Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 33 (1992)


Edited by Kathryn Trees

Narrative situation and ideology in five novels of Ayi Kwei Armah

Garry Gillard

The novels of Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah provide an opportunity to study a confrontation between European and African patterns of thought. [1] This confrontation (and its effects: the original confusion and disillusionment, followed by fragmentation and disintegration and then by compromise and consolidation) is a principal thematic concern running through the novels. This will be exposed here by a consideration of their formal features, especially narrative situation and characterisation; and in the former analysis depending on the method introduced by Stanzel, [2] although there is also a debt to Genette. [3] 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, where, although individual personae are submerged in the collective, the point of view is remarkably unified and maintained, and then finally to a narrative situation that is self-reflexive. [4]

Franz Stanzel uses a simple analysis based in three main terms, only two of which will be required in this paper: 'authorial' and 'figural'. They refer to these fundamental situations: one in which the experience of the narrative proceeds from a point of view external to the action, and the other where the point of view is that of one of the actors, although narrated in the third person. (The third of Stanzel's categories is the first-person narrative situation.) While such a simple schema is capable of a high degree of elaboration, as in Genette, it continues to be adequate for analyses such as the one carried out here.

'Ideology' in this paper refers to the relationship between the presented world of narratives and their process of presentation. The material base of the ideology of a novel is its rhetoric and stylistics: its unique poetics; its superstructure is the architecture of belief systems represented in the work. 'The imaginary is not just in ideology (it is in relations) and ideology is not just reducible to the imaginary (it is that real instance in which the imaginary is realized). What is held in ideology, what it forms, is the unity of the real relations and the imaginary relations between men and women and the real conditions of their existence.' [5] And: 'ideology is a production of representations.' [6]

In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a worldview that has features of breakdown and confusion pervades the amorphous characterisation and ambivalent narrative situation, particularly with regard to the main character and to the lack of distinction between him and the external narrative voice. One of the aspects of the characterisation of 'the man', who never achieves the distinctiveness of an individual name, is the character of his thought. The contrast between 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 that have no specific referents. The most outstanding of such symbols is 'the gleam', which proceeds initially from the mans perception of the Atlantic Caprice, which is an 'insulting' gleaming white. (p.12) Immediately it is established as an image, however, the gleam frees itself to become a symbol associated with a number of manifestations of such ideas as success, speed, wealth, and power. These ideas are rarely formulated explicitly 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 being a verbal idea which is presented to the mans 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, the most significant being ones that he does not in fact perform. He moves 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 this existence, such as that provided by 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, like the one offered by the timber contractor, or become successful, like Koomson. So although he may be seen as a hero as regards moral integrity, this is achieved only by the use of negative criteria, of the kind created by Camus with his anti-hero Meursault in L'Étranger. When the man helps Koomson to escape, for example, it seems to be merely because he does not see why he should not.

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 the novel's 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 that provide a much broader context for the action of the novel than any 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 organising the narrative, giving it form and expression, he or she 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 mans naivety and helplessness in the face of his problems. A fuller consciousness is only possible in the province of the narrator, and is 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 essential to the work, although the main character is incapable of comprehending them completely. This may be seen as another division and intentional complexity in the work's ideology.

However, the most convincing example of the basic diffuseness at the ideological level is the confusion between the 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 viewpoint 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.

This metonymic mode of representation ('the listener', 'the listening mind'), referring to characters by activity, anticipates and perhaps is Armah's way of referring to the community that is referred to passim in Two Thousand Seasons. Compare this passage, for example:

You hearers, seers, imaginers, thinkers, rememberers, you prophets called to communicate truths of the living way to a people fascinated unto death ... (p.xi)[7]

The passage quoted from the earlier novel is a small example of the kind of ambivalence discussed above. It indicates that the man has heard, but then moves on to characterise his way of hearing in terms which may or may not be available to him, that is, the cave metaphor taken from Plato's Symposium. The passage continues: 'But what can a person do with things that continue unsatisfied inside? Is their stifled cry not also life?' Although in terms of the narrative situation this is presented in free indirect style, that is, indirect presentation of the character's consciousness, the expression of it is stylistically authorial, placing it, through the use of rhetoric and 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, Fragments, 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 being 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—in the sense that her voice is heard at the beginning and end of the novel. 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.

Those aspects of Fragments which are concerned with the American psychiatrist Juana are almost completely to do with the cultural clash and with its interpenetration with her relationship with the African Baako 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 in the second by Baako, the confused and divided but more identifiable character, with clearly defined socioeconomic characteristics. He is then succeeded by three figures of roughly equal importance, two of whom—Modin and Aimee—have characteristics that remain fairly constant throughout the work, while only the third—Solo—carries the burden of the ideological schism running 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 Aimee'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) Aimee's following segment comments on this development and thus completes the exposition of this motif. The comments from Solo that follow, although cast in an abstract mode removed from any particular event, deal with the same material. He has read the journals to the point at which the reader has himself arrived, and is therefore meditating on the events just 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 Aimee'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 refer to Aimee as one of the white 'destroyers' who 'use the accumulated energy within our black selves to do work of importance to their white selves'. (p.208) However, Modin's and Aimee's following segments undercut this conclusion by presenting a new orientation in their interpersonal relationship, permitting 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.

The other main feature of the work's ideology is an investigation into the nature of revolution, and 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. Aimee represents the point furthest removed from a committed involvement. It is clear from the nature of her characterisation that she is 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, Aimee's sexual experience, and her reaction to the torturing of Modin. He is more sincerely committed to the revolution, 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 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, textualised in a specific way. Aimee's is manifested primarily in her frigidity, which is complementary to her sensation-seeking. The key text for her is the fantasy she uses for masturbation. Modin's problem is verbalised as a sort of death wish, expressed in confessional form—giving the ending the force of apparent inevitability: 'Nothing surprising in all of this. My life here has had a self-destructive swing all the time...' (p.156) Solo's relationship to texts is that of the professional translator, and he functions as an interpreter in relation to people. Thus he writes of Modin's morbidity: '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. Thus his writing is the most verbose, because it is the most periphrastic, the least decisive. The essence of this work may be seen as produced by the characterisation emerging from the texts produced by the three characters; from the polyphony of typifications, and their interpenetration with the thematic concerns of the work.

In Two Thousand Seasons, 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. Considering the figure of Anoa reveals the nature of this work's narrative strategy particularly with regard to 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 that 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 one thousand years (the two thousand seasons, dry and wet alternating). 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 delineated. The nature of the narrative strategy supports this view. 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 endorsed by the narrative voice. Another group constitutes the negative aspect of the work's dialectic. Its members 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 a constant struggle against these forces of oppression, a struggle in which, it is prophesied, the former will prevail and re-establish the 'way', which may be seen as the institutions of traditional values and ethics. A figural narrative viewpoint is never permitted to the whites: they are always narrated about, in the third person.

Finally, in The Healers, the splitting process is extended from the plane of the diegesis to the plane of narration, from the enonce to the enonciation. Armah's narrator here is at times literally self-conscious and discusses with itself some of the aspects of the narrative process. For most of the novel the modes of narration are conventionally novelistic: mostly authorial, with the usual varying degrees of figurality. At other times, however, the narrative voice refers to African conventions of story-telling in creating a dialogue with itself to discuss proper ways of conducting the narrative, a dialogue in which the story-teller speaks to its tongue, as in this passage:

The speeding tongue forgets connections. Let the deliberate mind restore them. Proud tongue, child of the Anona masters of eloquence, before you leap so fast to speak, listen first to the mind's remembrance.

Did you remember to tell your listeners of what time, what age you rushed so fast to speak? (p.2)

This is typical of a certain tendency towards generalisation in Armah's writing, and in fact recalls a passage in the first novel, in which, as I have suggested above, there is a schematisation and consequent typification of what would otherwise be a naturalistic rendering of dialogue. Here the effect is rather the reverse, in that the 'mind' perhaps of the story-teller engages in a conversation with its tongue, in a sort of domestication of the epic impulse—an equivalent, perhaps, of the Classical epic poet's invocation of the Muse, as in the opening of the Iliad, for example. There is, in fact, at times just such an invocation:

Ah Fasseke, words fail the story-teller. Fasseke Belen Tigui, master of masters in the arts of eloquence, lend me strength. Send me eloquence to finish what I have begun. (p.51)

Send me words, Mokopu Mofolo. Send me words of eloquence. Words are mere wind, but wind too has always been part of our work, this work of sowers for the future, the work of story-tellers, the work of masters in the arts of eloquence. (p.52)

In both novels and in both cases, the self-consciousness and the division of the narrator are characteristic of a writer in whom the experimental, in terms of composition, moves with the revolutionary, in terms of political vision. There is a marked disparity between one item and the next in Armah's varied oeuvre, and a failure to come to terms with this as a critic can result in the 'forging of spurious continuities between individual novels' which Edgar Wright disparages. [8] Ayi Kwei Armah has an ability for generic change which is unusual, and remarkable when considered in isolation.


1. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (London: Heinemann, 1969 [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. Stanzel, Franz, Narrative Situations in the Novel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971) trs. from Typische Erzählsituationen im Roman, 1955.

3. Genette, Gerard 1982, Figures of Literary Discourse, trs. Alan Sheridan from Figures, 1966-1972, Columbia University Press, New York.

4. One of the two major works on Armah, Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction (Heinemann, London, 1980), is thematic in its approach, and makes no use of any such a formalist approach. The other, Derek Wright's invaluable Ayi Kwei Armah's Africa: The Sources of his Fiction, (Oxford: Hans Zell, 1989), subsumes discussion of narrative situation to concerns with 'vision' and 'image-patterns': see for example p. 85.

5. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 5.

6. Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1989) p. 33. "Ideology is indeed a system of 'representations', but in the majority of cases these representations have nothing to do with 'consciousness': ... it is above all as structures that they impose on the vast majority of men [sic], not via their 'consciousness' ... it is within this ideological unconsciousness that men [sic] succeed in altering the 'lived' relation between them and the world and acquiring that new form of specific unconsciousness called 'consciousness'". (Louis Althusser, For Marx, New York : Pantheon 1969, trs. Ben Brewster from Pour Marx, (Paris: Maspero, 1965), p. 233, quoted by Stuart Hall, 'Cultural studies: two paradigms', in Richard Collins et al., Media, Culture and Society: A Critical Reader, (London: Sage, 1986), p. 42.)

7. Wright, p. 240.

8. Wright, p. 12.

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