Garry Gillard > writing > African Fiction > 8

Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 8: Interpretive Abstractions and Worldview


In each of the previous chapters in this dissertation one particular aspect of the form of narrative works as they are found to occur in African fiction has been described. In order to make statements of an interpretive nature, however, it is necessary to conduct the discussion at one remove from description, to bring together elements from the analysis of the basic technical possibilities, and to abstract from the evidence those aspects which most coherently form a worldview. Works of literature are value carrying: any act of interpretation will abstract, implicitly or explicitly, an understanding of the work's Weltanschauung. Any literary work will contain such a worldview which, although created by the writer and recreated by the reader, will have a degree of independence of the view of either, being susceptible to the artistic-aesthetic demands of the work itself.

Although, as Lukacs says "the compositional principles of a ... work are a manifestation of an author's view of life", the work will come to have a system of values which is not necessarily identical to that view, but will be consequent on its own independent existence. [1] As Goldmann sees it, the more significant relationship is that between the work and the social group to which it is related. He writes that

an imaginary universe, apparently completely removed from any specific experience - that of a fairy tale, for instance - may, in its structure, be strictly homologous with the experience of a particular social group or, at the very least, linked, in a significant manner, with that experience. There is therefore no longer any contradiction between, on the one hand, the existence of a close relationship between literary creation and social and historical reality and, on the other hand, the most powerful creative imagination. [2]

The worldview of a literary work may be perceived partly through its formal organisation, through the implications of the way its narrative situation, spatio-temporal aspects, and handling of action and characterisation are organised, and also partly through the direct representation of values as expressed authorially or through figures in the presented world. An ideal reading of a work would be one which took account of all such factors in order to perceive those values "which, without being manifestly present in the novel, organize in accordance with an implicit mode its world as a whole." [3] The more closely all aspects of a work are related and subservient to its values, the more it will repay close examination. "...a literary work is seen to be all the more valuable and more important ... according as the sensible richness and multiplicity of its universe are greater and as that universe is more rigorously organized, and constitutes a structural unity." [4]

The narratives of only four selected authors are discussed here, for several reasons. Firstly, as the quotation from Lukacs given above suggests, it is possible to discover a relationship between the views of the author and compositional principles of a given work, and that a study of more than one work by the same writer will increase the possibilities of understanding each one individually. There will therefore be a reciprocality of information between the particular work and the implied author which will increase in depth with each additional work. Further more, as well as having produced more than one long narrative work, they are also writers who, it is possible to assert, have succeeded in creating works which express a significant worldview which is "rigorously organized, and constitutes a structural unity."

Chinua Achebe

The novels of Chinua Achebe display individually and as a corpus an investigation of the relationship between a man and the society in which he lives. Igbo society underwent great changes in the period from the time of the author's grandfather to the coup of 1966 - about one hundred years - and it is this period which is the temporal setting for Achebe's four novels. Although he did not write them in historical order, it is possible to place them in a chronological order in relation to the time of the worlds they present. In each narrative there is a central character who is submitted to the test of the pressures brought to bear by his particular moment of history. In each case the protagonist falls a victim to these pressures. Okonkwo kills himself, Ezeulu goes mad, Obi Okonkwo presumably goes to prison and Odili fails to withstand corruption and to get elected, and is badly beaten. In each of these exemplary lives, a particular view is being presented of the relationship between an individual and society.

In Things Fall Apart, the protagonist is the warrior-hero, the leader of a society organised by small village groups. In its constant vigilance and preparedness for war and other such incursions, the families and tribes of such a society will look to its strong men who are capable of making a quick decision and standing by it. But this hero becomes redundant when the society develops more complex relationships between families, villages and tribes and then between the ideologies of people from different racial groups. As the need grows for administrators and bureaucrats trained to understand and respond to complex situations, the warrior-hero's decisive and possibly aggressive mode of action is no longer appropriate. He is now a liability rather than an asset to his social group which will neither encourage nor support him, thus causing his kind to tend to disappear. This is the scenario of Things Fall Apart.

In this novel, Achebe presents a view of an Igbo society which allows both some of its strengths and some of its weaknesses to be visible. On the positive side there is the strong, fruitful continuance of tradition, seen in such attributes as the use of proverbs, which seems to give a strong sense of shared experience to the members of the group. There is also a traditional kind of restraint which helps to balance the rashness of the warrior. This is combined with the hierarchy of titles and elders which balances out wealth and allows maturity and wisdom to guide the life of the tribe. [6] On the other hand, it is this very conservatism which is one of the causes of the village's "falling-apart". The society of the novel is unable to adapt to the encroachment of Western culture, and it begins to decay.

Firstly, its traditional leaders are alienated. When Okonkwo kills the court messenger near the end of the action, the villagers turn their backs. It is because of his isolation, of his sense that his values are no longer shared by the other elders, that he submits himself to the shame of suicide. Secondly, the structure of the family begins to break down under the pressure of the new religion. When Okonkwo's son Nwoye joins the Christian group, he is ostracised by his father. Thirdly, the disorientation of values in the village is displayed emblematically by the reorientation of space. The centre of village life is no longer the market-place arena, nor the shrines of the gods, but the new church, the court house, and the road to the capital.

The negative aspects of Igbo society which contribute to its fragmentation are perhaps best seen as being embodied by Okonkwo himself. It is possible to see the society represented in Things Fall Apart as being balanced: between masculine and feminine virtues, and between communalism and individualism. If the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves stands for decisive, masculine action, then the Earth Goddess may be seen as standing for compromise, and deliberated, feminine lines of action. Whereas it is the Oracle which deals with the difficult problem of the presence of Ikemefuna in the village by issuing a demand that he be summarily killed, the Earth Goddess is identified with the honorary kinship between him and Nwoye and therefore Okonkwo, which should have dissuaded the latter from taking part in the killing. [7]

The taking of titles may be seen as a masculine virtue, as it is associated with power and with the acquisition of property; but it is men of title like Ezeudu and Obierika who advise Okonkwo not to help in the execution, on the grounds that the boy calls him father, and that it would therefore be an offence against the Goddess. [8] They may in this be seen as embodying the principle of balance or restraint in the society, which is not also shared by the protagonist of the narrative, due to his particular personal characteristics and history.

Another case of balance is demonstrated in the spatial organization of the book which in turn exemplifies one aspect of the represented society: the two villages Umuofia and Mbanta, which are respectively the village of Okonkwo's father and mother. The fact that an Igbo girl must marry outside her own village means that her child will have two family groups from which he may derive support. Whereas Okonkwo receives positive reinforcement from his own village for his ability in the realms of war and personal achievement, it is to his mother's village that he turns for mercy and love in his time of greatest trouble. But he then returns unchanged from his exile expecting to find the same system of values as before, and succumbs to the unexpected new reality.

Again in Arrow of God one finds a main actor who represents at the same time a strength of the society in which he lives and a weakness. Ezeulu is the embodiment of Igbo society's respect for tradition, ritual and tested forms of administration and decision making. But it is also clearly shown that it is precisely his rigid adherence to conventional forms which causes a critical difficulty both for himself and for the people to whom he is responsible, and results finally in his downfall.

And again the organization of space plays an important role in the creation of the work's meaning. In Things Fall Apart Okonkwo's exile was involved with two significant thematic concerns: with the emblematic demonstration of the feminine alternative in the social structure and with the necessity for the removal of the warrior from the transitional society. In Arrow of God there are again two worlds: the world of traditional African power and that of the colonisers. The reader is invited to enter each of these worlds and to become familiar not only with the rituals and conflicts within each but also with the way in which each views the other. The removal of the protagonist from his own sphere and his detention in the other can then be seen as the turning point of the action. Ezeulu's inability, because of his imprisonment, to eat the sacrificial yams and therefore mark the beginning of the new year at what is really the appropriate time, is the narrative nexus which conjoins the two worlds and brings about the denouement of the action.

The meaning of Ezeulu's decision to take this line of action is presented on two levels, which are also two aspects of his personality and function: the psychological and the divine. As Okonkwo was motivated partly by his psychopathology and partly by fate represented by his personal chi, so is Ezeulu characterised partly by his sense of his role as high priest of the god Ulu, and partly as an ambitious, self-seeking man. Like the warrior Okonkwo, the priest Ezeulu has an important function to play in traditional society, but each of them obsessively acts out his role past the point of its optimal functioning for the good of that society. Furthermore, in both cases social values are in a state of flux, caused both by internal pressures and by external influence. The external influence is much the same in each narrative, except that in Arrow of God the power of the Europeans is more nakedly on display, whereas in Things Fall Apart it is distant and disguised by the church. Internal conflicts also have more to do with power in the later work, where it is a question of who will rule, and how much executive power he will have, while in the earlier one the differences of opinion are about particular points of policy, such as the question of the alienation of twins and the identity of the executioner of the gods' orders.

In No Longer At Ease the protagonist does not so much move between the two worlds of the narrative as live in both of them. He is a 'been-to' - from village origins and maintaining his close ties with them through the Umuofia Progressive Union, but educated in England, and consequently working out his life at least partly through an English value-system. This synthesis should produce a rich experience, but it produces only confusion.

The members of the Umuofia Progressive Union have financed Obi Okonkwo's education in the hope that he will make use of his knowledge of the whiteman's ways to defend more effectively his African heritage. In this he is like the son whom Ezeulu sends among the Christians so as better to know how to resist them. In this case, of course, Obi takes on not only the knowledge of the whiteman but also his values. In particular, he comes to accept the new rate of exchange, the substitution of money values for personal relationships, which is one of the essential facets of a system based on bribery. Whereas under the traditional system bribery is sanctioned and non-harmful because it is controlled by the limited nature of the means of exchange itself, under the capitalist influence the controls are removed, and the acquisition of property becomes an end in itself.

However, Obi's taking of bribes is in fact a symptom, rather than the disease itself. It is an act performed for no clear motive in a confused state of mind, a confusion produced in Obi by the different and conflicting pressures which he experiences. His connexion with traditional social structures is iconically displayed in the tithe which he pays monthly to the Umuofia Progressive Union. This not only symbolises the tie which links him to his personal and social past and is an acknowledgment of his acceptance of the power of the members of the Union to continue to influence his destiny, but also, in the practical sphere, deprives him of money of which he has a desperate need. His wish to marry Clara, on the other hand, displays his freedom from the imperatives of institutional taboos. Between these two extremes stands the figure of his father, who embodies aspects of both traditional mores and of the Christian ethic.

The pivotal Chapter Fourteen recalls the history of the Okonkwo who killed the boy who called him father. It is here also that Isaac Okonkwo and his son reveal the depth of the division in their thinking on the question of the force of the traditional systems of value. Obi's argument is two-fold. Firstly, he reminds his father that as Christians they should value each human being as equal and take not account of caste. Secondly, he asserts that the caste system belongs to an order of things which is changing and which will be completely different in ten years. His father, however, does not see the possibility of such a change, and remains firm in his maintenance of the traditional position: "'We are Christians,' he said. 'But that is no reason to marry an osu."'

Confused and torn between the two value systems and between conflicting demands on his resources, Obi is not able to provide Clara with the solid emotional support which she needs, nor is he able readily to provide the money for her abortion. In his confusion he begins to take bribes, as if unaware of what he was doing. However, the symbolic meaning of his action is available to the reader. He is replacing a commitment to his responsibilities to Clara and to rationalising the opposing claims of European and African values with a surrogate representing the superficial measure of quality in a cash economy.

The book ends with the restatement of the opening motif: the inability of the other characters to understand the motivation of the protagonist. The subtlety of these apparently crude structural elements is found in the fact that the solution to the problem is not explicitly supplied for the reader by the authorial framework - he must seek it himself in his own reconstruction of the meaning of the narrative.

In the first three of his novels Achebe presents situations which are placed in the recent past of his own society. In each of these works, the implicit claim is being made that the man and the moment are capable being completely understood, that all the important aspects of his predicament have been delineated and the reasons for his ultimate death or downfall have been shown. In each case, the structure of the action is closed by this fall. In his latest book, A Man of the People (1966), Achebe sets the action in the present of his own society, and it is perhaps for this reason that the narrative is open-ended. [9] The main actor is still alive and could be capable of further development, and the society represented is at the end of one era and therefore at the beginning of another. Nevertheless, the same tone prevails as is found at the end of the earlier works. Despite this general sense of openness, one feels in the last pages of the book that a point of stasis has been reached. And as a result of his misadventures the protagonist appears to have lost his desire to change either the world or himself, and his now cynical view is likely to be maintained.

As the narrator moves towards his peroration, in the last few pages and paragraphs of the narrative, the writing becomes more intense. The tone becomes increasingly serious, the sentences longer, the rhetoric more weighty. It seems as though the ironical gap between author and narrator-figure continues to diminish until in the last sentence it disappears altogether. But whether it is this gap or the gap between the narrator and his material which has tended to close, it is clear that the worldview of the work is ultimately not treated ironically - so that the reader can postulate an identity in attitude between author, narrator, and work.

It has been shown that in all of his longer narrative works Achebe places his protagonist in a conflict of some kind produced partly by a collision of value systems and partly by a disparity between the individual's needs and those of society. Without over-simplification, he delineates the factors that have formed and reformed the patterns of his fictive Igbo society, and the effect of these reformations, particularly as shown in the cases of representative figures. As he writes himself: "The success of Ibo culture was the balance between material and spiritual." [10] His novels examine in a fictive field the results of this balance being upset.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

The long narratives of Ngugi wa Thiong'o may be contrasted with those of Chinua Achebe with regard to the extent of their presented world and consequently the nature of their world-view. [11] Although the works of both writers present a view of the interaction between the individual and society, Achebe's narratives concentrate to a greater extent on the individual side of the relationship. Consequently the kinds of society which are presented in their works have a different dynamic. Achebe's Igbo society is presented in its sphere as being in a state of change at a particular rate, determined by factors which are independent of the individual, who is presented as inhabiting a distinct sphere which is operating in accordance with a different set of factors. The greater part of the ideology of a particular narrative is worked out through the relationship between these two spheres.

The Gikuyu society presented by Ngugi, on the other hand, is seen as being the sum of the individual forces acting within it. Though there may be an actor who may be called the protagonist, he is nevertheless presented as occupying only one of a number of possible positions within the society rather than as an individual who is in some significant way an outsider, or at least an aberration.

Thus, although Njoroge in Weep Not, Child is the principal focus for the working-out of the book's central concerns, his is not the only figure whose point of view is utilised. Other strands of the action are presented from the points of view of Ngotho and others of the principal characters, in this way building up a complex model of society containing many individual ideologies. This is especially clear in the case of this work, as opposed to the later novels, in that Njoroge is a naive persona whose attitudes are in a developing state. His brothers, therefore, do not represent types which are opposed to his, but possible positions which he might in the future take up. Throughout the narrative, it is the family rather than the individual which is the focus for the action.

Similarly, Waiyaki's Weltanschauung is used in The River Between as the most significant of a number of different attitudes to questions of cultural direction and government which arise in the narrative. Significantly, Waiyaki is the character the most caught up in dialectic, to the point where he cannot function appropriately. He cannot make a choice, and therefore can no longer lead. Other characters represent an adherence to different attitudes, some of which Waiyaki is able to adopt, although only partially. Thus, by the end of the narrative, Kamau has become completely identified with the Kiama, the instrument of tribal purity and unity, and Nyambura is prepared to sacrifice her existence for the sake of her love for Waiyaki, while throughout Joshua continues to maintain his complete espousal of the new religion of Christianity, and Chege continues to stand for allegiance to traditional principles and farsightedness. It may be seen as Waiyaki's failure to commit himself totally to any one of these courses of action which causes him to become a victim of his own vacillation. Inasmuch as he is central to the ideology of the narrative, it is his centrality as victim, as a scape-goat figure which places him there.

In A Grain of Wheat, Mugo tends to occupy a similar position. But in the later and longer work, Ngugi has created personae which are more fully developed and thus provide an even stronger context in which Mugo's failure may be understood. Furthermore, this society is not characterised by the deep divisions of the world of The River Between. As the present of the action is set in the period following the Mau Mau war in Kenya, the characters are presented as being united by a common desire. [12] They are in search of a common goal: agreement about the nature of the new society which is about to be inaugurated in the Independence celebrations which form the climax of the book. Such an agreement will be based on an understanding of what the recent past has meant and how earlier events are to be integrated with present and future relationships.

It is significant in this context that the narrative voice often becomes involved in the action to the extent of using a first person plural form of speech. The point of view in phrases like "most people from our village" and "it was our day" (p. 244) is that of a member (or members) of the village. In its anonymity it may be heard as the voice of the collective consciousness, the voice which represents the collective ethic to which the inhabitants of Ngugi's fictional worlds become increasingly and more explicitly responsible.

When, at the end of The River Between, Waiyaki and Nyambura are taken off to judgement, the reader is encouraged to take up a position of sympathy for the young lovers who have given up their freedom for the integrity of their love for each other. In Mugo's case, although he is well known to the reader by the end of the narrative, it is not sympathy that is appropriate to the moment of the arrest, but a feeling of inevitability. This is established partly by the tone of the writing which deals with Mugo's apathy as he awaits his judges: "He did not remove his wet clothes. He stared at the wall, opposite. There was nothing on the walls ..." (p. 269), and partly by the idea stated by General R.: "'Your deeds alone will condemn you,' General R. continued without anger or apparent bitterness. 'You - No one will ever escape from his own actions.'" (p. 270) This statement may be seen as emanating from the thematic centre of the book.

Ayi Kwei Armah

The narrative works of Ayi Kwei Armah display a particularly interesting study of the confrontation of European and African patterns of thought. [13] The effects of this confrontation, the original confusion and disillusionment, followed by fragmentation and disintegration and then by compromise and consolidation may be seen as the principal thematic concern which runs through the four novels. This may be exposed by a consideration of their formal features, principally narrative situation and characterisation. These features show a progression from the use of indistinct personae and a shifting point of view, through clear but fragmented narrative situations, to a clearly defined and highly controlled strategy in the last work, where, although individual personae are submerged n the collective, the point of view is remarkably unified and maintained.

In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born a worldview which has features of breakdown and confusion pervades the amorphous characterisation and ambivalent narrative situation, particularly with regard to the main character and of the lack of distinction between him and the external narrative voice. One of the aspects of the characterisation of the 'the man', who never achieves the distinctiveness of an individual name, is the character of his thought The contrast of his manner of thinking with that of the Teacher shows up his inability to think in abstract terms or to formulate any alternatives to his mode of being. His intuitive way of perceiving and understanding the world is revealed in his mental conflicts which are expressed in terms of symbols which have no specific referents. The most outstanding go such symbols is 'the gleam'. This proceeds naturally from the man's perception of the Atlantic Caprice which is an 'insulting' gleaming white. (p. 12) Immediately it is established as an image, however, the gleam fees itself to become a symbol which is associated with a number manifestations of such ideas as success, speed, wealth, and power. These ideas are rarely formulated as such, and what the reader is permitted to know of the character's consciousness is almost always expressed in terms of visual images. One outstanding example may be taken from the end of the narrative. It is especially apt in that it is a verbal idea which is presented to the man's mind: the legend on the back of the bus which becomes the title of the novel: '...the man was unable to shake off the imprint of the printed word.' But they do not remain stable, and begin to metamorphose: "In his mind he could see them flowing up down and round again.' and finally they change into visual and aural phenomena: 'After a while the image itself of the flower in the middle disappeared, to be replaced by a single, melodious note.' (p. 215) There could be no clearer example of the inability of the man to hold onto and deal with ideas at an abstract level.

A similar lack of definition may be seen in the sphere of the mans' actions. Paradoxically, his most significant actions are ones which he does not in fact carry out. What he does do is move in the same circles day after day without the possibility of change, despite the fact that he has many opportunities to be aware of the meaninglessness of his existence, such as the agonised cry of the telegraph operator: 'Why do we agree to go on like this?' (p. 30) What he does not do is take bribes, such as the one offered by the timber contractor, or become successful, like Koomson. so although he may be seen as hero in the realm of moral integrity, this is achieved only y the use of negative criteria. When he helps Koomson to escape, it is presumably purely from humanitarian motives which are not related to the main current of the work's ideology.

The man's inability to bring to full consciousness and therefore act upon his inchoate understanding of a fuller and more authentic mode of existence is emphasised in eh presentational process by the gap between the levels of awareness of the naive protagonist and of the central consciousness of the work. Although the narrative situation is largely figural, it is also often authorial, in passages which provide a much broader context for the action of the novel than that of which the man is capable of being aware. While the reader is aware, through the presence of a narrative voice, of a central consciousness which organises the narrative, giving it form and express;ion, he is at the same time involved in the experience of the man who is only dimly aware of the fuller implications of his lifestyle. The irony created in this way underlines the man's naivety and helplessness in the face of his problems. A fuller consciousness is not only in the province of the narrator and therefore part of the presentational process, but is also exemplified in the presented world by the presence of the Teacher. He is the character who stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the successful ones like Koomson, and so might have embodied the ideals of purity and moral integrity; but ironically he is also the character who has become most completely withdrawn from life. He seems to be present in the narrative because of the need to have a character capable of expressing ideas which are essential to the work but which the main character is incapable of comprehending completely. This may be seen as another division and intentional confusion in the work ideology.

However the most convincing example of the basic diffuseness at the ideological level is the confusion which exists at some points between the presence of the consciousnesses of 'the man', the Teacher, and the narrator. Throughout the narrative there are moments of ambivalence in the narrative situation when the point of view moves fluidly between narrator and protagonist. This is the technical outcome of an ideological attitude involving a high degree of tolerance of diffuseness and uncertainty.

Narrative ambivalence is most noticeable in the important Chapter Six where the situation is actually divided between two personae, one of the strands being narrated in the first person and the other in the third. It is possible to make an interpretive decision on the basis of certain indications to the effect that the first person sections represent the speech of the Teacher to the man while the intercalated third person sections represent the reaction of the latter as seen partly from inside his point of view and partly authorially. However such a decision can only be made after close examination of textual signals, such as 'I know it is like a lie for me to talk like this ...' (p. 90) indicating speech on the one hand, while others indicate a listener: 'The listening mind is disturbed by memories from the past.' (p.78); 'The listener has heard. He is not so far in the cave that he cannot hear what is said. (p.100) The indeterminacy of these passages forces the reader to attend closely to the text - which will however remain schematic.

The passage just quoted is a small example of the kind of ambivalence which has been discussed. It indicates that the man has heard, but then moves on to characterise his way of hearing in a way which may or may not be available to him, that is in terms of the cave metaphor taken from Plato. The passage continues: 'But what can a person do with things that continue unsatisfied inside? Is their stifled cry not also life?' Although formally this is clearly in free indirect style, that is, indirect presentation of the character's consciousness, the expression of it is equally clearly in the province of the narrator, placing it, through the use of imagery, in the context of the whole work. Armah's use, in his first novel, of an interaction of narrative situations with imagery and delimited characterisation constitutes a rich and complex world view containing significant patterns of disillusionment and degradation.

His second novel, on the other hand, is characterised, as might be expected from its title, by fragmentation in several important aspects. One of these is the enclosure of the central - predominantly figural - narrative by another which emanates from the consciousness of Naana, the grandmother of the protagonist Baako. She seems to represent the values of the old Africa which is being swept away under the influence of Western ideas. It is significant that this mother figure encloses the story of the son who falls a victim to the unresolvable tension between the two value systems, Western and African. The enclosure has the effect of restoring the lost balance by placing the story of Baako's rapid decline into madness within the context of the traditional ideology, which, although in fact neither timeless nor changeless contains a cyclical worldview. Naana believes not only that those who go away will return, but also that there is a continuity of life in death, and that contact with the dead must be maintained.

The metaphor of the circle occurs repeatedly: 'Everyone who goes returns. He will come. He will be changed but we shall welcome him as the same. That is the circle.' (p.4) When Baako is leaving and the libation must be poured, it is Naana who pours out a whole glass of schnapps, because, as she says '... I was happy inside myself that I had taken the drink from Foli and given the ancestors their need. The circle was not broken in any place.' (p.16) It is appropriate that at the end of the work Naana should complete her final statement of the cyclical nature of time. 'Take me. I am ready. You are the end. The beginning. You who have no end. I am coming.' (p. 287)

Baako's journal establishes a parallel between the ideology of ancestor cults and his own experience as a 'been-to'. Another kind of cyclic pattern is created in the outward journey and return of the been-to which is analogous to the going and supposed return of the dead. The connexion between the two is cargo, according to Baako. Both the been-to and the ancestor are expected to provide goods for the relatives who remain behind. Much of the work's ideology is concerned with the question of materialism, but it is given its form by its linking with this recurrent cycle.

Materialism is a theme of decreasing importance in Armah's work. The corruption of wealth and power is fully dealt with in the first novel through both the action and imagery. In the second these concerns tend to be subsidiary to those centring on the psyche of the protagonist, and on the clash of ideologies. In the third novel, materialism has almost completely given way to this ideological clash, combined with central interests in sexuality and the nature of revolution. In the fourth novel, materialism has disappeared completely except in its relationship with colonial exploitation.

Those aspects of Fragments which are concerned with the psychiatrist Juana for example are almost completely to do with the cultural clash and with its interpenetration with her relationship with the African and with his mental states. The dichotomisation of his mind is shown not only in the presented world by the presence of a therapist, but also in the presentational process by the presence of a second supporting persona, who is also, like the mother and grandmother figures, feminine. But the most convincing demonstration in the work of the powerful divisive pressure of the clash of cultures may of course be seen in the decline into madness of the protagonist. This is the clearest expression of the way in which a worldview may become divided and fall into fragments.

In Why Are We So Blest? the splitting process is carried a stage further, by the division of the presentation into three completely separate narratives representing three distinct personae. With regard to narrative situation, then, two opposite but complementary developments have taken place in the course of Armah's first three long works. On the one hand, one central character becomes two, then three. On the other hand, the delineation of the personae has become more precise. The amorphous 'man' of the earliest work is replaced by Baako, the confused and divided but more identifiable character of the second. He is now succeeded by three figures of roughly equal importance, two of whom have characteristics which remain fairly constant throughout the work, while only the third carries the burden of the ideological schism which runs through all three of these novels.

Not only is the narrative concerned with three characters, but it is itself split into three completely separate strands, each told in the first person by the character in question. The effect of this is to create a polyphony of worldviews, each voice following the other, and in some cases taking up the same material for treatment from a different point of view. The motif of Aimée's fantasy about the houseboy, for example, is introduced by her as her solitary experience. (pp.186-189) The next segment of the narrative, Modin's, presumably refers to a time soon afterward as the same motif recurs, but this in the context of their mutual relationship. (pp.193-200) Aimée's following segment comments on this development and thus completes the exposition of this motif. The comments from Solo which then follow, although cast in an abstract mode removed from any particular event, may be seen as dealing with the same material. He is presumed to have read the journals to the point at which the reader has himself arrived, and therefore to be meditating on what has just been narrated. The tone of Solo's segment removes the reader to a distant perspective, contrastive with the close spatio-temporal locus of the narration of Modin's and Aimée's segments. In this way the same material is drawn into the context of a different worldview so that each informs the other, filling out their range of meanings.

These meanings may be partially contradictory and even dialectical, holding opposing meanings in a fruitful tension. Solo's remarks just referred to see Aimée as one of the white 'destroyers' who 'use the accumulated energy within our black selves to do work of importance to their white selves'. However, Modin's and Aimée's segments which then follow undercut this conclusion by presenting a new orientation in their interpersonal relationship which permits an apparently non-manipulative and successful sexual union. The tension between the two views is maintained until the final scene of the novel when it is resolved by the outcome of the action, although in such a way as to leave its meaning incompletely determined.

If the other main thrust of the work's ideology may be seen as being concerned with an investigation into the nature of revolution, then again the three narratives will provide a variety of attitudes. All three principal personae have in common a desire to take part in a meaningful revolution combined with an inability to become actually involved. Aimée represents the point furthest removed from a committed involvement. It is clear from the nature of her characterisation that she is to be seen as a thrill-seeker who desires merely a new and more complete sensation. This is made evident in the obvious connexion between the experiment in the psychology laboratory, Aimée's sexual experience, and her reaction to the torturing of Modin.

Modin may be seen as more sincerely involved, but the naivety of his understanding of the real factors at work is brought out by the placing of his story inside the comments of Solo. The latter may be seen as one who has proceeded through the revolutionary experience and emerged from the other side into a state of passive cynicism. That he has been committed is shown by the way the active revolutionaries trust him to continue to perform administrative tasks for them, although they expect no more than that. However, unlike the other two, he has achieved at one time a true revolutionary consciousness. He is simply insufficiently integrated to maintain it.

Thus, despite offering brief glimpses of commitment, the work creates a view of revolution mainly by negative means, in the studies of characters on the periphery, and of the origins of their deficiencies. Each of them has a specific psychic problem. Aimée's is manifested primarily in her frigidity, which is complementary to her sensation-seeking. Modin's problem is verbalised as a sort of death wish, which gives the ending the force of apparent inevitability. In Modin's words: 'Nothing surprising in all of this. My life here has had a self-destructive swing all the time...' (p. 156) Solo sees this too: 'Once, seeing him, I caught myself thinking a thought that put fear in me: "Here is a corpse."' (p. 262) He is probably able to see it because he sees himself in much the same way, beginning his own story with 'Even before my death I have become a ghost..' (p.11) His problem is 'this lack of confidence which deepens into the despair of the guilty.' (p.14), his guilt arising from his sense of failure, his inability to carry out what he sees as being required of him.

The essence of this work, then, may be seen as emerging from the characterisation, from the polyphony of typifications, and their interpenetration with the thematic concerns of the work.

In Armah's last work, characterisation of a conventional kind is almost completely absent. The trend away from centrality of one character and toward multiplicity is continued, to the extent that a large number of figures are given equal importance. Only a few emerge as individuals and none of them is used as a figural viewpoint for any length of time. Consideration of the figure of Anoa is revelatory of the nature of the narrative strategy of this work particularly in the context of the use of characterisation. She enters the narrative first as a prophetess, but gradually loses her human status as it progresses, becoming a spirit of place, her name being given also to the town and to the sacred grove which is the centre of revolutionary activity. The other symbolic character, Isanusi, also takes on a more than human significance, heroic if not divine.

Its narrative situation is the most indicative formal characteristic of the work. It is narrated in the first person plural throughout, although the time covered is presumably of the order of five hundred years. The recognition of this transcendent 'we' leads immediately to the interpretive abstraction that the essence of the book's meaning is to be found in the collective ethic and experience which it delineates.

This notion is borne out by the means by which the narration is actually carried out. Although the viewpoint is consistently figural and although particular members of the group are named, it is always from the viewpoint of the group as a whole that the action is seen. Thus, when a particular actor is identified it is as if he (or she) steps out of the group to perform the action as observed by the others and then moves back again into the group of observers and reporters.

This is the case with the central group of characters who are endorsed by the narrative voice. There is another group which constitutes the negative aspect of the work's dialectic. These are the invaders, colonisers and exploiters, the white 'predators' and 'destroyers' who come first by land and then by sea, to take advantage of the black race's resources, human and otherwise. The history of the native peoples is seen as a constant struggle against these forces of oppression, a struggle in which it is prophesied that the former will prevail and re-establish the 'way', which may be seen as the institutions of traditional values and ethics.

An expression of the ethic of unity may be seen in the use of circles in aspects of the work's space. The grove of Anoa, for example, is surrounded by a number of other groves in concentric circles which protect the inner one and also symbolically emphasise its centrality and integration with the others in line with the principles of unity and solidarity.

The dance of selection is another use of the circle as a metaphor of these notions. Again there is an arrangement of concentric circles through which love contracts are ritually offered and accepted. The ritual is so conducted that the weaker members of the society are given the best opportunity of success, while the stronger are offered the greatest challenge. This arrangement is upset by the predator king Koranche who decrees that his son will take the best of the women without having to engage at all in the challenge of the ritual. As a result the women dance in such a way as to avoid being chosen by the prince, and take their chances as soon as possible, rather than give the customary advantage to the weaker. Also, the prince sits at the centre of the circle where only the dancers should be. In this way, the meaning of the traditional ritual is eroded.

On the other hand, in response to the corrupting influence of the invader, a new grouping is established. Instead of splitting into the normal pairs, a group of ten young men and women escape to the central grove and to Isanusi who becomes aware that a new kind of meaning may be found in this unified group. They will form the nucleus of the new order.

When the group is captured, the metaphor of the circle is used once more. The group is chained together so that 'We made a circle no more. They had arranged us in two lines.' (p. 189) This rearrangement may be seen as demonstrating the imposition of a new, linear mode of thought upon a culture in which the circle represents a collective unity. It is ironical that the instruments of the white man's enslavement of the Africans should also be circular - the metal shackles which are used to chain them together. (pp. 170-171)

Through the use of spatial patterning, of a panoramic sense of time and space, and a collective attitude to questions of lifestyle and ethics, the work creates a worldview which may be seen as essentially African.

Wole Soyinka

The world of The Interpreters is in fact multiple: it contains several different kinds of realities, created by different kinds of mediation. [14] It is possible to distinguish three main groups of characters, according to the attitude taken up towards them by the central narrating consciousness. The primary group - the interpreters of the title - is presented within the framework of the conventions of realism. These characters are presented figurally by a narrative situation which implies no judgement, but merely allows them to be seen in their social roles and in their thoughts, that is, sympathetically. In other terms, the mode of their presentation is more mimetic and less ironic, and in this they may be distinguished from two other groups. [15] One of these is seen as if from below, and the characters are idealised and presented in the manner of the romance. The other is seen as from above, and the characters are satirised, and presented ironically.

The interpreters group of characters is not only the group of primary interest: it is also the locus of the presentation of the whole work. Though the narrative situation is at times authorial, the principal means of presentation is generally a figural one shifting from persona to persona. Thus Egbo is presented through a rendering of his consciousness and his acts of memory as well as through his speech and actions. His life situation is seen from within, from the closest spatio-temporal locus used in the book. Though Sagoe has more of the book's length devoted to him, he is used extensively as an observer figure. However his presentation is as sympathetic as Egbo's, and includes Sagoe's journal, his 'philosophy'. Similar presentation is utilised for the other members of the group: Bandele, Sekoni, Kola, and to a lesser extent, Dehinwa and Lasunwon.

Once established as the central figures of the work, these characters can then be used as points of view from which other characters and actions may be seen, thus introducing another degree of mediation and a slanting of the presentation It is as a result of this slanting that the other two groups are distinguished.

The characters who are idealized become so partly through the attitudes of other characters to them, and partly by virtue of their function in the action. The latter seems to predominate in the case of Lazarus and Noah. The archetypal names are the first indications of their special status and direct the reader's attention to the functions associated with that status, as indicated by the name. Thus, apart from his mimetic function as personifying a type of cult leader found in Nigerian society, Lazarus, in his association with death and rebirth, seems to represent the presence of these abstractions, and thus to inform other parts of the narrative which have to do with them. Sekoni's death, for example, seems to take on a larger significance: one of the points of concluding the narrative with the exhibition of his work seems to be to explore in what manner he lives on in the minds of his friends and in his sculpture. His life and death are also informed by the presence in the narrative of Noah, the scape-goat figure. [16] Sekoni may also be seen as a sacrificial victim, though more in a realistic sphere.

It is the minor female characters who achieve a special status as a result of the attitudes of the central personae, Egbo in particular. He is presented at the end of the work with two choices, neither of which he is able to see as real: one is the choice between two ways of life, the old and the new, and the other is the choice between the two women, Simi and the nameless student. When he receives Bandele's message from the latter, Egbo is forced to confront his real attitude to her: "Egbo knew that he could not hold her merely as an idyllic fantasy, for the day rose large enough and he was again overwhelmed by her power of will." (p. 243) Clearly he has been in the habit of idealising her as the "first companion to his sanctuary by the river." (p.243) Now that he has been made aware of the determination of her attitude, he merely idealises her in a different way - he is "overwhelmed by her power of will." The romance-like presentation is supported by the diction used to present Egbo's consciousness: "the day rose large enough." Through such means, the figure of the girl moves away from the mimetic mode and towards assuming the significance of an archetypal figure - a wise, powerful, female companion.

Simi is invoked in similarly romantic diction. Her eyes are "ocean-clams with her peculiar sadness" (p.251); she "kept her mystery while the men were hollowed out and led out flabby or raucous, sadder but never wiser" (p.51). Although there are scenes in the work where the character is portrayed as an astute business woman, much of the writing is of this kind, leading the reader to form a picture, if not of a succubus, at least of a powerful and distant femme fatale, having something of the archetypal feminine about her. [17] The technique of using a descriptive epithet as a name or title is another means of typifying Simi as "Queen Bee", with all of its attendant connotations. [18]

Other characters who are kept at a distance but by different means are those which are satirised. These include Professor Oguazor, Sir Derinola and Chief Winsala. Various techniques are used to expose and ridicule them but they all have in common some means of distantiation. The principal one is the use of the point of view of Sagoe. His reportorial eye and style of expression is appropriate to his function as the medium of most of the book's satire. Furthermore, as he is a major character, seen from a close focus, the reader is in a position to be able to evaluate the trustworthiness of his judgements.

He passes judgement on the Professor, for example, in the episode with the plastic fruit, which, like the ornate coffin in which Sir Derinola is buried, is symbolic of the falseness of their public facades as against their moral corruption in private. The Professor's plastic fruit is analogous to his contrived Oxford accent and to the general rigidification of his behaviour and attitudes. Sir Derinola, by contrast, is observed out of his normal social context and in the world of Sagoe's fantasy, that is, at one further remove. Here it is a simple matter to make him ridiculous. However even after his death he is still capable of being placed in a situation which judges him - in the juxtaposition of his overly elaborate funeral with that of the dead apostle of Lazarus' church. The connexion between his coffin and the wardrobe from which he emerges as fantasy clown provides the link between the everyday world and that of Sagoe's fantasy.

The multi-layered world of The Interpreters contains ideal figures who are only seen from a respectful distance and represent types who are more like the personifications of principles than like people. It also contains other types of personae who are subjected to the critical scrutiny of satire and, by this means, are exposed and ridiculed. But the main area of its concern is the group of central characters, problematical but involved, who are engaged in the search for values and ways of understanding the complex and changing society in which they live.

The world of Soyinka's second novel Season of Anomy is also complex and multi-layered. The major problem of interpretation is the reconciliation of two quite different areas of thematic concern. There is first of all the political thrust: this refers to those parts of the work which are concerned with the exposition of the Aiyero endeavour and the consequences of its confrontation with materialism. The other important theme is the quest of the hero Ofeyi in search of the Cocoa Princess Iriyise. So separate are these concerns that there seem almost to be two distinct worldviews.

The first of these explores the situation in which members of a minority group from one part of the country infiltrate other areas. The origin of the idea in the recent past of Nigeria is clear, though it is probably true to say that the men of Aiyero are moved by an ideal which is not historically given. However the presence of this ideal does have a clear artistic function: it provides the motive for the resentment and distrust of the Crossriver people and the genocide which follows.

There is again a group of characters, the 'quads' of the Cartel who, like the villains of The Interpreters, are seen from a critical distance. In the present work, however, because of the difference in the nature of the action - the business of these men is not only corruption but also murder on a large scale - their treatment is without humour. The one scene whose tone could have gone across into the satirical - the confrontation between Chief Batoki and his wife and daughter (pp.181-188) - never does so. The characters themselves are allowed to use rich and potentially humorous language ("The turkey with a permanent itch opens her tail feathers to the first wind that blows into a yard," says the Chief), but the authorial commentary remains seriously critical.

The seriousness of the tone is intensified by the occurrence of many scenes of killing and brutality which show the effects of the upheavals on the anonymous masses. Though many of the moments of such scenes are reported factually, others, particularly through the use of the point of view of Ofeyi, seem calculated to produce an optimal atmospheric effect. The principal of such scenes is probably that of the burning of the church (pp.196-20l), the whole carrying-out of which Ofeyi watches literally from a removed vantage point. The balance of precise description over-- laid with tonal pointing is conveyed by the text's own summary and Aristotelian tag: "The action unravelled with chilling clarity. It had a definable beginning, a middle and an end." (p.197)

The same balance is found in the manner of presentation of the Dentist. His very name suggests the exactitude with which his function is conceived while at the same time expressing it fancifully. He too is shown as expressing himself precisely while his characterisation retains elements of delayed closure. On the one hand we have "the Dentist with his unassailable logic of extraction before infection." (p.92), but on the other there is the partial concealment of his true identity and his sudden appearances in the Crossriver hideout and again in the prison at Temoko. There is also a contrast between his view of himself as a mere tool of the ideologues, and his obvious grasp of historical perspective. While he insists that Ofeyi take the responsibility for the vision of what will follow the anarchy to which he contributes, he nevertheless has a clear idea of the part played by figures like Iriyise, whom he sees as a symbolic leader.

An aspect of the exposition of the political theme which is exceptional with regard to the realistic mode of presentation is the indeterminate manner in which the Aiyero theme is actually conveyed. For example, the leader of the community, Ahime, is seen by Ofeyi as a figure apart and above, possessing extraordinary abilities and wisdom. He also, like the Dentist, appears unexpectedly in the Crossriver setting; and is always surrounded by an atmosphere which connotes a numinous and removed leader figure. At the other end of the spectrum, the ordinary members of the Aiyero community are also seen from a distance, never in concrete action, but always in the perspective of their effect on the whole of the action. They are completely obedient to the will of their leaders, are completely committed to the abstract ideals of their group, which are never fully set out, and act and die as one man.

The quest theme is less complex then the political one, but is distinguished by a tension between its realistic and archetypal aspects. Iriyise, like her counterparts in others of Soyinka's works (and particularly Simi) is rendered both as a realistic woman and also as a removed and idealised archetype of the femme fatale. [19] In accordance with this dual nature of its object, Ofeyi's search has also its realistic and archetypal aspects. His shift from one sphere to the other is perhaps signalled by the Dentist in his view of "the cocoa-man here, who plucks symbols out of brothels." The assassin is aware that "when the moment arrives a woman like Iriyise becomes ... a Chantal, a Geborah, torch and standard-bearer, super-mistress of universal insurgence." (p.219)

Her symbolic function is the justification for the devotion of half the length of the narrative to the search for her. Ofeyi's individual motivation may be his sense of personal loss, but the function of the quest both within the imagined world and in terms of structures of meaning in the work is obviously much broader than the personal. The rescue of Iriyise from the heart of Temoko prison, from inside the walls of the condemned, the leprous and the insane, is also the heart of the work. The parallels between the levels of this hell, and the circles of a Dantesque Inferno are sufficiently clear, and this vision of the Underworld retrospectively informs the whole work.

If the work may be read on a metaphysical level as dealing with the problem of evil, then the position of the comatose innocent in the stronghold of the malign forces is a powerful symbol. The fact that she is rescued is in itself a statement of the work's attitude to the problem, though there is a degree of ambivalence in the openness of the ending. Although she is out of the power of evil and proceeding towards what may be a renaissance of the human spirit in the creation of the ideal of Aiyero, it is not determined whether the withdrawn Iriyise will ever actually awaken. It is possible, however, to see this as maintaining the dialectic between what the work posits as its polar good and evil.

One of the links, then, between what have been called the two worlds of the novel is found in this duality in Iriyise's nature and in Ofeyi's relationship with her. He is the figure who exists fully in both worlds and is the link between the two parts cf the action. As an architect of ideas, firstly within the system and then as a radical, he is capable of conceiving pragmatic techniques of persuasion on the one hand, and also visions of a better world on the other. While the former place him in a pivotal position of influence in the politics of the novel's world, the latter not only involve him in the revolutionary dream of Ahime, but also in the idealisation of the feminine symbol in Iriyise. The relationship between the two functions is summarised by Ofeyi himself in an important passage: "I'm sure every man feels the need to seize for himself the enormity of what is happening, of the time in which it is happening. Perhaps deep down I realise that the search would immerse me in the meaning of the event, lead me to a new understanding of history." (p.218) This is the claim that the narrative makes as a whole, that its investigation of the factors that lead to an interracial war and to the creation of a new social ideal can be combined with a personal search for meaning in action and in relationship.

Finally, one further element which may be seen as a linking device is the use of the subheadings for division of the narrative. These are the titles which refer the action to the schema of the stages in the life-cycle of a plant, and thus create a powerful authorial suggestion that the work may be interpreted in the light of this metaphor. There remains however a degree of ambiguity in the various areas of thematic concern which might be so interpreted. The thrust of the work towards the utopian ideal of community is clearly the most appropriate. Here the overarching metaphor refers to the insemination of the new ideal into the pattern of society, its aborted harvest of resistance and misunderstanding, and the sending-out of the new spores in a new attempt to sow the seed.

The main problem here lies in the idea of harvest. The reader may understand by this the response of men of Aiyero to the call of their leaders. They do in fact respond but it does not lead to a successful conclusion. The harvest may be seen in this sense as having been reaped too soon when the time was not yet appropriate. The force of the action in the "Harvest" section combined with the title of the whole work suggests that it is in fact another meaning which predominates. It is the harvest of anarchy, of lawlessness, which heaps up the victims of the internecine struggle, and is a result of the sowing of the seeds of discord in the land.

It is possible to read this ambiguity as a fruitful one which contains both these possibilities within this broader interpretation: that the harvest is the outcome of the interaction of all the processes which take place, both personal and social. The suggestion then is that there is a cyclical pattern of idealism, corruption and anarchy which must be repeated continually and indefinitely, but which will always allow for the possibility of hope.


1. Georg Lukacs, Writer and Critic and other essays, ed, trans. A. Kohn (London, 1970, pp.140-141.

2. Lucien Goldmann, "The Sociology of Literature: status and problems of method", International Social Science Journal, vol xix, no. 4 (1967), p.495

3. Lucien Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock , 1975) p.1.

4. Goldmann, 1967, p. 514.

5. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, (1958). Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (London: Heinemann, 1960). Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (London: Heinemann, 1964). Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (London: Heinemann, 1966).

6. Achebe deals with this aspect of title-taking, that it tends to distribute wealth, in a discussion which has been published in Karen L. Morell, In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka (Seattle: U. Washington, 1975), p.42.

7. J. Z. Kronenfeld, "The 'Communalistic' African and the 'Individualist' Westerner: Some Comments on Misleading Generalizations in Western Criticism of Soyinka and Achebe," Research in African Literatures, 6, 2(Fall 1975), pp.199-225.

8. David Carroll, Chinua Achebe (N.Y.: Twayne, 1970).

9. In fact, Achebe seems actually to predict the future, as is often pointed out. The coup in the book prefigures the one which actually occurred in the same year as the book's publication.

10. Chinua Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," repr. in G.D. Killam, African Writers on African Writing (London Heinemman, 1973).

11. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The River Between (London: Heinemann, 1965). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Weep Not, Child (London: Heinemann, 1964). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Heinemann, 1967).

12. Time in A Grain of Wheat has been discussed in Chapter Three. The 'communal' nature of Ngugi's novels has been discussed by Charles R. Larson in The Emergence of African Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1971), pp. 113-146. Larson sees A Grain of Wheat as having "no main character at all" (pp. 117,139).

13. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968; repr. London: Heinemann, 1969). Page references are to the English edition. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970; repr. London: Heinemann, 1974). Page references are to the English edition. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972; repr. London: Heinemann, 1974). Page references are to the English edition. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: E.A.P.H., 1973).

14. Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (1965; repr. London: Heinemann, 1970). Wole Soyinka, Season of Anomy (London: Rex Collings, 1973). The Man Died is not treated in this section as not belonging to the same generic group as the other works discussed in this chapter.

15. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1957), p.134.

16. The sacrificial victim is a motif often found in the works of Soyinka: Oremole in Dance of the Forests and Eman in The Strong Breed, for example.

17. Especially in the introductory passage on pp. 50-51.

18. This technique is common in Soyinka's writing, especially in the long prose works. In The Man Died, for example, one meets such characters as 'Polyphemus' and 'The Grand Seer'. In Season of Anomy, Iriyise has many such epithets, including 'Iridescent' and 'Princess.'

19. The echoing in the names Ofeyi and Iriyise of the classical figures Orpheus and Eurydice, which is pointed out by Edgar Wright in his review of the novel (in African Literature Today, no. 8, 1976) is a further means of referring the meaning of the work to a mythical and therefore archetypal framework. It enables the whole work to be read on this level of meaning. Temoko prison may then be seen as the work's equivalent for Hell, with Chief Batoki as the ruler of this Underworld.

New: 8 August 1996 | Now: 20 December, 2018