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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 7: Long Forms


Long forms display identifiable characteristics of amplification and complexity. These may include: episodic or loose structure of the action; multiplicity of strands and phases of the action; complexity of characterisation in depth or through temporal extension. Motifs of 'length' will also occur, such as recurring patterns of symbols; development of the life of an individual or of a family through more than one generation, or multiple points of view of some central event or group of related events. [1]

The most rudimentary long form is that which treats the development of one life-time, one of the main roots of narrative. Other long works take events as their focus, rather than the lives of particular individuals, and may deal with many aspects or causes of the event(s) and the part played therein by several characters. Whereas Les Bouts de bois de Dieu deals with one event, the 1947-48 strike on the Dakar-Niger railway, showing some of the causes of the confrontation and the involvement of many actors, A Grain of Wheat confines itself to fewer characters in order to show in more depth the meaning of their actions at the moment of Independence in Kenya.

A few works are concerned with the development of the personality of one individual rather than the events of his life, and may use rather unusual means of presentation. In This Earth, My Brother, most of the narrative is devoted to the evolution of the madness of the central character, and Why Are We So Blest? is concerned with the nature of the relationships between the three characters which lead up to the final moment of excess. Some narratives work out their meaning partly through a network of interrelated symbols. In The Voice this functions largely at the linguistic level of meaning, whereas in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born the symbols, although of course linguistically encoded, are more obviously embedded in the characterisation, and in The River Between they arise primarily out of the organisation of spatial detail. In Soyinka's and Achebe's novels no single principle of length predominates; instead complexity here is the overall result of an intricate polyphony of technical detail and aesthetic value

The Voice

Of the works to be studied in this chapter the one which is most characteristically African is The Voice (1964), by Gabriel Okara. [2] Despite its length, this work belongs as much to the genre of the traditional oral narrative as to that of the European novel. In addition it displays aspects of complexity and complication which in fact make it a 'long' work.

The Voice is written in an English which is stylised in a particular way so as to indicate speech and thought of in an African language: Ijaw (or Ijo). Gabriel Okara was attempting consciously to represent, as he says, "our ideas, our thinking, in fact our whole mode of speech." [3] This has a bearing not only on the dialogue in the novel but also on its means of presentation of the characters' thought, and results in a simplification of both the characterisation and the issues involved in the narrative. This process tends to typify the characters, but it also lends a unity and power to the meaning of the story as a whole. This is one of the aspects of the novel which gives it the force of an allegory. Okara told Andrew Salkey that the book was a struggle between the forces of darkness and light. [4] If this is the case, it is the work's diction by which it creates this effect.

The main character, Okolo, is conveyed principally as a person who is in search of "it". This is a quality or value which is never clearly defined, but which is associated in a passage which presents Okolo's thinking on the subject with a sense of the meaning of life: "There may be only one meaning in life and everybody is just groping along in their various ways to achieve it ... What is he himself trying to reach? For him it has no name. Names bring divisions and divisions, strife. So let it be without a name; let it be nameless." (p.112) Okolo may therefore be seen as the type of a searcher after the truth, man engaged in a quest for meaning. The search for "it" is a motif which runs through the whole work. It provides the causal nexus for the remove to an alternative spatial locus of the middle section of the narrative, and for the return at the end, and thus gives the work its over arching quest pattern and its tripartite structure. For this reason it may be seen as a motif of amplificatio.

Okolo's thoughts about "it", quoted above, occur in his "inside". This concept is again undefined and partakes of the areas of meaning of mind, emotion and moral integrity. All of these meanings may be seen in the sentence which follows the one quoted above: "So Okolo for three days and three nights sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin, talked in his inside and in the end agreed with his inside that everybody has or ought to have a purpose apart from bearing children and the sweetness of one's inside in the world is in the fulfilment of that purpose." (p.112) The first of these "insides", the one in which the character talked, seems to refer to a process of thought or meditation, while the second indicates not only a decision perhaps but a feeling of intuition or integration. The "sweetness" of one's "inside" however seems to refer to the whole Self, or one's total moral status. The characters are for the most part grouped according to whether their "inside" is "sweet", like Okolo's, or "ugly", like Chief Izongo's.

Another important linguistic feature which contributes to the structure of the action and to the meaning of the work is the idea of the "coming thing". In an interview with Bernth Lindfors, Okara was quite specific about his idea of the meaning of this term. He was asked: "So 'the coming thing' referred to in the book is really political independence? I mean, it's quite a literal allegory?" Okara replied, "Yes, that's right. You will find my poem, 'The Fisherman's Incantation', is also about independence. That too was written in the pre-independence era."

The Voice itself actually seems to supply a broader field of reference for the meaning of the phrase, in that the meaning is not specified in this way. In fact, the spatial locus of the narrative is not the nation, but is confined to the village and the small town. The idea of "the coming thing" is first introduced specifically at the local level: "Okolo started his search when he came out of school and returned home to his people. When he returned home to his people, words of the coming thing, rumours of the coming thing, were in the air flying like birds, swimming like fishes in the river." (p.23) Taking the date of writing of the book into account, it is impossible to ignore the meaning explicitly suggested, but on the other hand it is also possible to see the text as sustaining a broader reference to any "thing" that might be "coming", or to futurity in general. In this reading, whereas the Elders and others are concerned only with the future, Okolo wants to be able to perceive a connexion with the past. "Okolo did not join them in their joy because what was there was no longer there and things had no more roots." (p.23) That is, he is more concerned with the search for meaning in the present by interpreting it in the light of the experience of the past, than in hoping for meaning to emerge in the future.

Another possible meaning of "the coming thing" may be found in the increase of materialism in the community, as in this passage in which his friend Tebeowei tells Okoli: "... you must see the fact of the new time. Everybody's inside is now filled with money, cars, and concrete houses and money is being scattered all around." (p.50) Although the specific phrase is not associated with these notions, it is nevertheless clear that materialism is on the increase, and is therefore in a sense a "coming thing". To resist its malign influence, Okolo would wish to oppose his "teaching words", another recurring motif. Most people, he thinks, "do not see it in their insides that words and money are not the same thing. Money may be lost forever but words, teaching words, are the same in any age." (pp.51-52)

The use of fixed linguistic formulae produces in the work as a whole an absence of relativity. The concepts and phenomena referred to as "the coming thing" and "teaching words" remain static and incapable of development. The ideology of the work opposes one inflexible system to another, not in a dialectical manner, but in a diametrical opposition, the outcome of which can only be the death of one of them.

For this pattern to be fully worked out, it is necessary that the work be relatively long. It is only possible to represent recalcitrance and rigidity of ideological attitudes by showing them extended through time. For this a work of some length is required.

This Earth, My Brother

This Earth, My Brother is a long work which displays several different kinds of complication and complexity, some of which have been discussed in Chapter Four under the head of 'action'. Not only is the action fragmented with regard to time, stranding and narrative situation, but there is also considerable development and complexity in characterisation, and in the levels of meaning of the imagined world.

Amamu, the central character, is presented at various stages throughout his life, from birth to death, thus allowing much scope for development, and in particular showing his tendency towards madness. His personality is represented in relation to incidents in his life, to his relationships with his wife, mistress and servant, and by report of his thoughts, by the interpenetration of myth and image in those thoughts, and finally by his own rendering of the flow of his mad consciousness. In the flashbacks to his youth, the reader is made aware of the pressures exerted on Amamu by regimentation in his school experiences, poverty, cultural alienation under the British Empire, the effects of the Second World War, and by his disillusioning discoveries as a reporter.

In the present of the novel, he has an unsatisfying relationship with his wife Alice, and another important relationship with Adisa, his mistress. [6] In his madness, the figure of Adisa shades over into identity with a Mammy Wata figure, a water spirit who will rise from the sea at the "appointed hour" to "reveal the eternal legend of [her] love" (p.165). She is also identified with a cousin whom he loved and who died in her twelfth year. The episodes dealing with these visionary identifications add an extra sphere of experience to the realistic parts of the narrative, and a further degree of complexity. This comes about in two ways. There are firstly the notes themselves which Amamu makes in his black notebook during his time in the mental hospital, and which offer the record of the vision itself. And secondly there are the additional meanings which accrete around the figure of Adisa in the realistic narrative by her association with the spirit of the other.

This is the kind of complexity which creates the range of levels of meaning mentioned above - meanings which arise from the different spheres of the imagined world. There is the personal meaning of events in the life of Amamu which represent firstly the nature of his conscious mind and the background to his psychological and social development, and secondly the nature and causes of his madness. There is the political meaning implied by the representation of life in Ghana under Nkrumah. And there is the mythical sphere of meaning which is constructed by the workings of Amamu's unconscious mind as revealed in his journal.

The representation of the complexity of the lawyer's personality is assisted by fragmentation of time. Present and past phases are intermingled in an apparently alogical manner which makes no concessions to the difficulty of an initial reading. This fragmentation forces the reader to reconstruct the chronological order of events, while at the same time allowing his to make connexions between past experiences and the present condition of the protagonist. It can also be interpreted as showing the way in which a human personality re-experiences and reinterprets his past in the light of the present. In This Earth, My Brother, a complex use of time combines with a compound narrative situation to produce a rich and many-layered representation of an individual in relation to the society in which he lives.

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu is a large and ambitious work which exhibits complexity of several kinds. Firstly, there is the multiplicity of the spatio-temporal loci of the narrative situation. These are signalled by the principal divisions of the text which indicate the three main locales: Bamako, Thiès and Dakar, as well as the road from Thiès to Dakar. Ousmane's novel has an unusually large extent in space, involving numerous locations in towns a thousand miles apart. It is in the nature of a work such as this which traces the evolution of a concerted event involving a number of different groups that a geographical 'plot' is necessary to understand fully the movement of the action. The English publishers have in fact provided a map in the end papers.

There is further complexity in the narrative situation itself, which is fluid, moving continuously from the panoramic view to that of single individuals, and from the authorial situation to the figural. Also, a large number of different figural points of view are utilised. Again this is suggested by the chapter headings which are usually also the name of the individual with whom the section is most concerned, and whose point of view is usually employed.

The number of characters and the relative equality of treatment which they receive in relation to each other contributes to a work ideology concerned with the value of shared experience and mutual responsibility. Another extension of this concern is through family generations. Although the adults of middle age carry the burden of the action, the narrative also represents the effects of the struggle on the older and younger people, particularly through the personae of Ad'jibid'ji and of her grand mother Niakoro. If the wisdom and frailty of age may be seen in the one, then the other must embody the hope with which the young are traditionally invested. Furthermore, their relative helplessness in the face of great events is shown by the dependence on each other which they are forced to develop. And they increase the spectrum of investigation by broadening the experiential range of reference.

Lastly, the action itself is complex. It may be conceived as one large event, and certainly is seen as such at different times by various characters, but as a narrative it is divisible into many phases and strands. The phases are determined by the different stages of the action as it develops, while the stranding is consequent upon the multiplicity of characters and figural narrative situations. The action obtains a sense of unity through the key figure of Bakayoko, who, as well as being related to a number of characters, is also the one who possesses in the highest degree the vision of the meaning of the events. Obviously, he is also the effective leader of the strike. Unity is also a function of the shared ideology of many of the actors who are all trying to escape from the same exploitative situation. A dialectic results from the antithetic arrangement of their position with that of management, although the latter are dealt with less sympathetically and at much less length.

L'Enfant noir

Length in L'Enfant noir is principally a function of the motif of the life of the protagonist from his early memories to manhood and his departure from home. However, many short motifs are naturally included in the form of important moments and experiences in the overarching pattern of his life. Examples are the discussion of the totem, the scene in the goldsmith's shop, the harvest, and the important presentation of the initiation rituals. Although the narrative situation throughout is first-person, a useful distinction may be made between those scenes in which the narrator plays a significant role and those of which he is mainly an observer.

Although the narrative is single-stranded and linear, it is broken into a number of phases, some of which are consequent upon the change in spatial location from the narrator's home at Kouroussa to his mother's family's home at Tindican and then finally to Conakry before his departure for Paris. Not only is each of these locations replete with spatial details and personae, but significantly different events occur at each one. The uncle's farm, for example, is the scene of the harvest, while Conakry is the setting for the most important interview with Marie.

A long work with an apparently simple structure may in this way achieve a kind of complexity as a result of sheer weight of material. Depending on the work it may be possible nevertheless, as with L'Enfant noir to perceive the strong main line of the central concern - in this case the development of the protagonist as transcending other aspects. In other works the reader is directed by the text to make correlative connexions between aspects of the work's form which are not necessarily central to the action as such. An infinite variety of motifs is available to a narrative, some of which will be more aesthetically satisfying than others, depending on the work. The main concern of L'Enfant Noir is the life of the narrator, and it is simply the number of phases of that life which are presented which make it a long work.


1. Cf. Henry James' discussion of 'developmental' as opposed to 'anecdotic' forms in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces by Henry James (N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1935)

2. Gabriel Okara, The Voice (London: Heinemann, 1964).

3. Bernth Lindfors (ed.), Dem-Say: Interviews with Eight Nigerian Writers (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, 1974), p.43.

4. Quoted in Adrian A. Roscoe, Mother is Gold: A Study in West African Literature (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1971), p.-113.

5. Lindfors, Dem-Say, p.43.

6. A. A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel (N.Y.: Humanities Press, 1965: "There is as a rule one point of time in the story which serves as the point of reference. From this point the fictive present may be considered as beginning." (p.96) In this narrative that point is the beginning of Chapter Ten. Earlier chapters also in the phase of the present are in a time posterior to the time of this chapter.

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