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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 6: Short Forms


Short works of African fiction fall into two groups: those which are actually transcriptions of or reworkings of folk tales; and those which seem to take as their model the European short story. It was the Africans writing in French who were the first to take up the traditional tale and transmute it into an individual work of art. Exemplified by Birago Diop and Bernard Dadié, they will be discussed in the next section of this chapter. The writing of Taban lo Liyong in his Fixions will then provide a convenient turning-point in the discussion, as it represents a watershed in African fiction, incorporating as it does both folk elements and the most self-conscious kind of European fiction. The discussions will conclude with an examination of the short fiction of Ama Ata Aidoo, Achebe and Ngugi.

Short works are not simply those which are not long: the terms are not merely relative. It can be argued that there are principles involved which may be called those of amplificatio and brevitas. [1] Whereas works which display the former characteristically show multiplicity and complexity, the latter may be seen in works which show singularity and simplicity in some important element of their form. The most fundamental example is the Aristotelian notion of the unity of action. [2] This is likely to be displayed in the singleness of the stranding of the action, of the narrative situation and of the structure of the narrative, which is likely to be closed and relatively tight. There is also likely to be a unity of spatial and temporal locus, a limitation to one phase of time, and a minimum number of personae. In addition, there may be a conventional shortness of what is felt to be the overall mode of presentation, as in the parable or the exemplum.

Short narrative finds its origin in African in the folktale, which has natural limitations internally with regard to its structure, and also externally with regard to its performance. Vladimir Propp [3] and others have shown that a single folktale consists of only a certain number of 'moves' or parts of the action. In this way it is possible to distinguish a text containing one folktale from a text containing two or more.

As a performance, [4] the telling of folktales is characteristically confined to the hours of evening, and told mainly to the younger members of the family. Such tales may have many functions; as entertainment; as a vehicle for the transference of notions of history and culture; and perhaps also as a moral example. [5]

The inclusion of the folktale in the present discussion is necessitated by the treatment and transmutation of oral material into written literature by some writers. Certain francophone authors, particularly, have reconceived oral tales in a way which goes beyond mere transcription of dictated narrative. Bernard Dadié and Birago Diop have published volumes of tales in which the intention clearly is not merely to record the story in the manner of the anthropologist or folklore student, but to make a work of art with individual as well as collective aspects. [6] Some examples will demonstrate this intermingling of folk and literary elements.

N'Gor Niebe

The story called "N'Gor Niébé" by Birago Diop illustrates how a structural device has been used to create a total effect. [7] Diop has combined what would have been two folktales into a single narrative so that one informs the other. The reader is drawn into the story in that he must make the necessary connexion himself. The first story concerns Mawdo, the perpetrator of an unfortunate incident involving an "incongruous noise". The memory of this incident remains enshrined in memory in the phrase "the year of the fart". The other story is completely unconnected with this one and concerns the persona of the title and his knowledge of the way in which gossip spreads among females. Although the narratives are implicitly connected, the connexion which is actually put forward is an absurd one. The link proposed is merely that N'Gor Sène had never been to that part of the country where Mawdo's infamy was known. Despite that, however, "depuis qu'il avait jamais reconnu sa droite de sa gauche, il n'avait jamais voulu manger des haricots." A degree of suspense is set up by this illogical correspondence, in the expectation that there will be some explanation. This tension remains at the end of the story, forcing the reader to review his interpretation. Without wishing to assert that folktales are not open to interpretation, it is possible to see this structural indeterminacy as more characteristic of the literary short story. In other ways, however, this story retains some elements from its origins: the proverb with which the main narrative ends ("Donne ton amour à la femme, mais non ta confiance"); the repetition of the gathering of the confidantes; and the appellation of N'Gor Sène as N'Gor Niébé, ie. "celui-qui-ne-mange-pas-de-haricots."

Le pagne noir

In the case of Bernard Dadié's "Le pagne noir" these folk elements are predominant. [8] Many of these are identifiable with those isolated by Propp. The hero is sent on a quest by the villain, a quest involving a test. There are three failures, interspersed with indications of lengthy time periods in between, and final success, brought about by the intervention of magical powers. The black cloth which Aiwa must wash white will not become wet until finally her mother appears ex machina and substitutes for the black pagne a white one in which she was buried. Literary elements in this case are very largely confined to the semantic level: the arrangement of the units at this level is very fully worked out and constructed with a high degree of artistic expertise. The end of the story, however, also displays a particularly literary care. Instead of a moral statement or a proverb, the narrator relates the tale to the narrating present in a striking and open way: "Mais, Aiwa, elle, souriait. Elle souriait toujours. Elle sourit encore du sourire qu'on retrouve sur les lèvres des jeunes filles." Here the reader's attention is directed away from the world of the story to the world of his own experience, again in an undetermined manner.


Birago Diop's story "Sarzan" is quite different from most of the others in his first volume, and is much more a short story than an African conte, although it retains elements of the latter. [9] The narrator tells the story in the first-person, and he is involved in the action. He is, like the author, a veterinary surgeon, and not only presents the action and takes part in it, but also comments explicitly on it. Other formal elements in the story are therefore subordinated to this one.

The story opens, not with the formula of a fable nor the ritual beginning of performed tale, but with a description of the Sarzan's village in its historical setting. This is a relatively sophisticated device, appropriate in a written context, as the description is pre-interpreted, slanted according to the authorial point of view, but for a reason which is not immediately clear to the reader. The village is not evoked neutrally, merely as it appears - its history is given, the story of the resistance to its people to the toucouleur invasion and to the destruction of their customs, Having been successful in its persistence, the village is shown in its reconstructed form.

The structure of the action on the whole is ordered and clear, its phases following in logical and consecutive sequence. This is the regular progression which may also be seen in the tale told in the traditional setting, where the teller is concerned to confuse neither his listeners nor himself, as he composes his story on the spot. However, Birago Diop does take advantage of his opportunities to suspend the action, anticipate an outcome and turn back for the explanation. This may be seen on the return of the narrator to Sergeant Keita's village, where he left him a year before, promising to 'civilize' the place. He finds him mad, and devotes some hundreds of words to the evocation of his mad state, before returning to the narrative which explains it.

In the means of its characterisation of Keita, the tale displays the qualities of folk literature, as well as a principle of brevity. He is evoked mostly by his actions and a summary of his background, hardly at all by description of his person, and not at all by the attribution of mental acts. Unlike a novelist, who may for example have described his army uniform and the characteristic habits which he would have acquired, the present narrator is content to leave that to the imagination of his reader. Sergeant Keita, as a character, is subordinated to the role he plays in the demonstration of an idea.

Verse plays an ambivalent role in the story. On the one hand, it is quite in place in the traditional setting for a character to speak in verse, or to quote a traditional poem. On the other hand, it is significant that the poems which are placed in the mouth of the sergeant were published separately in Leurres et Lueurs, and are successful lyrics in their own right. They are both traditional and contrived at the same time, existing out of time, and yet retaining a dramatic function also.

Taking all these characteristics together, it may be seen that what gives the story its unity and brevity is the idea which sustains it. Everything is subservient to the central concern of the story which is clearly an argument: that traditions must be maintained and the inherited culture respected. Thus the narrator steps out of his acting role to comment on the meaning of what he related; the central character is the embodiment of the risk run in the abandoning of tradition, and he is made to turn aside from his role in the action to recite a set piece on the subject. The work has the brevity not only of its genre, whether as conte or as short story, but also of its force as polemic and demonstration combined.


The stories of Taban lo Liyong in Fixions show, in a much more radical way, the dual nature which has been discussed above. [10] Different stories represent several stages along the continuum from the performed authorial tale to the self-reflexive metafiction. Liyong is apparently an author interested both in the preservation of oral material and also in the extension of the experimental possibilities of short fiction.

His first concern is demonstrated in the story about "The Old Man of Usumbura and his Misery". This tale is characterised by an extremely dense use of repetition of formulaic phrases. Although they are not set off from the narrative, they may be seen as representing a chorus response to each stage in the action, as is found in a sung narrative. As each actor is introduced, or when a change takes place in his condition, his name is intoned, with the addition of appropriate qualifiers. The effect of this is cumulative, and it is the consequent gathering effect which is the main thrust of the story. In the first choral repetition, the protagonist is merely "The old man of Usumbura." (p.2) After his good fortune is established he becomes 'This lucky Usumburan." (p.2) As another persona is introduced he is added to the first: "These old men of Usumbura and Kigali." (p.3)

However by the time the refrain has become "This happy, rich, healthy, misery-less old father of Usumbura" (p.8), it is clear that the technique is being used for an ironical purpose, as the father is now anything but happy. Yet, this irony is rather mild in tone, due to certain distancing effects which are also part of the traditional mode of the narrative. This refrain is itself a technique which has such an effect; another is the means of characterisation.

The personae in this story have no names. They are referred to rather by appellations of the kind already exemplified, and evoked by means of their actions. Apart from the two old men the only other characters are the sons of the old man of Usumbura. They are an undistinguished group of one hundred and fifty. Only one of them is singled out and that only because he is the sole survivor of an intrafamilial battle which leaves all the others dead. He informs his father of recent events and is struck dead by him as a result. It may be seen that he is not differentiated as an individual except by his function. Nor are the fifty-five wives, who "love their husband and never do wrong." (p.9) It is in the nature of a morality tale such as this that, despite its ironical features, the characters are conditioned mainly by their function as actors, and not by their development or mental events.

The case of the "Story of Master Hare and his friend Jumbe Elephant" is clearer, as there is no irony or other kind of complexity in this traditional fable. Its beginning is characteristic: "Long, long ago, when the world was very young, there lived two great friends. Their names were..." (p.54) One notices the formulaic opening, the remoteness of the spatio-temporal locus of the narrator from the action, and the suggestion of the archetypal nature of the characterisation. This is borne out by the body of the story, which also ends consistently, with an explicit moral: "You see, if you do bad things, you may escape discovery once, but one day you will be caught. If you are caught, you will be punished. That is what my story about Master Hare and his friend Jumbe Elephant teaches us." (p.75)

"A Traveller's Tale", on the other hand, is nothing like a traditional tale. In this story, the reader is made aware of the narrator as the creator of the fiction. The personae are presented as "ingredients", and the setting is presented merely as such: "It is 5 am. New York City, near Harlem and Columbia University. (Any university worth its name must be in medias res.) An overpass subway station." (p.50) There is no attempt to present these spatial and temporal details with atmospheric overtones, and there is a direct reference to authorial decision about the presentation.

Although some of the mental acts of the personae are presented, not without interruption by the narrator, a minimum of motivation is attributed to them. They are presented merely as actors, and there is a lack of precision in the details of the events. The narrator plays for example with aspects of time: "They remained gripped in embrace for perhaps two minutes, perhaps more, depending on whoever is estimating the time. To him who approved, the time was short; to him who disapproved, it was long; if the participants enjoyed it, the minutes were flying too fast; if they had no more energy, it was tedious." (p.51) The thrust of the writing is towards literary theory; the author is more concerned with the psychological implications of narrative than with the narrative itself. The reader's attention is directed to aspects of the presentational process, as the story tends largely to foreground these rather than its imagined world. The force of the story at this point is in the quality of mind which is displayed in it: it turns on the implied demonstration of creativity and imagination of the author as he plays with the idea of narrating.

A story like "He and Him" can be seen as existing somewhere between the extremes of a moral tale and a short metafiction. If has certain features of self-consciousness, schematisation of character and situation, but exhibits at the same time a satirical function. In this story, what might be seen as unrealistic in a narrative in the naturalistic mode, or self-reflexive in metafiction, is functional in that it is subservient to the satire. The story concerns a farmer who, like the country mouse in the fable, goes to visit his friend in the city, where he discovers "the importance of doing things rightly in their assigned places." Such places include a room for coughing, another for yawning, another for reading and so on. These are not evoked in such a way as to encourage the reader to imagine their existence: no details whatsoever about them are supplied concerning their appearance or contents, only their function is given. Not only is this appropriate to the intention of the story, but it also demonstrates again one of the possible conditions of brevity: that only one aspect of a thing is shown, that other elements of its appearance are not amplified. As the narrative is concentrated around pointing up the central notion of the functionality of an urban life-style and deals with only a single encounter, the length of the story is congruent with this concentration and remains brief.

A Mercedes Funeral

In the case of writers who concern themselves with the direct presentation without the use of fabulous personae such as 'he' and 'him' there may be a greater degree of amplification, although the form is still recognisably that of the short story. In "A Mercedes Funeral", for example, Ngugi uses a double narration and several relatively fully evoked settings. [11] The frame narrator is the type of a garrulous storyteller who naturally amplifies details of place and personality. The fiction of the frame narration is that this narrator speaks to a fictionalised reader figure who might be likely to visit some of the places and meet some of the people described. Thus he begins: "If you ever find yourself in Ilmorog, don't fail to visit Ilmorog Bar and Restaurant: there you're likely to meet somebody you were once at school with and you can reminisce over old days and learn news of missing friends and acquaintances." (p.113)

This setting includes the teller of the main narrative, who is also a garrulous type, and who in his turn tells a story which is replete with periphrasis. However, it is only one story: the narrative is confined to a brief account of the life and death of Wahinya, who represents the type of literate Kenyan who expected Uhuru to bring opportunities for a complete change in his way of life, and was disappointed. The story maintains its unity by being directed entirely towards a single climax - the funeral of Wahinya. Although some account of his life is given, it is seen entirely from within the spatio-temporal organization of the narrator, in that he reports only the few occasions on which he encounters the other. In this way a schematised summary of stages is presented without the elaboration which would be necessitated by an account of it through the figure of Wahinya himself.

Another element of the narrative situation which places limitations on the story is the unity of time of the fictive telling: the whole account is supposed to be completed by the inset narrator as he stands at the bar of the-Ilmorog Club. To maintain a degree of plausibility the story cannot therefore be unreasonably long. This feature also permits some ironical pointing at the end of the whole narrative. Although the frame narrator does not return, allusions to the frame situation invite the reader to make certain acts of interpretation. He is led to infer that the inset narrator who has told the story is a witty, satirical tone, pointing his irony at the exploiters, is in fact just as corrupt as those whom he exposes. This is implied by the fact that he also is privileged to drive a Mercedes Benz. As he says, referring to the corrupt, successful politician: "J.J.J. still rides in a Mercedes Benz - this time 660S - just like mine..." (p.137) He can also afford to buy a continuous supply of drinks for his consequently captive audience; and the last line is a neat combination of a reference to this fact and to the motif of the journey: " about one for the road?" (p.137) It is perhaps only in a short form such as this that such an effect of dense brevity can be achieved as to combine in this single line not only the implication of the economic power of the speaker, but also the allusion to the 'gentleman' status which such power allows him to afford himself.

Minutes of Glory

"Minutes of Glory", in the same volume, is given its unity by authorial control in the preference in the narration of allowing the action as such to convey the meaning, rather than giving prominence for example to the presentation of consciousness. With the cogent vision typical of the short-story writer, the authorial narrator seems to see the climactic moment of the action as embodying all the human meaning for the protagonist so that there is no need to attempt to convey her inner drama.

The story demonstrates the effect of urbanisation and economic exploitation on the three main characters of the story, whose backgrounds are briefly and summarily given by the narrator, in the manner of a dossier. There is almost no scenic presentation, only a few lines of dialogue, and the story moves swiftly to its final confrontation and denouement. The effect is to force the reader to supply his own evocation of motivation, while the narrator maintains his distance from the painful implications of his story, detailing only the events.

"Wedding at the Cross", like "Minutes of Glory" is also an account of a whole life, condensed in a brief narrative, and directed towards a climactic action. This results in a summary authorial treatment. However, the nature of the climactic action is not as clear as it is in "Minutes of Glory", where it is a question of a desperate display of a materialistic kind. Here the very outwardness of the action embodies its meaning for the character. The fact that she has recourse to an extravagant superficiality implies the inner failure which is the wellspring of the story. In "Wedding at the Cross" the motivation imputed to the character for her decisive act which is the turning-point of the story is not explicit in her personal history, nor in the act itself. Therefore a passage of mental action presents her thinking which leads up to this moment, and it is a passage which is quite different from the rest of the story. It presents items from the previously narrated story of the character, but in a conventionalised representation of the flow of her thought. It is not however in the form of a stream of consciousness. The true form of this is a long motif or device of amplification presented in the first-person and of indeterminate length - in that an individual consciousness is subject to almost infinite expression. Here, the verbs are in the third-person, although the narrative sequence is broken up with suspension points, giving the impression of fragments of the persona's thought. This selective representation implies and creates an effect of dense brevity.

Girls at War

Chinua Achebe's "Girls at War", in the collection of the same name (1972), is a short story whose narrative situation is largely authorial. Some thought report is used to situate a secondary point of view in the principal character, Nwankwo, but enough of the story is presented from the view of an external narrator to give prominence to physical, rather than mind action. The story turns on the events of the final situation in which Nwankwo and the other main character Gladys face a critical choice: the decision whether or not to help a crippled soldier at the risk of their own lives. Because much of the narrative has given the reader a view of Nwankwo's consciousness, the pragmatic nature of his intuitive decision is understandable. He has been shown throughout as wavering ambivalently between patriotic dedication to the war effort and cynical opportunism. His encounters and his relationship with Gladys have displayed a similar ambivalence. He has not been able to resolve his attitude to her, and consequently the reader is left uninformed of the reality of her nature, as it is mediated by the view of the man. However, in the final phase of the action, in her intuitive choice of risking her life to help the cripple, her true position becomes clear. Her death consummates the situation and completes the relationship between the two. The earlier part of the story is now seen in a new perspective. Nwankwo's judgement of the girl is called into question by her action, and is turned back upon himself. In this way it is seen that the meaning of the story hangs on one feature of its structure. As is common in the short story, it is the climax of the action which, occurring near the end of the narrative, draws elements of meaning into itself to release them in the reader's mind in one powerful moment.

Civil Peace

"Civil Peace" (in the same collection), set in the time immediately following the internecine war in Nigeria, works out its central concern of human survival through the juxtaposition of two kinds of value. On the one hand there is the value of people, of Jonathan's family; on the other there is money value. The importance of the first is shown by the action, by ideas which are present in Jonathan's mind, and by elements in the linguistic level of the narrative. The surviving members of the family are referred to by their five "heads": "...five inestimable blessings his head, his wife Maria's head and the heads of three of their four children". (p.90) The use of the term both refers to the essentiality of sheer survival and also, by the slight distancing, avoids the possibility of sentimentality. A similar effect can be seen in the way in which the narrative presents Jonathan's consciousness. He finds his house still intact, but: "...even that monumental blessing must be accounted also totally inferior to the five heads in the family". (p.91) And finally, the action demonstrates the importance of the part played by each member of the family in maintaining its economic survival.

The other kind of value is embodied in the relationship between the inflated Biafran pound and "real" Federal money. Again this works on all levels of the story. The ex gratia exchange of Nigerian for "rebel" currency becomes "egg-rasher" for the Ibo peasants for whom the idea is meaningless. The unreality of the payment is reinforced by its loss to the comic villains who come in the night to steal it, and by Jonathan's subsequent thoughts on the subject with which the story concludes: "'I count it as nothing,' he told his sympathiser, his eyes on the rope he was tying. 'What is egg-rasher? Did I depend on it last week?... Let it go where everything else has gone!"' (p.97) Everything, that is, except the family who, in the last scene, are getting on with making a living.

Everything Counts

"Everything Counts", a story by Ama Ata Aidoo in her collection No Sweetness Here (1970) [12], also deals with questions of value by their externalisation in objects and activities. The narrative is unified by the complete consistency of its figural point of view. The protagonist is a young Ghanaian woman who returns to Africa to take up a position as a lecturer in economics. The central situation - her dilemma about the question of wearing wigs - is exposed in three or four brief phases. The first of these establishes the problem in a summary of remembered conversations with male friends in her peer group. At first she disagrees with them, but she is persuaded by their ideological and psychological arguments ("...'it means that we have no confidence in ourselves."') (p.21). Her new position is reinforced on her return when she is shocked to discover the extent of the phenomenon. The crucial experience for her is her encounter with her new students in her first lecture on her return to Ghana, when she feels that they will think there is something wrong with her because she wears her own hair. Her growing feeling of awareness of the pervasiveness of the lack of self-confidence of Africans in their own self-image is then given its clearest endorsement by the crowning as Miss Ghana of a mulatto who is light-skinned and has Caucasian hair. These elements of the action are associated with her thoughts about her inability to satisfy her relatives' desire for the luxuries which a "been-to" is expected to bring back from Europe, and about the fact that her sternest critics, her "revolutionary" friends, remain overseas studying for higher degrees. The reader is led to draw together these different elements of the story to construct its meaning, but all of them already cohere by the fact of their existence in the mind of the central character.


1. Following Aristotle, Poetics (Trans. L. J. Potts, Cambridge: C.U.P., 1959), p.27- "There is also a proper amplitude for fables (what can be kept in one's mind.)"

2. Aristotle, p. 28-29: "...since the fable is an imitation of an action, that action must be a complete unit..."

3. Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Lawrence Scott (Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore and Linguistics, 1958), pp.83-86.

4. Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp.2-12, 376-378. Richard M. Dorson, African Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1972), p.20. Birago Diop, "Introduction" to Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba, repr. in Contes Choisis (London: C.U.P., 1967), pp.30-32.

5. Taban lo Liyong, The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism (Nairobi: E.A.P.H., 1969), pp.68-69. Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp.20-25. 6. Bernard Dadié, Le Pagne noir (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1955). Bernard Dadié, Légendes et poèmes (Paris: Séghers, 1966). Birago Diop, Contes et lavanes (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1963). Birago Diop, Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1965). Birago Diop, Les Nouveaux contes d'Amadou Koumba (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1967). Birago Diop, Contes choisis (London: C.U.P., 1967).

7. Birago Diop, "N'Gor Niébé" from Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba, repr. in Mohamadou Kane, Birago Diop: L'Homme et l'oeuvre (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1971).

8. Bernard Dadié, Le Pagne noir (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1955), p.22ff.

9. "Sarzan", in Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba.

10. Taban lo Liyong, Fixions: and other stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).

11. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Secret Lives: and other stories (London: Heinemann, 1975).

12. Ama Ata Aidoo, No Sweetness Here (London: Longmans, 1970).

New: 5 August 1996 | Now: 20 December, 2018