Garry Gillard > writing > lectures > Honwana
The stories of Luis Bernardo Honwana are unlike anything else in African fiction. They are unlike the stories of Taban lo Liyong and the 'French' African writers Bernard Dadie and Birago Diop,1 whose material is drawn from the sources of traditional narrative, and the more conventional stories (in the European sense) of Achebe, Ngugi and Ama Ata Aidoo.2 What sets Honwana's stories apart from these others, as I see it, is a high degree of what has been called 'indeterminacy'.3 This term derives from the view of the literary work of art as an intentional schematic construct which is concretized by the reader. The work will have 'gaps of indeterminacy' which the reader fills or does not fill according to what Horst Ruthrof calls 'thematic relevance'. That is, in order to bring the text to life, the reader will have to use a greater or lesser degree of inference. In my view, the reader requires a high level of creative inference in order to complete an adequate reading of Honwana's text. I shall follow Horst Ruthrof in distinguishing two kinds of determinacy: textual and socio-aesthetic; meaning by the first the way in which features of the text's form determine its reading, and by the second, the relationship between the ideology of the work, its enveloping ideology and that of the reader.
In the case of the story called "Dina", indeterminacy is found in the fact that expectation is created by the text and then denied or frustrated.4 With regard to the action, firstly, a confrontation is developed between the Overseer and the men, the outcome of which is not fully shown. When the Overseer realises that he has committed a shameful act, his reaction, and the reaction of the men, lead the reader to believe that the situation of the Overseer may well be precarious. Then follows the unexpected acceptance of the wine, and the outspoken youth of the kraal gang is killed. Whether or not there are any consequences of this second violent act is again not given. What is the effect of these open-ended structures? As the reader's attention has been directed wholly at and through the figure of Madala, a lacuna, a gap, is created in the reading experience. The result of this is that a posteriori the reader looks elsewhere for meaningful connexions. As in many of Honwana's stories, spatial features such as (in this story) the cornfield, the wine and the weeds seem to be the keys to revealing the latent meanings.
Consider the juxtaposition of the forced labour of Madala with its pleasant physical setting, the 'sea' of the cornfield. The work is made to seem even more painful by being placed in this contrastive setting. The way Madala organises his work is also significant: out of the pain and difficulty of his labour he creates a little order, by lining up the weeds he pulls up. However, this order seems meaningless, because it is not related to anything - except perhaps to the obsessiveness that Madala has developed as a defence against the destructive nature of his life. The line of weeds is evidence of what he personally has done of his own volition, thus giving him back belief in his own freewill, which in fact has been taken away from him. on the other hand he has become so profoundly conditioned to the habit of hard work that he goes on working during the dinner break, but pulling up only imaginary weeds.
As for the wine, even if it were not a conventional symbol for the experience of communality, this meaning is established in any case by Madala's reflections. He is in the habit of sharing his wine with friends at the cantina; the Overseer on the other hand never shares, although he does not finish the bottle. It is only when he is driven by the shame which we must imagine he feels as a result of his degraded act that he gives the dregs of his wine to the offended father, an offering which is utterly inadequate to heal such a wound. Such is Madala's degradation, however, that he accepts the offer. Perhaps then it is the denatured state of Madala and his friends that we can see in them the "strange fish" of the ending of the story. The use of this natural image implies how very unnatural is the situation of the 'peonised' worker. The attempt to harmonise man with this landscape deliberately fails. The ending is a pseudo-attempt in the tone of the narrative to pacify the anger which is latent in the action - an anger, it is implied, which cannot and should not be allayed while the situation remains.
Whereas the anger is at least partially demonstrated in the case of "Dina", with the story which follows it in the collection, it is well concealed. The reader has to work hard to find the strangeness in the story, it is presented so familiarly. But again, if one looks closely at the juxtaposition of spatial features, one sees the incongruity of the richness of the intellectual life of the narrator's family as contrasted with the poverty of their material circumstances. The former is implied by the presence of the narrator's drawing materials and the magazines, which are not only very numerous but also placed in a hierarchy of value; the latter is obvious in most of the other details. An examination of this kind enables the reader to fill the undetermined gaps in the implied action, which are mostly related to Papa. No reason is given for his imprisonment, nor his hospitalisation with what we infer is a back injury. It is possible for the reader to close these gaps by inferring a connexion between the factors mentioned: poverty, intellectual activity, imprisonment and injury, but only by inferring an ideology in the work,
In "The Old Woman" also, an ideational structure is buried in the work, in the connexion between the mother figure and the "good years" as opposed to the present with its "nauseous, nauseating stares" and feelings of "a slow, soft erosion". This is carried through the narrator's ambivalent feelings towards his mother - the derogatory title for example - and also the ending which is another example of what I see as a pseudo-resolution, which actually reveals the impossibility of a resolution. The attempt to hold onto the past only reveals the fact that it is past.
The ending of "The hands of the Blacks" is also ambivalent, in a more superficial way, in that we do not know whether the mother is crying because of her excessive laughter or out of misery. What is clear, I think, is the ideology of the story. Different versions of myths explaining the origin of the pale hands of the black peoples reveal different degrees of intolerance or concern. The mother's story is the only one which is manifestly moral; it therefore causes all the others to be seen, retrospectively, in a moral light. Whether or not it is a fruitful lacuna that the reader remains unaware of the skin colour of the narrator and his mother might be worthy of consideration. Be that as it may, it is clear that the acceptance of the degradation of an inferior social position is a concern, though usually partially undetermined, in several of the stories; it is probably most eloquently stated by Papa in "Papa, snake and I" in his outcry about docile horses.
Turning to the title story, one is immediately struck by certain aspects of the print level, such as the subtitles. Titles and subtitles are usually seen as being in the authorial register, that is, under the direct control of the author, as opposed to being part of the mediation process. But in the present case, this is not necessarily so; and examination reveals that a particularly elusive kind of textual indeterminacy is operating, which recalls the Aeolus section of Ulysses. In that part of the novel which deals with the newspaper offices, Joyce makes use of a quasi-headline for each small section of the chapter. However, the contents of the section are not necessarily related to the preceding 'headline'. A dialectic is thus set up by the expectation created by the text which the reader has to try to resolve. In this way, the reader becomes more involved in the reading process, as he is forced to create his own meaning for the relationships between different aspects of the text. In "We killed Mangy-Dog" the first sub-title could well be authorial as it sums up both the subject of the first section and also directs attention to the ambivalence of the image of Mangy-Dog's pathetic blue eyes, simultaneously sick, yet appealing. However, the second sub-title (p. 82) is clearly mediated by the figure of the narrator, involving one more degree of complexity. The statement is not of the conventional form of a sub-heading, and does not seem adequate to head the whole section, as it is only relevant to the first two pages. It seems to be merely an anticipatory interruption.
One of its effects is to draw attention to the text as such, and in this respect tends to be like the writing of authors such as John Barth, whose work has been called 'metafiction'.5 Honwana's text draws attention to itself as such, although initially not by self-reflexive elements in the narration, but by devices in the authorial register, and at the print level. It remains unclear, however, why the sub-headings are indecisive and sometimes misleading. It seems to me that the indeterminacy and the ambivalence of the subtitles (in their partial misdirection of expectation) is congruent with the indeterminate nature of the presentation of the narrator's consciousness, which leaves a lot to be inferred.
It seems to me that the same thing applies to the variations in typeface which occur in the climactic passages. There is some uncertainty as to what the use of a particular type-face precisely denotes. Their main effect is to indicate a confusion in the narrator's mind about how strongly he should be feeling the force of what he is saying or thinking. There is a quality of hysterical overstatement and repetition which suggests that he is not sure that his feelings and thoughts are appropriate to the circumstances. This confusion may be seen in his actions also: why does Ginho run to fetch his gun if he is sympathetic to Mangy-Dog; why does he allow himself to be persuaded by the gang to fire a shot when later he holds onto a mere girl while she blocks his ears? All these confusions at different levels accord with confusions which are essential to the text's ideology, in which manliness is construed as a pose of cynical callousness and affection is perverted and shameful.
1. Bernard Dadié, Le Pagne Noir (1955)
Birago Diop, Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1947)
Birago Diop, Les Nouveaux Contes d'Amadou Koumba (1958)
Taban lo Liyong, Fixions (1969)
Taban lo Liyong, Eating Chiefs (1970)
2. Chinua Achebe, Girls at War (1972)
Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Secret Lives (1975)
Ama Ata Aidoo, No Sweetness Here (1970)
3. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 246-254, and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 50-55
Wolfgang Iser, "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction", in J. Hillis Miller, ed., Aspects of Narrative (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1971)
Horst Ruthrof, "Reading Works of Literary Art," The Journal of Aesthetic Education, VIII (1974), 75-90.
4. All references in the text are to Luis Bernardo Honwana, We Killed Mangy-Dog, and Other Stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).
5. Robert Scholes, "Metafiction", in The Iowa Review, vol. 1 (Fall, 1970), 110-115.
Chapter on spatial aspects in Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa
Garry Gillard | New: 21 March, 2011 | Now: 20 December, 2018