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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 3: Temporal Aspects


In the third volume of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer treats the development of the concept of time as it proceeds from a mythical conception, where there is little differentiation of present from past and future, through a dependency on "spatial and objective determinations" into language and chronology. [1] Of the mythical conception, he writes:

... time is here experienced as destiny - long before it was conceived as a cosmic order of change in the purely theoretical sense. It is no mere ideal network for the 'earlier' and 'later', rather, it is itself the spinner of the net. With all the universality that is already imputed to it, it remains alive and concrete; it is the original actuality of all being - earthly and celestial, human and divine. [2]

This notion is of particular relevance to literature, in which time stands in an ambiguous relationship to its mythical and chronometric conception. In the sense that the literary work of art contains a totally created world, time is perfectly arbitrary. The time scale of events in the presented world may begin, continue and end anywhere; and the action may be seen as occurring in two or more different times. On the other hand, inasmuch as the created world has a relationship to the real world, characters will be depicted as experiencing time as if in the real world. However, this is in its turn ambiguous, in that the human experience of time is partly a function of chronometric observation and partly the psychic experience of Bergson's durée. [3]

In African literature there are numerous examples of direct references by the narrator to traditional myth, the history of the tribe. On other occasions a character will refer to or retell such a myth. In one case, that of Amos Tutuola, the whole work may be seen as occurring in mythical time. Although, in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, for example, there is a sense of a narrating time-locus and a narrated series of events which make up a large part of a man's life, within the scheme of that narration there is no attempt to equate in a realistic manner the events described with the indications of the passing of time. [4] There is no necessity; the imagined world of The Palm-Wine Drinkard is created in the mode of the fantastic, sustaining merely a tenuous relationship with the real world.

This timeless quality will also be found in works which are closely based on traditional sources or are reworkings of older stories, such as Eating Chiefs and Les contes d'Amadou Koumba. However, by and large, other works demand a more thorough analysis of their temporal categories.

Those aspects of time which have particular relevance in literary works of art may be treated for the sake of convenience in the two modes, presented world, and presentational process. And the latter may be seen as possessing three aspects or stages in the act of telling: narrator, personae and reader, each of which has a particular relationship with time. Of these the most important is the narrator. As the explicit controller of the unfolding of the work, the narrator will control various kinds of time.

Firstly, the action will appear to be seen from a particular temporal point of observation or from a number of these. The extent to which the temporal locus of the narrator postdates the time of the action will contribute to the effect of the work. In a work like Le Devoir de Violence the use of a greatly posterior point of observation and a large time-scale will make for a structure which will tend to belong to a 'historical' mode. On the other hand, a first-person narrative situation which necessitates a relatively short time-scale and a closer temporal locus, as in, say A Few Nights and Days or The Girl From Abroad, will tend to create a less historical structure.

Another factor contributing to the time scheme of the work is the pace of the narration; that is, the relative rate at which items of the action are presented. [5] This is also controlled by the narrator, or the narrative process generally, and characteristically will tend to be slower in expository passages and in scenic presentation, than in passages of external action or summary presentation. Narrative pace is also likely to be interrelated with aspects of the presented world, with the world-views of particular characters, in that more space will be given to important moments in the development of central characters, and the narrative pace will slow down.

Any of these foregoing aspects may be further complicated by any of the ways of multiplying time-scales in a narrative: by the use of several strands of narrative, or of discontinuous phases or montage. Montage may occur in the juxtaposition of different phases from the experience of one character, or of more than one.

All of these aspects of time may be found in a wide range of literatures, and all may be found in the body of African literature. One aspect of time, however, may differ according to the cultural environment of the work: this is the sense of time, the way of experiencing or measuring time which is peculiar to a particular culture. In literature, this will emerge as a temporal aspect of the presented world, specifically as the sense of time of the personae. The question of whether it is possible to discern in some African works the representation of a temporal sense which is specific to Africa will be taken up again later in this chapter. The next section will discuss the relationship between narration and time in several major works.

Weep Not, Child

Whereas in A Grain of Wheat Ngugi's narrator has reached a point from which he can look back through time and study the stages by which the personae arrived at the present, the time scheme of Weep Not, Child is less complex. [6] The temporal point of observation is almost exclusively in the narrated present, and there are few references to an antecedent time. The narrative tense throughout is the preterite, but there is no sense of a narrating voice or of a narrating present, and therefore no idea of the distance in time between narration and action. Although some indications are of the form "It was a cold Monday morning" (p. 128), and more specifically, "Exactly two and a half years later" (p. 70), other scenes are introduced, not with a verb, but with a tenseless adverbial phrase, such as "Two days later". (p. 97) Alternatively, the scene simply begins with the first element of the action, without any indication of time. This gives the impression that nothing is known about the outcome of the action, that all possibilities are open to the characters, and that they can exercise free will in what they choose to do.

This impression is supported by the fact that the spatio-temporal locus of the narrator is always close to the centre of the action, and usually with Njoroge, the central character, whose naive view provides a foil for the terrifying events of the action. The combination of the naivety of the central persona and the source material of historically significant and violent happenings grants the reader the experience of a defusing fiction. The majority of the work characteristically proceeds by presenting, in the order in which they occur, scenes from Njoroge's life, or that of his father, Ngotho, or some other principal character.

Exceptions to this procedure are of two kinds. At the point of introduction of a new character, there is a brief account of events which led to his or her present situation. Rather than this material being authorially presented, however, it is rendered through the consciousness of the character, thus maintaining scenic presentation and a sense of present time.

The other kind of excursus into the past is one characteristic of all of Ngugi's longer works, though found to a lesser degree in the present one. It frequently occurs that one character will tell another a story from the recent or distant past. When in Chapter Two, Ngotho tells his son the story of the creation of the Gikuyu race, it is in order that he may have a story to tell at school; but it is also an extension of the time of the narrative into the mythic past. It has the function not only of raising the question of the right of the Gikuyu people to own their traditional land, but also does so within a religious context, which lends a greater authority and seriousness to the implicit claim. Once established, the force of this mythic current can be felt throughout the narrative. This technique is frequently and appropriately used in The River Between to reflect its concern with the clash of religions, whereas Weep Not, Child is more concerned with the effect of political forces on ordinary people. However, the technique has a place in the latter in that it provides a means for indicating that area of the belief system of the people that has to do with the maintenance of culture and of traditional privileges.

Use of the figural narrative strategy in Weep Not, Child has a special effect on the pace of the action. At the commencement, a good deal of space is given to the exposition of the situation of each of the personae, Njoroge, Ngotho and his family, and the Howlands. The action moves slowly through the early scenes before the Emergency, showing Njoroge at school, Howlands and Ngotho working together, and their attitude to the land, the slow pace of normalcy. Once the basis of the action is laid down, complications are introduced, the strike occurs, and the scene changes rapidly from one point of observation to another. Whereas at the beginning, the action may be measured by days, in the second part the narrative shows the longer term effects of the upheaval, over months and years. Unlike A Grain of Wheat, where there is a balance between different zones of the time continuum, in Weep Not, Child the time of the action begins at a certain point and then moves forward with increasing rapidity, the ratio between narrating time and narrated time changing almost exponentially.

A Grain of Wheat

Time in A Grain of Wheat is at once broad and quite specific. The present of the narrative can clearly be identified as the four days before Kenyan Independence, 12 December 1963, and a few days afterwards. The climax of the action, which occurs on this day, comes in the last numbered chapter (Chapter 14) and is followed only by a few brief sections in the nature of epilogues, or dénouement. That part of the action which is not set in this present is given in a large number of flashbacks, either memories or accounts by various characters of incidents in the past, or authorial summaries of their backgrounds. These flashbacks are far-ranging, and may include any point in the life of a character, although they are mostly concerned with the time of the Emergency in Kenya. Some references are to the period of the earliest European contact in East Africa, and to early evidence of national awakening.

Action in the earliest time zone of the work is presented authorially in the second chapter. The first chapter locates the present of the narrative in the Sunday before the Thursday of Uhuru, and introduces the Party. Chapter Two then gives an account of the historical background of the formation of such a party. That this sense of causation and historical continuity is central to the book may perhaps be seen in the fact that the events of this period are linked with the title of the work in the following passage: "Then nobody noticed it; but looking back we can see that Waiyaki's blood contained within it a seed, a grain, which gave birth to a political party whose main strength thereafter sprang from a bond with the soil." (p.15) Within the limits of the present context, the most significant phrase here is "looking back". Much of the book looks back in this way, to account for the present by the past, both historical and personal.

For not only is there the perspective created by reference to actual events and real people, such as the historical Waiyaki and Jomo Kenyatta, but there is also a profound understanding of central individuals. This is partly developed by the detailed accounts of their origins and lives. Unlike the historical view mentioned above, these are generally introduced by the characters' memories, stirred by some present event. The more central the character, the greater the part of his or her life that is shown: so that the reader knows more about the childhood of Mugo than of any other character, and, for example, slightly less of Gikonyo's. But some account is given of even the European characters, whose treatment is rather different from that of the Africans, less aspects being presented.

These perspectives are given in relatively summary fashion, as compared with more central episodes, such as the competition between Karanja and Gikonyo for Mumbi. This is the subject of the very long Chapter Seven, which spills over into the chapters which precede and follow, and in which Gikonyo is the narrator, telling his story to Mugo. Though his narrative extends through his period of detention and almost up to the present, it centres on the principal anecdote of the race of Karanja and Gikonyo for the train and for Mumbi. The spatialization of the narrative at this point is taken up again and extended in the other race, in Chapter Fourteen. This is also a race for Mumbi, and balances the earlier one in the structure of the whole work.

The principal time zone is the time of the Emergency. Many of the most significant moments in the action occur during this period and they are the subject of a number of flashbacks. These again follow the lives of Gikonyo and Mugo as well as more incidental stories, like that of Dr Lynd. In the case of Gikonyo, the time of his narrative continues into the period after his return from detention, as he is the character in whom the effect of the Emergency is most intimately shown.

An analysis of one chapter with regard to its temporal features will show how the use of different time zones is integral to the meaning of the work. Chapter Twelve begins with a movement back to the time of Mugo's detention in Rira Camp. The chapter is preceded by an epigraphical break - a quotation from Exodus which seems to permit the narrator to change his temporal locus. The material is similar. At the end of the previous chapter Mugo dreams of being in the Camp, and sees himself in a messianic role. The Biblical quotation is therefore in place. The narrator then takes up the same material, but deals with in from an authorial point of view, and from a considerable distance: "Learned men will, no doubt, dig into the troubled times which we in Kenya underwent, and maybe sum up the lesson history in a phrase. Why, let us ask them, did the incident in Rira Camp ..." (p.149) In the next paragraph, however, the point of observation has moved much closer and the reader is made aware of Mugo's consciousness : "... at one stage he thought this his final place of rest ..." (p.149)

As the narrative proceeds, and particularly as the presentation becomes scenic, the time of this part of the action temporarily becomes the narrated present. However, this episode is completed in a few pages and the focus moves forward again: "This was foremost in the mind of Mugo as on the following day after his vision he walked towards Gikonyo's home." (p.153) In this particular case the flashback is related to the consciousness of a character after the event. But although it is related in this way, it is not actually presented in the mode of thought report.

On his arrival, Mugo finds, not Gikonyo, but Mumbi. She tells him about some incidents which tie up loose ends of other phases of the narrative for the reader, or present them from a different point of view, notably Mugo's rescue of Wambuku in the trench, as seen from Mumbi's point of view. Following the conversation in which this is presented, Mumbi launches into a full-scale narrative of the circumstances which lead to the paradoxical intimacy of Karanja with herself. The narration is taken over at one point by an authorial narrative voice (pp.160-161), and is then taken up again by Mumbi's, which continues uninterrupted for almost ten pages. At the climax of her story, the point of observation is briefly located in Mugo's emotional reaction, before General R. and Lt Koinandu enter, and the narrative becomes a scenic presentation in the narrated present until the end of the chapter.

It may be seen that a type of narration is adopted at each successive point the temporal locus of which is synchronous with a significant moment in the action. A distant temporal locus allows a perception of what might be called the historical significance of the action. A close temporal locus then allows the reader to observe the consequences of large-scale social change at the level of the individual.

Present and past interact: the nature of the individual and of his circumstances have been formed; a particular course of action or turn of events is predetermined. In Gikonyo's case, the effect of time is in one way very simple: he is kept in detention for so long that Mumbi loses hope of ever seeing him again. The release of emotion is so great when Karanja informs her of her husband's return that she is "in a strange world" (p.171), and allows him to make love to her, with the attendant consequences for herself and Gikonyo.

In Mugo's case, there is a much more complex interaction of his personal past and the present of the political situation. His alienation, the product of his deprived childhood and his megalomaniac fantasies, is interpreted as the aloofness and stoic courage needed in a leader of the Party. This misinterpretation produces the climactic irony of the work.

Why Are We So Blest?

Chronology in Why Are We So Blest? is fragmented in two ways, or sectioned into two planes: the narration is divided among three narrators; and the action is not always presented in the order of occurrence. The situation in the latest time-zone of the work is that Solo, one of the three principal characters, has in his possession papers left behind by the other two, Modin, the African, and the American girl, Aimée. He tries to understand their notebooks by "speculating, arranging, and rearranging these notes to catch all possible meaning." (p.231) The work presents the diaries, out of chronological order, and interspersed with Solo's own notes and reminiscences. This is a modern technique which recalls the arrangement of the "shuffle-novel".

In the analysis which follows, a distinction will be made between chapters, in the usual sense, and what will be called 'slots': the chapters as narrated by a particular persona. This will permit a discussion of the rearrangement of chronology; showing how action from a particular time-zone is presented out of order. For example, Chapter Two is the first chapter narrated by Modin, and is therefore called his 'first slot'. It is concerned with a moment in the U.S.A. after Modin's disillusionment, a time which could be seen as the third 'time-zone' of his strand of the action.

Solo's first two slots establish the consciousness which fictively organises the material of the work. Judging mainly by the tonal evidence, the first of these appears to be synchronous with the latest action, the editing of the journals. It includes a flashback to a time perhaps not long before this when Solo was in hospital. The next two chapters introduce Modin and Aimée, giving the first, though not the earliest, entries in their diaries. The fourth chapter, Solo's second slot, which includes a flashback to his earliest time-zone, when he is a student in Lisbon, then logically brings the three characters together at the time of their first meeting. This time-zone will not be revisited until Chapter 27, Solo's tenth slot. The intervening chapters which are headed with Solo's name are all in the nature of general comments on relationships, politics, and the difficulty of understanding and organising the journals. Solo's last two slots continue the narrative of Modin and Aimée trying to join the Revolutionary Movement, leaving Laccryville, Aimée's return and the handing-over of the notebooks. Thus, as well as performing the two obvious functions of providing part of the narration and providing an alternative point of view with regard to Modin and Aimée's relationships with the Revolution and with each other, Solo's role is also to encompass the action with an interpretive state of mind, and to create a serious tone and a pessimistic mood for the whole work.

From the sixth chapter on, Modin's second slot, is almost entirely taken over by him, with brief interspersed comments from Solo, until Chapter 14, when Aimée tells part of her own story. Modin's first slot had been concerned with the time in the U.S.A. before he met Aimée. His second slot, like Solo's, returns to the earliest period of his life presented, recounting, in the context of a memory at the time of leaving Africa, a visit in his youth to Christiansborg Castle. The third slot then leaps forward to the time of the beginning of his relationship with Aimée. With the fourth slot there is a movement back again to events after his arrival in the U.S.A., so that there is a connexion with slot two. From here onwards, Modin's narration is presented in chronological order: firstly, his experiences as a student in America, then his relationship with Aimée, the decision to join the Revolution in Afrasia, to go to Laccryville, and, in the penultimate chapter, to travel through the Sahara. The weight of this central part of the book, narrated by Modin in order of occurrence, establishes him as the central figure of the work, in whom the central conflict takes place, of which the other two are catalyst and observer.

Aimée's notes occupy much less space: she has only six short slots against Modin's thirteen and Solo's eleven. Her first slot (Chapter 3) is the record of an interview with a woman in a country called Kansa. It is not until Chapter Fourteen that Aimée's notes reveal how she came to be recording the interview. Both these slots are from the time of her first trip to Africa, before her return to the U.S.A. and her meeting with Modin. Her next three slots, Chapters 18, 20 and 23, do not so much advance the action as enlarge on her relationship with Modin, already partly narrated by him, from her point of view. For this reason their two narratives are here synchronised. Aimée's final slot, the book's last chapter, is necessary to complete the climax of the action, as it recounts the death of Modin.

The uses and effects of this fragmentation of time are several. It is logical, firstly, to attempt to explain a present situation by presenting the series of events that led up to it. This is so not only of relational and social situations, but also of people, who may be seen deterministically as the product of all their past environments. This procedure is one of the basic strategies of the 'realist' novel.

On the other hand, according to another ontological stance, reality may be seen as a subjective phenomenon, and therefore inexplicable in terms of mere cause and effect. In narrative this view could lead to the adoption of more than one point of observation in order to arrive at a kind of 'multiple reality'. Each figure or narrator will exist in an individual time. Thus, at points of synchrony, different presentations of the action will vary, among other things, in pace and duration.

Thirdly, fragmentation of chronology will affect the response of the reader. Given a situation and, following that, the events which have led up to it, he will anticipate developments, construct his own hypotheses, feel suspense or irritation, which may or may not be allayed by the actual outcome. Thus his response will be affected by the need to make sense of the time-scheme, and he will be involved in a way that he would not in a straightforward narrative which proceeds along a conventionally chronological path.

Lastly, aspects of time play an important part in the formation of the Weltanschauung of the work. In the same way that atmosphere and tone combine with the presentation of events and personae to create a world which has certain metaphysical and modal characteristics, so do temporal aspects contribute to this overall view. Fragmentation and dislocation of time tend to lead to a world-view of uncertainty and unpredictability. The fictive editor's inability to make coherent sense of the narrative is appropriately borne out by the way the narrative breaks off immediately following the eventual savage climax of the action. If there is to be "a meaning", the reader must supply it; the work does not prescribe one.

Two Thousand Seasons

Two Thousand Seasons is a recent (1973) work which attempts to draw from the past a sense of meaning for the present and a direction for the future. The work spans an immense period, but not as in a historical work where there are various degrees of distance in the past. A temporal 'space' is created which has throughout the quality of the epic present. Time is measured furthermore, not by Western chronology, but by reference to observable natural phenomena; another aspect of the work's particular relevance to its African setting.

In Things Fall Apart, and other such works with a traditional setting, the characters measure time in relation to the cycle of growth and harvest. The year is divided naturally into the two seasons of sowing and of reaping, as well as into the lunar months. 'Weeks' are measured by markets, which turn on the cycle of the food which is ready to be sold on a certain day. In Armah's book, the title already indicates that such a cyclical measurement will be found here again. As part of his rejection of Western values and systems, the narrator sets aside measurement by years in favour of seasons.

The same balance may be seen between the phases of the annual cycle as between the two groups of a thousand seasons. As the dormant period of Winter is followed by the florescence of Summer, so will the "thousand seasons wasted wandering amazed among alien roads" be followed by "another thousand spent finding paths to the living way." (p.xv) Which is to say that five hundred years after the first alien contact with Black Africa, a turning-point will be reached after which the wanderings of the African people will no longer be negative and aimless, but will have a sense of purpose. The seeds of prophecy sown by Anoa will eventually flourish in the full bloom of African socialism. The cycle of life invoked in the balance of prophecy and fulfilment gathers to that socialism by association the same quality of inevitability.

The most significant feature of the work's form in the present context is the use of a collective narrative situation This has the advantage of not confining the temporal locus within the life-time of one individual, but on the contrary permits a personal view which nevertheless encompasses a period of centuries. It is a personal view, not only in the sense that the first-person of the verb is used, but also in that the tense always implies the narrated present. Thus, at every moment, past, present and future interact, and 'all time is eternally present'.

The principle underlying this type of narration is that of continuance. Though it is easy to oversimplify such distinctions, there seems good reasons here for the argument that an African principle of collectivity could be said to take precedence over a Western ethic of individualism. The time of one individual's life is important only in the context of the whole of history. In the polemical passages of Two Thousand Seasons, this traditional principle merges with a political program: the historical unity of the Black African peoples forms a basis for a new socialism built on the foundation of the old.

The principle of continuance of the work may also be seen in another feature: the manner of presentation of the epic past. As in the true epic, heroes live on in the recital of their names, attributes and deeds. They become at the same time the names of the archetypal hero and also familiar figures whose deeds continue to be known and to inspire the listener (or reader). In the present case, the names recited are (presumably) fictive; but this does not change their function which, as in sagas of legendary heroes, is inspirational.

One positive example is found in the "people who had come before us to this place. There were only five of them, four men and a girl, sister to one of the men ... Their names? Kisa was the girl. The men were Tete, Mpenzie, Kesho and Irele." (pp.226-227) The deliberate manner in which the names are recorded is itself the message: it conveys iconically the importance of these heroic figures. The same procedure is employed for the opposite purpose in a passage such as this:

Which shall we now choose to remember of the many idiocies our tolerance has supported? Shall we remember Ziblim the heavy one ... Or shall our remembrance be of Jezebu ... Let us speedily finish with their mention. The memory of these names is corrosive. Its poison sears our lips. Odunton, Bentum, Oko, ... (pp.99-100)

On this occasion, the exempla are negative, nevertheless the recorder, albeit reluctantly, ensures the continuance of their names. By these several different means, various aspects of the work can be seen as pre-existing in the distant past, and yet retain presence and immediacy.


1. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1957, vol. III.

2. Cassirer, p.164.

3. Other works consulted include: Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. R.A. Crowley and K.R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973) esp. pp 94 ff. A.A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (N.Y.: Humanities Press, 1965) W.J.M. Bronzwaer, Tense in the Novel: An Investigation of some Potentialities of Literary Criticism (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1970 Margaret Church, Time and Reality: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (Chapel Hill: U. N. Carolina Press, 1949) Frank Kermode, Sense of an Ending (London: OUP, 1966) Sharon Spencer, Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (New York: N.Y.U.P., 1971) Harald Weinreich, Tempus: Besprochene und Erzählte Zeit (Stüttgart: 1964) Roy Pascal, "Tense and Novel", MLR, LVII (1962), pp.1-12; Thomas M. Cavanagh, "Time and Narration: Indexical and Iconic Models", MLN, vol.86, pp.823-834; Jan Miel, "Temporal Flow in the Novel", MLN, vol.84 (1969), pp.916-930; J. Hillis Miller, "Three problems of fictional form: first-person narration in David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn", in English Institute, Experience in the Novel (N.Y.: Columbia U.P., 1968).

4. Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952; repr. London: Faber, 1961).

5. Günther Müller, "Über das Zeitgerüst des Erzählens" Deutschevierteljahresschrift, 24 (1950), pp.1-32.

6. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Heinemann, 1967). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Weep Not, Child (London: Heinemann, 1964).

New: 5 August 1996 | Now: 22 January, 2018