency. [13] In general, however, most readers will accept these shifts in the narrative situation as allowing a more rich scenic presentation. Such acceptance is perhaps encouraged by the initial setting-up of the narrative which begins in medias res and does not reveal the degree of involvement of the reader until the seventh page. The figure through whose consciousness the opening scene is mediated is not defined until he abruptly enters the action: "At this point I intervened." In this way the novel figure succeeds in 'intervening' in the narration as well as in the action.

Agatha Moudio's Son may now be seen as a work with a complex narrative situation. Analysis reveals that it has two clearly differentiated aspects: an involved first-person narration which serves to reveal the action and its meaning through the mediacy of the novel figure's experience; and the authorial story-teller who is permitted a degree of omniscience. Whereas the former aspect is a common characteristic of much European literature, the latter links the work with the socio-cultural traditions of its local origins.

A Man of the People

Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People (1966) offers a consistent example of a first-person narrative situation. Unlike the narrator of Agatha Moudio's Son, Odili, the medium of the narration in the former novel, is always present at every point in the action, which is seen throughout from his point of observation, and is always mediated by his attitude to events and other characters. The work also exhibits the distinction, made by Stanzel, between the narrating self and the experiencing self. [14] This distinction provides a reference point: the implied narrating present, which in relation to the narrated present continually indicates a point in time towards which the narrative moves. It also increases the degree of realism. In presenting a scene which took place some time before the time of writing, Odili says "I cannot now recall exactly what my feelings were at that point. I suppose I thought ..."(p. 6). The disclaimer characteristically makes the reader more inclined to believe in the thoughts and feelings attributed, if they are presented after such a qualification. This will be even more the case when the moment is emotionally highly charged, as when Odili realises that his girlfriend Elsie is in bed with Chief Nanga. He says "I find it difficult in retrospect to understand my inaction at that moment."(p. 78)

Another function of the presence of this gap between the two selves of the narrator is that it enables him to set up the kind of frame which he sees as appropriate for the narrative, and which will therefore become part of the whole meaning of the work. This frame is principally to draw attention to the meaning of the phrase "a man of the people". Appropriately, this is made clear in the opening statement of the story made ex cathedra by the narrator in the narrating present. "... M. A. Nanga ... was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I'm going to tell will make no sense." (p. 1)

Later authorial statements make it increasingly clear that this idea is related not only to the man, but equally to the people also. Thus "the people themselves, as we have seen, had become even more cynical than their leaders and were apathetic into the bargain." (p. 161) The view put forward by the narrator is amplified by the whole tendency of the narrative to expose the extent to which corruption in the ruling class of the country is supported by a decadence running through the whole of its life. This is the case even though the narrator is clearly no example of moral excellence.

The paradox of A Man of the People is that the hysterical moralizing of Odili is placed in the context in such a way that it can be qualified critically by the reader's response, but at the same time is close to the thematic centre of the work. This is achieved through the development of the character of the narrator throughout. He is shown to be self-critical and honest about his motives, allowing the reader to see him being moved to action for comprehensible reasons. But as the work proceeds, his values become less shallow as he learns from his experiences. Because the reader is constrained to have such a critical view of this character, a critical view of his comments on the action must follow. These tendencies converge at the conclusion of the work, which ends with Odili's summary of the meaning of the action, and in the last sentence in particular, which ends "... in such a regime, I say, you died a good death if your life had inspired someone to come forward and shoot your murderer in the chest without asking to be paid." This is at the conclusion of a passage which rounds off the action, a passage which ends with the longest and most hortative sentence in the work. However, few readers will want wholly to endorse sentiments expressed in such terms, particularly in the light of their informed view of the speaker. On the other hand, most readers will feel the force of the logic which produced this conclusion. From the triangulation of this irony will come the meaning of the work for a particular reader.


The narrative situation for most of Houseboy (1956) [15] by Ferdinand Oyono is first-person, but this is enclosed within a frame-story which is also a first-person narration. The latter relates the discovery of the diaries of Toundi, the ex-houseboy of the title, who is therefore the narrator of the internal story. Although the tone of the latter is satirical for the most part, there is no trace of humour in the story told by the unnamed narrator which leads up to Toundi's death and the beginning of the diaries. This narrator tells of hearing the drums conveying the news of the dying 'Frenchman' from the Cameroons, at which his "mind was deeply disturbed", and he "was overwhelmed". (p. 4) The death scene is gruesome: the dying man smells appalling; blood comes from between his lips; he is seized by spasms. When he finally dies, he is buried immediately, as "he was already rotten before he died." (p. 8) The atmosphere thus created sets the tone in which thematic material is prefigured by the man's last words, which include: "Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French? ... I'm finished ... they've got me..." (p. 7) Who 'they' are must be revealed by the main narrative, but the colonisation theme is already firmly established. These indications must remain, to a greater or lesser degree, in the mind of the reader as he proceeds through the inset narrative, the tone of which is very different. At one point one of the characters says to Toundi "It's never out of season to have a good laugh even at a dead man's wake." (p. 102) There is no question of laughter at Toundi's own death scene.

Toundi's narrative shows the progress of a mind from a state of innocence to one of desperate cynicism. Concerned mainly with his relationship with the Europeans, it begins with Toundi's love and admiration for Fr Gilbert. He runs away from his overbearing father to the safety of the priest's power. When the priest dies, Toundi is delighted to become houseboy to the Commandant himself. "A new life is starting for me" he says. (p. 24) But in only the second diary entry, Commandant Decazy's cruelty has already begun. The method of the narration here, as elsewhere, is significant. Toundi observes the behaviour of Decazy closely, in such a way that the reader must draw inferences about the Commandant's motives. These motives themselves however are not ascribed by the narrator. The meaning of the scene is left implicit in the way the action is presented. As Toundi is about to serve Decazy with a beer, for example, his cap rolls to his master's feet. The boy observes "his eyes grow small as a cat's eyes in the sun." (p. 27) When he is ordered to pick it up, Decazy kicks him hard, but not until after the Commandant has given a justification for his act: "I'm not a monster ... but I wouldn't like to disappoint you." After the kick "He seemed pleased with his effort. He moved about restlessly." Following this piece of sadism, Decazy gives his boy a piece of advice. "'Joseph', he said, 'be a man and, above all, think what you are doing."' It is clear that he has just violated both these commandments himself. Toundi, however, makes no comment. The diary entry merely ends "I took off my apron at midnight. I wished the Commandant good-night." (p. 28) The reader realises that after the eighteen-hour day, including this gratuitous cruelty, the houseboy still wishes his master a good night.

The scene which is the best example of the use of the narrative situation is the one where Toundi discovers two used condoms under Mme Decazy's bed, during the absence of her husband on tour in the bush. This immediately follows a warning from the doctor's wife that the Africans are aware of the affair between Mme Decazy and M. Moreau, the prison-director. As Madame is already in a state of suppressed anger, the discovery causes her to break out in a rage. Toundi is at a loss. "There are times when the anger of white people leaves you completely blank. While all this was going on I did not understand anything." (p. 99) The cook and washboy do, however, and fall about laughing when they hear about the cause of the contention. The language they use is comic: "'To do things properly ... they put it on, like a hat or a pair of gloves ...' said the cook in an offhand, knowing manner, mocking my innocence." (p. 102) Ironically, the reporter of their mirth apparently does not get the joke. Nor, unlike the cook, can he perceive the significance of the discovery. "Women can't forgive a thing like that. It's worse than if you'd looked up her frock. A white women just can't let her houseboy find things like that."

It is important for the development of the ironical force of the action that Toundi be sexually innocent. His naivety is revealed in the following scene with Kalisia: he is unaware of the significance of physiological changes in his own body. Toundi's innocence is important because the action turns on the sexual activities of the Europeans of which he is an observer and, in consequence, a victim. The whites find an opportunity to remove Toundi when Sylvie, the African mistress of Magnol, the agricultural engineer, runs away with his cashbox and his clothes. As it is known that she was the confidante of Toundi, he is also accused of being her lover, and is hauled off to prison and torture, which finally results in his miserable and painful death. Once again the Europeans are shown to be the victims of their sexual drives. Magnol demonstrates hysterical fury when Toundi suggests that Sylvie wasn't his 'type' (p. 124) although obviously she was good enough for the Frenchman. As a result of Toundi's position with regard to the sexual mores of the whites - in one case being an embarrassing observer, in the other apparently having better taste - in both cases appearing to make a judgement on the guilty: he becomes a scapegoat. As the orderly says in the hospital to which Toundi is taken: "I wonder why you are such an important patient. When the whites have decided to get one of us they always get him ..." (p. 140) But almost nowhere does Toundi in fact make any judgements, and consistently seems unaware of the reasons for which he is ill-treated.

At the only point in the main narrative where the narrator is allowed to show any awareness of his situation, he writes: "Kicks and insults have started again. He thinks this humiliates me and he can't find any other way. He forgets that it is all part of my job as a houseboy, a job which holds no more secrets for me." But then he immediately goes on to counteract this impression of knowledge gained: "I wonder why he too refers to me as 'Monsieur Toundi' ...?" (p. 117) It is the frame-tale, then, which provides the reference point by which the reader must judge the implied significance of this narrative. In the former section Toundi has achieved a realisation of the incompatibility of his position in white society which he is at last able to formulate. The reader reads the main narrative with the knowledge of this statement in his mind, which informs his view of the scene, although it is glimpsed through the innocent eyes of Toundi.

The persona of Toundi may be seen as a tragic modification of the picaresque hero. In this mode, the hero's moral stance is outside the action in which he is engaged. He makes no judgements, but is himself judged. The reader participates by bringing this judgement together with the value-free experience of the protagonist. The use of the first-person narrative situation in this genre means an intensification of the element of this experience in the presented world of the narrative. The manner in which this is carried out in this particular work means that it tends to exist in a mode more tragic than comic, with a concomitant effect on the thematic structure.

This Earth, My Brother

Kofi Awoonor's only novel to date deserves mention in this section - although it will be discussed in more detail later - because it contains a narrative situation which is unique in the corpus of African literature. There are in fact two situations. One is a conventional narrative in which the narrative situation is partly authorial, although much of this narration tends to be figural, as it revolves around Amamu, the central character, and much of the action is seen from his point of observation. However, there are large temporal shifts in this narration, including one back to the time of the birth of Amamu, while other shifts move forward and backward in time. Also, much material is presented which is not given as the content of Amamu's thought, and of which he would probably have no knowledge. And the contents of the consciousness of others is also rendered on occasion.

It is the secondary narration which is of particular interest in this context. In a series of shorter chapters set in a different type-face and numbered '1a', '2a', etc., a type of writing is employed which might be seen as a kind of 'stream of consciousness'. It moves freely through time and space from sentence to sentence, and even occasionally into other languages, Latin and Akan; but there are indications of a single consciousness which is the source of the material, which uses the first person, and which is finally identifiable with Amamu. He has become insane and the action concludes after his death in an institution. It becomes apparent then that the 'a' chapters are the representation of Amamu's train of thought in his madness, and were presumably written down by him, as they contain quotations attributed to various writers. The mention of a black notebook on the last page (p. 183) could then be seen as the link which places the intercalated chapters within the realistic context of the main narrative.

Each narrative affects the reader's perception of the other. As the connexion between them becomes clearer, the reader will see in the main action the tendency towards breakdown, and become increasingly informed of the history of the human consciousness whose wanderings are conveyed in the secondary narrative.

Two Thousand Seasons

Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons uses a single figural narrative situation, but one of a special kind: one which might be called 'floating'. Mediation is not embodied in any one particular individual, but in a group, or perhaps more accurately, an ideology. The time scale of the work is vast, having reference to a period of some hundreds of years. Despite this, the same point of view is maintained throughout, although its function varies.

During narrative passages the point of view does not float from one individual to another but remains within the group as a whole. The narrative voice is thus permitted to relate from first-hand experience what occurs in several different spatial or temporal zones. Locutions used to convey this collectivity of point of view are such as: "Those of us who ..." and "Some of us ..." A clever example of the way this works is found in the incident of the slaves' revolt in the slave-ship. (pp. 215-223) What occurs in the first of the ship's longboats is described in detail first, after which the viewpoint shifts to the second boat, and so on. When that part of the revolt has been described, the viewpoint shifts to the ship where simultaneously another revolt is taking place. This is again described in detail from the point of view of an involved observer. In this way, this particular kind of floating narrative situation combines the omniscience of an authorial view with the freshness of an involved narrator but without the spatial and temporal limitations of the first person singular.

On a number of occasions, narration ceases while an authorial voice expatiates on a particular ideological point. The impression of a speaker is conveyed by phrases such as "Hear this for the sound of it" (p. 54), and "The time has come for us to pause for breath" (p. 200). As may be seen from the last quotation, there may also be reference to the narrating present. For example, the passage quoted, which furnishes an example of the statement of ideas referred to, continues: "We have reached the time when we must speak of consciousness." Then follows a passage on the subject of "connected consciousness".

It is with such a passage that the book ends. The narrative breaks off, having established a trend in the conflict, although no conclusion, and moves into another polemical passage, which offers analyses of political states of affairs, programs for continuing the struggle, and an ideology by which to carry it on, containing a goal for which to aim. In these respects it recalls the opening prologue, which although spoken in a different, more distanced, prophetic tone, nevertheless contains the same ideology and program. The nature of this ideology is such that it finds its ideal narrative embodiment in precisely the 'collective' point of view used in the narrative, concerned as it is with the struggle towards a future society; a struggle which will be spearheaded by a pure, militant, elite group - the group whose collective point of view is represented.


1. Franz Stanzel, Narrative Situations in the Novel (Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 1971). Although this is the main work cited, others consulted include: Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1961), especially Chapter 6: "Types of Narration", and Part II: "The Author's Voice in Fiction". Wayne C. Booth, "Distance and point-of-view - an essay in clarification", Essays in Criticism, XI (1961). Michel Butor, "Thoughts on the Novel: the Individual and the Group", Encounter, XX, 6, (1963). Norman Friedman, "Point of View in Fiction - The Development of a Critical Concept", PMLA, (1955). Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by Henry James (N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935). Robert Humphrey, Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel, (Berkeley: 1954). Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (London: Cape, 1921). Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (N.Y.: O.U.P., 1966), Chapter 7: "Point of view in narrative". Sharon Spencer, Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (N.Y.: O.U.P., 1971). Michel Butor, Inventory: Essays (London: Cape, 1970).

2. Bernard Dadié, Le Pagne Noir (Paris: Présence Africaine 1955). Birago Diop, Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1961). Taban lo Liyong, Eating Chiefs (London: Heinemann, 1970).

3. Chinua Achebe, No Longer At Ease (London: Heinemann, 1960). Gabriel Okara, The Voice (London: Deutsch, 1964). Sembène Ousmane, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (Paris: Le Livre Contemporain, 1960). Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (London: 1965). Wole Soyinka, Season of Anomy (London: Rex Collings, 1973).

4. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (London: Heinemann, 1966). Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972). Mongo Beti, Le pauvre Christ de Bomba (Paris: Buchet, 1956). Mongo Beti, Mission terminée (Paris: Buchet, 1957). Ferdinand Oyono, Une vie de boy (Paris: Julliard, 1960).

5. Camara Laye, L'enfant noir (Paris: Plon, 1953). Camara Laye, Dramouss (Paris: Plon, 1966). Mugo Gatheru, A Child of Two Worlds (London: Routledge, 1964).

6. Mbella Sonne Dipoko, A Few Nights and Days (London: Heinemann, 1970). Cyprian Ekwensi, People of the City (London: Dakers, 1954). Samuel Kahiga, The Girl from Abroad (London: Heinemann, 1974). Aubrey Kachingwe, No Easy Task (London: Heinemann, 1966).

7. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958). Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (London: Heinemann, 1964). Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968). Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L'aventure ambiguë (Paris: Julliard, 1962). Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: E.A.P.H., 1973).

8. Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother (London: Heinemann, 1971). Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970).

9. Francis Bebey, Le fils d'Agatha Moudio (Yaounde: Clé, 1967). tr. Joyce A. Hutchinson as Agatha Moudio's Son (London: Heinemann, 1971). Page references are to the translation.

10. Stanzel, Narrative Situations, p. 22.

11. Booth, Rhetoric of Fiction, p. 155.

12. Stanzel, p. 61.

13. Ibid., p. 30.

14. ibid., p. 61.

15. Ferdinand Oyono, Une vie de boy, tr. John Reed as Houseboy (London Heinemann. 1966). Page references are to the English translation.

New: 3 August 1996 | Now: 20 December, 2018