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Ayi Kwei Armah's viaticum for the journey into space

Garry Gillard, 1992

Paper written for the ACLALS conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Kingston 7, Jamaica, but neither presented nor published (previously)

When I thought of the title of this paper I had in mind a vade mecum, like a breviary—a book that you take on a journey because of its insights and its companionable nature; and I was thinking of the novels of Ayi Kwei Armah as being like that, not literally of course, but as an œuvre, a body of work that it's possible to 'take with you', as you might take a viaticum. And since reading the first of the novels I have been carrying Armah's 'body' around with me: of all the African novelists that I have read it has been his vision that has stuck in my mind more than any other. 1

I am glad that the theme of this conference draws attention to journey structures in the Armah novels, as it has proved—it seems to me—to be a most fruitful approach. I shall begin by dealing, in a structuralist way, with the evocation of modes of transport, and a progression through the novels in relation to these and to key characters, and to types of journey. I shall suggest that Armah moves, through these five novels in order of publication, from a modernist to a postmodernist attitude, and back again. My thesis is that, in relation to the time-space continuum of the worlds represented, the tendency at first is away from an emphasis on time towards one on space, to a midpoint, and then back again. The double dialectic of this paper is, in one plane, between becoming and being, and in another between space and time. The modernist is seen here in terms of a journey primarily through time, becoming, evolving; the postmodernist as a journey primarily in space, and in being.


In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born 2, the primary journeys are intentional, in the sense that they concern the movement of people from one point to another, and are unidirectional. In this first novel Armah emphasises journeys in such a way that, of the space-time continuum, it is time which he emphasises. Edgar Wright makes this clear at length in his incisive analysis of temporal structures in the novel. 3 This is a modernist concern, in the sense that, 'Since modernity is about the experience of progress through modernization, writings on that theme have tended to emphasize temporality, the process of becoming, rather than being in space and place.' 4 What Armah is dealing with in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a cluster of ideas around the processes associated with post-colonialism, which contrast a positive view of evolution on the one hand with a cynical view of the impossibility of real change.

The narrative is set in a time when it seemed that there could be a new beginning in Ghana (Maanan is the character who represents this hope more than any other, with her adoration of Nkrumah) but other characters are also aware of a Ghana which is not capable of changing fundamentally enough to escape the unfortunate consequences of the clash between traditional and Western social organisations ('our Ghana' is frequently reiterated, with a cynical intonation). While modernisation seems to be a possibility in both industrial and political senses, the new political leaders are to be no better than the old, and industry remains essentially primary, in the sense that the value will be added to the primary product by the industrial powers—if not also in the sense that its conduct will continue to depend on an exchange of gifts which under capitalism becomes bribery.

Vehicles are so prominent in the first novel that their presence immediately suggests a reading via a structure of travel metaphors. 'The man', the anti-hero, is first discovered on a bus, and the theme of corruption is immediately introduced, in this context, with the bus driver's fascination with the rotting smell of the one cedi note, which he has got illegitimately. Then we find that the man works for the railways, as one small cog in the machine that keeps Ghana's raw materials coming out of the interior to be sent to one of the industrial powers ('to bring Tarkwa gold and Aboso manganese to the waiting Greek ships in the harbour' [p.24]), a machine which, like the bus, is oiled with the lubricant of kola—bribery. The small journey from home to work is linked with the journeys which are inherent in work, and both are linked with the corruption which is the novel's major theme. That is a basic level of journey imagery, which is both naturalistic and metaphoric.

Opposed to these cultural journeys, and metaphorically and structurally contrasted with them is the natural journey of the stream (p.27) from its rising to its discharge into the sea. Like the characters, however, it is being corrupted by travelling through processes of industrialisation and the unsound ecological practices which are associated with imperialism and colonialism.

The simple journey structure begins to be complicated when we consider the metaphor is that of the birth in reversal, through the back passage, and through space as symbol. This journey, at a more abstract level of journey image—which we might call symbolic—is the journey of the man with Koomson, whom he is helping to escape from the results of the army coup, as they travel through through the latrine hole, and along the nightman's circuit, to the cleansing sea. This can obviously be read in its detail as the reverse of a birth ritual, as the gross Koomson has to be squeezed through the hole and pulled out—and one can go on and add a political dimension in the light of which a new state has to be forcibly reborn out of the shit of the old, but not without inevitably bringing a good deal of the smell and detritus with it, and not without the continuing need for cleansing.

A bus like the one from the beginning of the novel appears again very near the end. '"Constable,"' the driver tells the policemen, '"my passengers. They're in a hurry."' Ghanaians in a hurry to become part of a modern state. '"The people inside. They want to go," he said.' (pp.213-4) And they do go, after the driver hands over a one cedi bribe to get the wheels turning again, recalling a similar note from the opening pages.

The second-last paragraph has the image of a bird singing happily over the a latrine, and although the man cannot recall its name, we can. We remember the chichidodo bird: 'The chichidodo bird hates excrement with all its soul. But the chichidodo only feeds on maggots, and you know the maggots grow best inside the lavatory. This is the chichidodo.' (p.52) The circular movement of the chichidodo bird away from the lavatory and back again functions symbolically in the novel's spatial economy, and its meaning resonates in the last words of the novel, as the man 'with thoughts of everything he was going back to' ... 'walked very slowly, going home.'

In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born: journeys are prominent, and seem to imply the possibility of getting somewhere: trains appear to carry produce for a purpose; buses carry people to work; Koomson makes progress, getting rich; the man's wife hopes to achieve financial gain from the dishonest business deal with the boat. All these trajectories are linear, unidirectional, all the movement is at least intended to be in the direction of change and progress. On the other side of a binary opposition are the metaphors of circularity: the nightman's circuit, the return of the chichidodo bird, the recurrence of political corruption; and the closed structure of the novel itself, beginning and ending with the same status quo, the same bus, the same dependence on bribery. By the end of the novel recursion has overwhelmed linearity, and those cyclical movements which will dominate the next four novels have become inevitable. The central character, the man, is a mediating term, caught between progress and regress, and between hope and despair.

This first novel itself is caught between the possibility of the grand narrative of progress and change for the better, and the meaninglessness of the 'senseless cycles' that bring one back to where one was. In the second there is a concerted attempt to make sense of the cyclical nature of some aspects of social existence. The third novel is Armah's postmodern novel, and might have had the title of the second, as it is here that the narrative really does break down into fragments, in various ways. But the fourth re-establishes the possibility of a meaningful story which would make sense of where its intended readers have been, and where they are going. The fifth continues this tendency even further in the direction of tradition, both in content and in form.


In Fragments, the primary journey involves the movement of cargo, and through naturalistic space. 5 The journey here is bidirectional: out and back, from the colony to the metropolis and back; then into the mind, then out of it, into insanity. Becoming—as a possibility—falters and fails. The informing fiction of Baako's society, its 'grand narrative', in Lyotard's terms, is that of the hero's going out into the world and his return with the spoils of discovery. 'Armah has written in one of his essays of the been-to's pseudo-rite of passage which "includes the heroic initiation drama of the crossing of that geographical gulf separating metropolitan centres from the provincial outlands."' 6 The been-to is caught up in a narrative of the getting of wealth, one of the grand narratives that Lyotard designates as 'modern'. 7

The particular circular movement that is most evident in this second novel is that of the return home. The metaphor of the circle occurs repeatedly, particularly in the words of Naana, the representative of 'a lost and failed order that cannot be restored' 8: '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, Naana pours out the full glass of schnapps as libation, 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) The work ends with 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 makes explicit a parallel between the ideology of ancestor cults and his individual experience as a 'been-to'. The cyclic pattern created in the outward journey and return of the been-to 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, proportionately to the importance of figures of direction and linear achievement. The corruption of wealth and power is fully dealt with in the first novel through both the action and imagery. In the second, although the getting of the wealth in the form of cargo brought back from overseas is an important theme, these concerns tend to be subsidiary to those centring on the psyche of the protagonist, Baako, and on the clash of ideologies. In the third novel, Why Are We So Blest? materialism has almost completely given way to central interests in sexuality and the nature of revolution. 9 In the fourth and fifth novels, materialism has disappeared completely except in its relationship with colonial exploitation: as the ideology of the Other.


In Why are we so blest? the journey is into the interior: away from the metropolis into the wilderness, through geography as politics: into inner space, into the nerve centre, the affect. Becoming turns negative, into death. This postmodern journey is essentially timeless, in space, in being.

The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements ... 10

In Fragments, Ayi Kwei Armah had his African protagonist Baako go to a land of whiteness, the USA, and return to go mad. In Why Are We So Blest? an American antagonist comes to Africa, with the result that an African protagonist dies. Modin, the African, goes into the heart of whiteness, the Sahara, with the woman who represents white ideology in this novel, the American/Puerto Rican psychiatrist, Juana. And there he is killed by white soldiers. In the matrix of journey structures, the contrast between this third novel and the first is the intentionality missing from the primary journey. No-one—except them—expects the two would-be revolutionaries to join the revolution, and especially the third key character, Solo. His is perhaps the dominant voice in the novel, in that he is an observer who comments continually on the other two characters, without acting significantly himself—except perhaps as the editor of the journals of the other two, which make up the majority of the novel.

Having said that, however, it must be stressed that Solo's is only one of three voices. The three characters rarely speak to each other. Due to the 'epistolary' nature of the narrative strategy—the novel consisting entirely of journal entries—the experience of the novel has no unity, in the sense that each of the characters is alienated from the others by the very structure of the narrative: they are not brought together in the communal space of an authorial type of narrative. There is a matrix of three texts, which happen to inhabit the same space and time of the novel's reception, but which are not integrated, despite the contrivance that one of the writers is the editor of the other two. There has been a shift from an epistemological to an ontological dominant. By this is meant

a shift from the kind of perspectivism that allowed the modernist to get a better bearing on the meaning of a complex but nevertheless singular reality, to the foregrounding of questions as to how radically different realities may coexist, collide, and interpenetrate. 11 (Harvey 1989: 41)

Modin has left Africa, like Baako in the earlier novel, expecting to come back having been-to the metropolis. But unlike Baako, Modin looks backward rather than forward.

'I imagined going away would make me think of things to come in my future, but it is the past that fills my mind. This is not the first time, though. It always happens when I travel, if I can see the earth pass by, going behind me. ... As my body is taken forward, my mind becomes hungry for the places and the things behind me.' (p.75)

As a result he seems to be able to resist the experience of time-space compression that Harvey sees as typical of modernism, although he is aware of it.

Everything comes together rapidly, and the unusual speed changes my way of seeing and hearing what I had already seen, heard, thought I understood, and forgotten. (p.75)

And the result seems to be that Modin moves into a different time-space continuum—which in other contexts might have been called atavistic, or 'African'—but which I want to call postmodern.

Each journey in this way becomes a return, another visit into myself. It seems I think most deeply about myself when I am in rapid motion. I thought stillness was the proper state for real thought, but it is not. ... (p.75)

It is space that dominates this narrative, rather than time in the form of speed. Having gone beyond time, in the sense of having transcended any hope of change or progress, each of the characters finds him or herself lost in space. So this is Solo's status:

In my mind there is no space left for flight. This filth is no mere station. It is my terminus. The journeys that should have had meaning are behind me. Here is physical space to wander in, space not for life's movement, space in which to turn in circles, again, again, again.
Where in confident youth we said we would go after the long preparation in this slavers' world, I have been. I had not the courage to stay. I came back denuded of my lies, my head stored with nightmares, my remnant energy drained into endless, useless contemplation of my single, personal self. (pp.84-5)

And this is Aimée's, at the end of the book:

The desert was open. A lot of space. I forgot the situation I was in. There was freedom out there. It made me happy to be here. ... The dunes were identical in some places. (p.284)

When no relative space has proved to be meaningful as Place, when there is nowhere you can call home, when "White folks got you surrounded", as the black American Naita says to Modin (p.123), then absolute space is the only place to be. 12 And the blankest, most meaningless space is the desert, which is like the white space of the blank page.

It is at the end of Why are we so blest? that Armah reaches his postmodernist nadir. The end of all the striving is a meaningless death. Modin's desire for a meaningful act of good faith, Aimée's exhaustion of sado-masochism in the search for sensation, Solo's helpless observation—have all terminated in the same metaphor: a life-destroying ejaculation of blood into the heart of whiteness, in a place that is no place.


In Two Thousand Seasons there is completely different treatment of time-space, consonant with a return to a modernist ideology. 13 The journey is in space, through a spatialized time, deliberately—rather than involuntarily—around the circle. Rebirth, return, and reiteration are dominant tropes. Whiteness, instead of being the end, is now the Other.

Place-identity, in this collage of superimposed spatial images that implode in upon us, becomes an important issue, because everyone occupies a space of individuation (a body, a room, a home, a shaping community, a nation), and how we individuate ourselves shapes identity. 14

The narrative not only returns to an authorial narrative situation, but, in representing a version of the traditional African griot story-teller(s), it is pluralised, communalised, and transcends time and place. It would be difficult to think of a more specific way of exemplifying Lyotard's 'grand narrative' than this gloriously confident narrator which can take the time to interrupt and interrogate itself while ranging across a thousand years of African space and time.

It is also in this novel that the figure of the circle takes on a positive function, in being quite essential to the novel's ideology as an expression of an ethic of unity. 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. (pp.144-6)

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. (p.148) 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 linear mode of thought upon a culture in which the circle represents a collective unity.

Through the use of such spatial patterning, of a unified and panoramic representation of time and space, and a collective attitude to questions of lifestyle and ethics, the work creates a worldview which may be seen in this way as intentionally ideological, modernist.


In The Healers, the journey is into the past, once again through time, back to the modern. There is a return to History and to Modernism and its grand narrative of the progress of the spirit. The subtitle, 'an historical novel', signals this both in its denotation and its old-fashioned use of the 'an' liaison—maintaining standards. In the context of this paper there is little need to say much about this book, which is as conventional as the first four novels are not. One might be justified in suggesting that Armah has done all that he needs to do for the time being within the genre of the novel, whence his thirteen-year break after such a prolific beginning.

1. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Heinemann, 1969a [1968]).
Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (London: Heinemann, 1974 [1970]).
Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (London: Heinemann, 1974 [1972]).
Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973).
Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers (London: Heinemann 1979 [1978]

2. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Heinemann, 1969a). Page references in parentheses in the text are to this edition.

3. Derek Wright, Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of his Fiction, (Oxford: Hans Zell, 1989). See especially Chapter V: 'Senseless cycles: time and ritual in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born', pp. 81-137.

4. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Conditions of Cultural Change, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), p. 205. 'The most serious dilemma of all: the fact that space can be conquered only through the production of space. The specific spaces of transport and communications, of human settlement and occupancy, all legitimized under some legal system of rights to spaces (of the body, of land, of home, etc.) which guarantees security of place and access to the members of society, form a fixed frame within which the dynamics of a social process must unfold. When placed in the context of capital accumulation this fixity of spatial organization becomes heightened into an absolute contradiction. The effect is to unleash capitalism's powers of 'creative destruction' upon the geographical landscape, sparking violent movements of opposition from all kinds of quarters.' In the case of 'the man', however, the reaction is quietism rather than opposition.

5. Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (London: Heinemann, 1974). Page references in parentheses in the text are to this edition.

6. Wright, p. 71, quoting Ayi Kwei Armah, 1969b, A mystification: African independence revalued, Pan-African Journal, 2, 2, Spring, p. 146.

7. 'I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.' Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trs. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.xxiii.

8. Wright, p. 185.

9. Ayi Kwei Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (London: Heinemann, 1974). Page references in parentheses in the text are to this edition.

10. Lyotard, xxiv.

11. Harvey, p.41, citing Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York &London: Methuen, 1987).

12. Reversing the polarities of Harvey's argument, as the temporal tendency is reversed: 'The homogenization of space poses serious difficulties for the conception of place. If the latter is the site of Being (as many theorists were later to suppose), then Becoming entails a spatial politics that renders place subservient to transformations of space. Absolute space yields, as it were, to relative space. It is precisely at this point that the incipient tension between place and space can get transformed into an absolute antagonism.' (Harvey, p. 257).

13. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973). Page references in parentheses in the text are to this edition.

14. Harvey, p.302.

Garry Gillard, Murdoch University, 1992