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Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 9: Towards a Conception of Narrative Art in Africa


This final chapter contains a discussion of significant works which are seen as being among the most achieved in the body of African Literature. No attempt has been made to categorise the whole of the field, for several reasons. In the first place, it is not possible to delineate the field precisely once and for all. As the Introduction stated, works discussed have been chosen from a large number considered, although a geographical division was arbitrarily established. Secondly, considerations of space allow only a limited number of works to be examined in sufficient depth for the present purpose. More importantly, however, a body of literature can best be understood by the consideration of works which prima facie exhibit the most successful integration of the thematic and artistic concerns which are found in a broad survey. The works selected are:The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, A Grain of Wheat, The Voice, This Earth, My Brother, Things Fall Apart, and Two Thousand Seasons. [1]

These works, then, are those which display Ingarden's polyphony of aesthetic value qualities, that is, a "potentially total interaction of pleasing qualities" carried by "all aspects of print and sound, linguistic arrangement, the presentational process and the presented world, the interaction between a work's depth stratification and forward dimension, and its overall philosophy".

However, the first three items on this list, the levels of material, aural, and linguistic meaning will not be considered here, as they do not fall within the parameters established in the Introduction. What will be considered will be the degree of integration of work intention and formal achievement.

As particular aspects of all of these works have been discussed in earlier chapters, this conclusion focuses on macro-structural observations, and critical evaluations are offered at a high level of abstraction.

The Trial of Christopher Okigbo

The Trial of Christopher Okigbo is an unusual work, a political scientist's only work of fiction, and written in fact to investigate an ethical problem in a particular historical context. The singularity of this work derives from its mixture of modes which makes it difficult to classify. It brings together elements of realism, of fantasy, and of documentary to investigate exhaustively its central idea: the problem of political commitment as opposed to the demands of artistic probity.

In order to bring together contrasting opinions about the question, the work creates the fantasy world of After-Africa in which personae may co-exist who originate, some from the historical past or present, and some from the imagined world of the novel. Before evoking this fantastic world, the work first presents an exposition in the realistic mode, establishing the central character and the initial situation. In the fantasy setting this fictional mode is still partly adhered to, but material is also presented some of which is taken from the utterances of real people, living and dead, and some of which is attributed to them. Other material exists only in the imagined world of the work. In this way, purely fictional modes co-exist with a historical mode and with that of the novelistic documentary. Inasmuch as the whole is an analysis of one central idea or activity, it could be called an anatomy in Northrop Frye's sense, especially as it has satirical aspects. Some uncertainty of tone is noticeable because of the marriage of the light, distant tone of these satirical passages with the more straightforward tone of the realistic sections. In the latter there is not distantiation, so that the reader must interpret them as directly given, although in the former he is directed to read critically, with a higher degree of intellectual analysis than affective involvement.

There is also a certain discrepancy between the seriousness of the questions raised by the work and the overall treatment of them. But in the context created by the work it is inevitable that there be some effect of distantiation in order to draw attention to the ideas involved, rather than to the experience of the personae, who are merely their embodiments.

A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat is a work which might be said to display "adequate complexity". It handles a large volume of material which extends both temporally and through a relatively large number of characters and events. The action is concerned with events both in the narrated present and in the past, and there is an abiding consciousness of the futurity which in fact is the last phase of the work. There are numerous characters, and a group of them is presented in considerable detail. Several of them are the agents of figural narrative situations, with a consequent presentation of their mental processes. Also, thoughts about their pasts lead to scenic presentations of past events. Not only does this add another temporal dimension to the work, but because of the interrelationship between the meaning of the events narrated and their consequence for actions in the present, there is also a complex network of causation and motivation.

The ideology of the work is principally concerned with the way in which political events work themselves out in the lives of individuals. The action moves towards a significant gesture which draws together different kinds of meaning from personal and political areas, and which has a demonstrable relationship with events in the past, and brings the action to a plausible conclusion. So the larger scope of large-scale actions encloses that which shows those performed by single individuals, and hence reveals their political as well as personal meaning. Because the degree of complexity is adequate to the work as a whole, the congruence between action, characterisation, and ideology effectively demonstrates the relationship between events on the macro- and microscopic scale. The work certainly succeeds in integrating different levels of meaning in a consonant unity.

The Voice

The Voice is a work with a particularly high degree of integration of the linguistic stratum with that of stated ideas. It uses diction creatively to create a unique means of expression, which although couched in the English language has some characteristics taken from the Ijo spoken by its author. This allows the work to provide a special insight into the mind of the African character who is at the centre of the action. However although the narrative uses his figural point of view extensively, it is not only concerned with his individual experience, but also with what he represents as a type. For this reason, the diction has a double function: initially it seems to give an impression of the individuality of the character whose consciousness is presented in such an idiosyncratic manner; but ultimately it has also a distancing effect, removing his experience from the particularities of the personal, and giving it the reverberation of universal meaning.

Although The Voice can be read on the level of local politics as being concerned with the political situation in Nigeria in the era immediately preceding Independence, it can also be interpreted on a broader base as investigating the problems of the interaction of human personality with social structure. The protagonist Okolo is the type of the individual who stands by his right to come to his own conclusions about the right way to live, based on his own life experiences. The Chief represents the type of ruler who exercises complete power autocratically, needing the support of hangers-on and forcing his subjects into obedience through the use of fear. It is clear, in the context of the work, that such local rulers will not be able to continue to exist in the time of the "coming things"; such gross changes in the way of life always bring about not only a restructuring of the political system, but also a reorientation of values. Thinkers like Okolo, who have an unbiased attitude to questions of ethics and to the shape of the future would be of value in a self-determining society. ironically, he is destroyed in the present narrative by the inability of the old regime, as represented by the Chief, to tolerate any threat to its source of power in the unthinking obedience of the masses. However, the end of the narrative portrays the continuance of the value of self-determination, despite the death of its instigator.

This work is relatively schematic, which is appropriate to its allegorical mode of functioning. Spatial details are sparse and indications of temporality are non-specific. Characterisation is confined to indications of type and function: not only are no physical details given, beyond the most rudimentary suggestions of age and maturational state, but consciousness is also presented in a manner which gives no suggestion of the idiosyncrasies of the thought of individuals, but rather of social types. The action also has a simple form: the basic situation is complicated only by the journey of the protagonist. When he returns, the tendency is continued and results in the apparently inevitable dénouement. The journey abroad merely confirms that elsewhere the situation is much the same and results in the same experience of alienation. The tone set by the use of language prevails throughout other aspects of the work, resulting in a straightforward but powerful statement.

This Earth, My Brother

This Earth, My Brother utilises dual narrative strategies to present on the one hand the mind of an individual in the process of breaking down, and on the other the societal pressures which contribute to that breakdown. While the latter uses a conventional mixture of authorial/figural situation and scenic/summary presentation, the former may be supposed to be the stream-of consciousness-like thoughts of the protagonist written down by him while in an unbalanced state of mind. The work thus attempts to present two different kinds of world: the one of the mind, the other the real world of consensus reality: the one completely subjective, the other mediated and therefore validated by the authorial narrator. Each informs the other. The third-person sections show Amamu acting and in relationships with others at a number of different moments in his life. They also present numerous different aspects of life in the presented society: those of the club, among the servants, at school and on the road. Some impressions are conveyed which tend to allow a complete picture of society to built up. The intercalated first-person chapters meanwhile construct an image of the state of mind of an individual who has attempted to live in the presented world and, for a number of reasons, failed to maintain a sense of reality, eventually choosing an alternative world of fantasy.

This world contains within it some elements of yet another: that of an archetypal realm containing magical figures who come from the sea to redeem and save. Although this is completely contained within the subjective world of the persona, it does give to the whole work a further reverberation, another level of meaning.

The mind of the protagonist is the locus of the three worlds of the book. By the use of a complex narrative situation the work successfully contains and explores on many levels of meaning the value of a solipsistic universe and the quality of the experience of alienation.

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart presents a dialectic between two large areas of experience: the individual and the society. The major thematic concern is the problem of the ability to change of a society containing elements of conservatism, but also a high degree of flexibility. The protagonist embodies one important attribute which has been of considerable importance, but which is now being submitted to stress. The burden of decision for the individual is also the point of change for the whole group.

Important aspects of the process which presents this dialectic are the duality of the narrative situation and of details of the work's space. The narrative situation is divided between an authorial/scenic presentation of the society and its rituals and of various personae and figural presentation of the protagonist's internal dilemma. This enables the reader to see this problem from two points of view - from inside the Weltanschauung of the character, and in a critical context in which he is judged by the standards of others.

Two major locations are presented which represent opposing qualities of society: those which may be seen summarily as representing its masculine and feminine virtues. In the territory of the protagonist himself, his own village, strength is the index of manly virtue, and he is honoured as a great man. But after his inadvertent crime he is banished to his mother's village, to the territory of the feminine. This may be understood, symbolically, as a corrective to the overly masculine virtues of the older warrior society which is dangerously close to atrophy, and in fact breaks down in his absence. Not only do these dual loci present opposing attributes, but also provide a spatial analogue for the dispersal of social organisation away from the firm central point of paternal control, the warrior elder's ilo and the village arena. In the words of the work's epigraph "the centre cannot hold": the society is forced to seek a new orientation.

The work is faithful to its historical perspective in that it presents not only the internal factors in the breakdown of the presented Igbo society but also the external factor of alien influence. Therefore another spatial locus and point of view is provided for the expression of the world-view of the European colonisers. This is also represented spatially - by the new orientation of village life towards the alien centres of church, school and law-court.

Things Fall Apart is successful in narrating the story of one individual in a quasi-historical situation and at the same time, through a multiple use of narrative situation and spatial arrangement, suggests a reading on a general level: the problem of the individual and society in a timeless context.

Two Thousand Seasons

The central narrating consciousness of Two Thousand Seasons takes up a timeless and paradoxically person-less figural point of view which is congruent with the overall philosophy of the work. Although the narrative moves in its forward reading dimension through a temporal span of some hundreds of years, the narrative situation remains always in the narrated present. Furthermore, cyclical figures of different kinds are employed which continuously maintain a sense of the here-and-now. The relevance of both of these features is that the work ideology is concerned with the continuity of past, present and future and with the omnipresence of certain values. The combination of narrative strategy and the type of consciousness possessed by the figures in the presented world produce a sense of the meaningfulness of an historical awareness in determining an attitude to the future and hence to their conduct in the present. The importance of shared experience is found in its determination of the collective ethic which is developed by the work as a whole.

Season of Anomy

Season of Anomy exhibits a high degree of integration of multifarious thematic material with a highly organised narrative strategy which works on several levels of meaning. The presented world has implications of a number of different kinds: political and economic, in its concern with the cocoa trade and the Cartel; social, in the Aiyero theme; and personal, in the relationship of Ofeyi and Iriyise; as well as an extension of its meaning into the realm of the archetypal. The presentational process succeeds in integrating a realistic and an archetypal or romantic mode, and further extends the semantics of the work by the use of a latent system of symbols which allows an allegorical dimension to be perceived.

Two kinds of symbolic function may be seen in the use of nomenclature. The first simply attributes the qualities implied by the name itself to the persona (the Dentist); the second kind (Ofeyi, Iriyise) echoes or puns on names from another mythical system (Orpheus, Eurydice), thus achieving another semantic level by intertextual allusion. Further symbolism can be found in the organization of spatial detail, especially in the arrangement of the prison, in which may be seen an evocation of the circles of Hell as conceived by the medieval mind.

The personal meaning of the text is worked out through the persona of Ofeyi whose point of view is utilised for the greater part of the work. His attitude to other figures gives to the work a suggestion of a mythical dimension. Although he has an intimate relationship with Iriyise, he also has a definite tendency to idealise her. This aspect of the work is supported by the separation of the two figures for much of the action, and also by the mythopoeic aspects already mentioned. Other romantic qualities may be seen in the form of the action. The over-arching pattern of the work is that of the quest: the heroine is abducted by malign forces and must be rescued by the hero. In the present case, this part of the action comes to a (modified) successful resolution.

The achieved combination of all these aspects cause the reader to judge Season of Anomy as one of the most ambitious works with respect to the depth of its levels of meaning, and its overall unifying and integrating principles.


In making judgements about the nature of African literary works it has been necessary to discard superficial observations about the incidence of local colour, and African names and patterns of behaviour, to concentrate attention on a more subtle technical and thematic level. The apparatus used has therefore not been chosen because of its particular appropriateness to the field, but to provide a means for a neutral gauging of its typical features. The result of this process has been to reveal a characteristic use of some formal features as well as the emergence of ideologies peculiar to these works. Such formal features are: the use of the figural narrative situation to explore states of mind in conflict situations; the organization of spatial features analogous to patterns of social change; and temporal aspects which reflect an African attitude to the passage of time.

Analysis of these works has demonstrated that significant works of African literature have been shown to be capable of achieving a high degree of artistic integration and a successful polyphony of aesthetic value-qualities. Such works may be judged not merely as achieved works of African literature, but as being comparable on an international scale with those of other literature. A number of particular works have proved to be susceptible of exhaustive analysis without revealing major flaws, but on the other hand showing a capacity for the successful expression of the amalgam of ideology and experience characteristic of the literary work of art.


1. Ali A. Mazrui, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (London: Heinemann, 1971). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Heinemann, 1967). Gabriel Okara, The Voice (London: Deutsch, 1964; repr. Heinemann, 1970). Kofi Awoonor, This Earth, My Brother (London: Heinemann, 1971). Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958). Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: E.A.P.H., 1973). Wole Soyinka, Season of Anomy (London: Rex Collings, 1973).

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