Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 11

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 11
The historical novel
Hear this for the sound of it

Few would doubt that the relationship between literature and society is a close and meaningful one. Equally it is apparent that literary forms are never solely literary forms. As Georg Lukacs has pointed out:

The genuine categories of literary forms are not simply literary in essence. They are forms of life especially adapted to the articulation of great alternatives in a practical and effective manner and to the exposition of the maximal inner potentialities of forces and counter-forces.1

Each work of art arises out of the particular alternatives of its time. In the modern African historical novel the attempted dynamic rendering of these alternatives (by giving a total picture of a society in motion) is an important motivating formal principle. It is clear that African novelists proceed from this principle to create literary works that, in their shaping and ordering, give significant insights into the potentialities of a fictional treatment of historical material. In the African historical novel, the articulation of socio-political alternatives is well under way.

S.O. Mezu's work Behind the Rising Sun,2 first published in 1971 (the year following the end of the Nigerian Civil War), is clearly a historical novel in the sense that it deals with a particular period that can be identified as closed. The war has ended; the novelist looks back. Mezu projects certain fictional figures through a carefully patterned historical framework. He shows the personal destinies of these characters and, by so doing, attempts to portray the kind of individual paths that can directly express (through their typicality) the problems and contradictions of this particular period of modern African history. By contrasting the nature of these various individual paths, Mezu posits (within the work) a search for authentic values as part of a consideration of the way forward out of the nightmare of fratricidal conflict.3

Mezu emphasizes the essential relationship between the personal and the national, the particular and the typical, the time-conditioned and the timeless, in the title of his novel. For the rising-sun motif possesses plurisignificance of the sort that can unify and hold together such potentially disparate elements of historical experience. A symbolic representation of the rising sun made up the official shoulder-patch on the uniform of the Biafran armed forces. It was the emblem of secessionist Biafra. Carried by the individual protagonists, it also represented the larger national ideal. The rising sun is, of course, also a natural and timeless phenomenon. By the use of this artistic device, Mezu pulls his strands of moral alternatives together. The multiple implications carried by this combination of references can be shown working effectively in lines such as these (p. 228):

For the people, the war was no more. The past was a receding nightmare. The rising sun was a dream; its zenith, a dark noon. Behind, lay the ruins of youth and the remains of age.

Mezu's novel is totally concerned with an investigation of what happened behind that rising sun. In the final section of the work one finds explicit statements by two of Mezu's 'truth-tellers', Tudor and Yvette. Tudor is shown to be thinking of an historical novel that would be, as he puts it, "faithful to fact and figures and the real characters of the various participants in the struggle, the struggle they had been through" (p. 240). Yvette, projected as being one of the new breed of African women, speaks of "a mixture of joy and sorrow, of goodness and evil, of moments of heroic sacrifice and mean cowardice" that went into the making, and destruction, of the Biafran state. A strong moral purpose is evident in the remark by Yvette that stands as the concluding line of the novel: "We owe it as a duty to tell our children nothing but the truth, the entire truth" (p. 241). To the extent that Behind the Rising Sun is clearly a response to these demands, while encompassing them within the text itself, one can ask: how does Mezu intend to tell the 'truth' in his historical novel in terms of Yvette's grand alternatives? An indication of his approach is provided by his choice of a passage from Rene Maran's preface to Batouala4 that becomes a frontispiece quotation for Behind the Rising Sun. It reads, in part:

Ce roman est donc tout objectif. Il ne tache meme pas a expliquer: il constate. Il ne s'indigne pas: il enregistre. Il ne pouvait en etre autrement.5

The pursuit of objectivity is a hazardous task in literature. The really interesting question, in relation to Mezu's novel, is not whether he succeeds but the influence that such an approach has on his planned presentational 'witness' of historical events.

The historical events that provide the framework for this novel are, as one would expect, all closely connected with the Civil War and with the Biafran war effort in Europe. References to the contemporaneous student riots in Paris and disturbances in Senegal, combined with the presentation of complete telex messages marked TOP PRIORITY (p. 24) and reportage of actual dates and events of the war period, help to create the necessary aura of verisimilitude and fix the historical locale. The reader is told of black-market deals for arms and planes, of financial dealings of all sorts (legitimate and otherwise), and of the activities of the Biafra Historical Research Centre. One reads of emergency night-airlifts, of the BEL (Behind Enemy Lines) squad, and of the inexorable movement towards disaster - the end of Biafra. Yet all this material is no mere background padding. For Mezu, through an authorial ordering of details, gives to his work the necessary spatial and temporal features that make possible a fully rounded 'witness' to the actions of certain figures who move through his novel. In his handling of these figures - the central group is divided roughly into those who are seen to be corrupt and ultimately destructive (such as Professor Chancellor Obelenwata and Chief Tobias Iweka) and those who are honest and creative (Freddy Onuoha, the girl Titi, and Tudor Opara, the soldier) - he is attempting an examination of the moral values that informed the Biafran conflict. Onuoha, the pivotal figure of the work, moves between both groups as he is seen to be gaining a total grasp of the situation. A real commitment to humanistic ideals, as opposed to corrupt self-seeking, is the positive around which Mezu organizes the world-view of such figures as Onuoha. This young man moves, gradually, into a position of hardened maturity. At the end of the conflict, for example, Onuoha has no strong opinion about Tudor's projected historical work. He is shown as being "only interested in a fair account that would expose the strength as well as the weaknesses of the noble revolution" (p. 241). This is a view that the whole thrust of the narrative reinforces and sustains.

S.O. Mezu appears to be working from the thesis that, within the determining context of a historical crisis, there exist certain personal crises that coincide with the more general events.6 From a portrayal of the various crises of conscience in the individual figures, he proceeds logically to an examination of larger, national issues that arise from the historical conflict as a whole. In this regard, the created characters' ability to generalize about their predicament is of great importance as a unifying formal feature of the work. Chief Iweka, for instance, holds the opinion that people "at home" do not understand the amount of exertion of those working for the cause abroad. He promises that, after the war, "he would get everything straight". Those who worked abroad, he says, "deserved real credit for winning the war" (p. 25). The war, however, is never won. In terms of the moral, perceptual guidelines that Mezu sets up, these are seen as hollow words from a hollow man. Facing such hypocrisy, the younger Biafrans begin to realize their unique position in the middle of contemporary events. As one of them remarks: "These old cronies ... now realize in the moment of great catastrophe that they need the intelligence of the young generation to survive, that they need you and me" (p. 41). Mezu allows the realization that the Biafran leaders (at home or abroad) are no heroic knights in shining armour to slowly dawn on his youthful protagonists. It is a movement from innocence to understanding that is presented here. Carried along with this movement is the whole dialectic that resides in the moral and political dilemma raised by civil warfare. Is it enough to fight, regardless of motives and values? That question underlies Mezu's interpretative approach to the historical reality. Having observed the common paradox that there "was something admirable and brutish about man's behaviour", the narrator of the novel concludes that there are basically two types of people (p. 142): "Some build and others destroy in this world of individuals, with their cowardice and their bravery, their callousness and their generosity." Thoughts such as these appear to provide the basis for Mezu's artistic world-view. After an ironic treatment of the Nigerian national anthem, for example, Onuoha is shown thinking that the country appears to have lost its sovereignty to a new form of colonialism where the nation is separated into tribal cliques that divide and slaughter. "It was difficult to see in such a land a fatherland. It was more of a murderland" (p. 192). Because of the projected typicality of Onuoha's position, his thoughts take on a general significance within the historical sweep of the novel.

In an interesting extension of his interpretative approach, Mezu attempts to project a possible postwar direction, a socio-political alternative for the future. Throughout those sections of the novel that present scenes of actual warfare, one finds certain hints regarding the continuing imperturbability of the Nigerian landscape. Here is a strong link with a safer time in the past (p. 160):

The vegetation was dense, very dense and rich with lusty undergrowth. But it was not too difficult to follow the ancient paths once trodden by ancestral feet. They had survived the war better than the modern roads.

It is from a basis suggested by these "ancient paths once trodden by ancestral feet" that Mezu projects his socio-political alternative. Onuoha and his friends set up a communalist village centred on a life close to the soil and on the collective values that this life is seen to sustain. They call the new community Umuoha, meaning 'the communal children' (p. 229). Umuoha is to be a commune of rebirth directed towards the future (comparable, in some ways, to Wole Soyinka's Aiyero in Season of Anomy).7 Yet, in Mezu's work, such a utopian alternative to disorder appears as an appendix to the novel rather than a formally integrated element in the general narrative design. The creation of the Umuoha concept can be seen as part of Mezu's attempted handling of a paradox of art - that it can resolve imaginatively issues which cannot (for the present) be effectively resolved in action.8 It does not succeed. It is apparent that the rather simplistic views regarding moral standards (straight against crooked, creators or destroyers) that are projected by the authorial design leave the communalist-village idea insufficiently grounded within a comprehensive search for practical alternatives. Behind the Rising Sun, nevertheless, is totally engaged with a search for a way forward. It is aimed at the rebirth of a whole generation in the enduring light of the rising sun. Mezu's work is formed to serve that purpose.

Ali Mazrui's novel The Trial of Christopher Okigbo9 is a radical experiment in the historical novel form. At the time when the novel was written, the author was Professor of Political Science at Makerere University (Uganda). His professional concerns, as a political scientist, are reflected in this novel of ideas. The compositional principles that lie behind a work such as this, determining the total shape of the novel, appear to coincide with an aesthetic and political investigation of events in the near past. Consequently, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo can be seen as an attempt to represent (by artistic projection) the meaning of the Nigerian Civil War period in particular, and of contemporary African events in general. In other words, it is a fictional attempt to represent the specific qualities of the period, historically. Large socio-political trends and historical forces are symbolically localized by means of an imagined trial. People are on trial and values are on trial, in the service of a clarification of the problems of modern African societies. While Mazrui writes in his preface of fictionalizing his anguish at the death of a friend (Giraffe) and of Christopher Okigbo,10 the central formal thrust of this work is away from personal anguish and towards a general investigation of wider moral and political values.

Christopher Okigbo, the Nigerian poet and Biafran officer killed in the Civil War, is the focal point of Mazrui's novelistic investigation. Mazrui makes use of factual details from Okigbo's life and work - his university studies, his poetry, his views on the function of art, his gathering involvement with the Biafran cause, and his death on the war-front - as the basis for this trial of African values. By means of a highly innovative arrangement of parallel presented worlds, the Herebefore and the Hereafter (existing in the temporal sense, both separately and simultaneously), Mazrui opens up vast potential areas of action and comment. The Herebefore is presented on the same plot-level as the traditional historical novel milieu. The African Hereafter, on the other hand, is an imaginative creation of a state where those countless millions of the after-life (normally treated as merely deceased) congregate in a vast panoply of interacting experience, beyond the usual confines of human activity. It is in this literary creation of parallel worlds that the radical nature of Mazrui's formal experiment lies.

The after-world is peopled by all those Africans who have approached the ultimate rites of passage. Yet, by the device of summoning the voices of those still living as 'evidence' for the trial, Mazrui achieves a novelistic overview of past events within a framework of judgement that can provide the verdict of past, present and (prophetically) future ages. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo is full of quotations from, and references to, a whole range of African leaders and writers. In the Hereafter one finds, for example, Nkrumah, Tom Mboya, Lumumba, Tafawa Balewa, Olympio, Okigbo (as a disembodied voice) and even Chaka the Zulu. As witnesses from the Herebefore come Julius Nyerere, Obote, Senghor, Gowon and Ojukwu, Chinua Achebe, Soyinka, Robert Serumaga, Mazrui himself (as political scientist)11 and many others. Even Lord Byron, as another poet who died for a cause, makes an appearance as a witness for the defence, on subpoena.12 Mazrui's central figure Hamisi Salim (himself on trial for the 'sin' of miscalculation) is selected, by the elders, to defend Christopher Okigbo. A Ghanaian, Apolo-Gyamfi, appears for the prosecution. The novelist, then, carefully sets out the limits of his Hereafter world and, having selected the narrative situation and its specific guise, he achieves a definite consistency of illusion. More important, he allows himself a wide freedom of reference. With a 'cast' of millions, he ranges across the whole field of contemporary African values.

Any trial must centre on the charges and Mazrui's trial of Christopher Okigbo, as an inquiry of ideas, works on a network of charges. They are all directed towards an examination of the role of the artist, the value of art and the function of art as a truth-telling exercise. A consideration of the nature of the charges serves to clarify the novel's concerns. The reader is informed that the prosecution is going to suggest that (p. 41):

Okigbo had no right to consider himself an Ibo patriot first, and an African artist only second. That was to subordinate the interests of generations of Africans to the needs of a collection of Ibos at an isolated moment in historical time.

It is made clear that this is a 'high' charge of more than individual significance. Apolo-Gyamfi, for the prosecution, states that Okigbo "was to dilute art with the blood of tribalism" (p. 70). This man, he says, "who had once recognised the grand panorama of human experience, dwindled into a petty negotiator for the merchandise of violence" (p. 71). Okigbo is thus presented, by the prosecution, as a man who has squandered a unique gift in a sacrificial act of escapism. As Apolo-Gyamfi puts it (p. 72):

If the great artist has to sacrifice himself for anything, he should only sacrifice himself for the universal. To die for the truth is martyrdom. To die for knowledge is martyrdom. To die for art is martyrdom. But when a great thinker or a great artist dies for his nation, that is an indulgence.

It is clear, from this line of attack, that Mazrui is concerned with investigating large questions, not only of the validity of Biafran secession (Okigbo, by extension, is held to represent the nation) but of the role of art in life and of the position of the artist as a unique human being. The novelist attempts to link the two elements - the creation of art and the creation of a nation - into an aesthetic unity and by so doing, to make the implications of his work reflect on both spheres of activity. Hamisi Salim defends Okigbo on both counts, as activist and as poet. Significantly, his defence rests on the contention (shared by Wole Soyinka, amongst others)13 that these two activities are, or should be, indivisible (p. 80):

Art is a heritage from the past, honoured and augmented by the present, and then transmitted to the future. But the transmission is not unilinear, and the continuity is a social continuity. In Africa it is society which gives meaning to art. How then could Christopher Okigbo be deemed guilty for giving his life in the cause of his immediate society?

By levelling and answering these charges, within a dialectic of prosecution and defence, Mazrui allows the treatment of his ideological concerns to proceed within a structured debate situation. The presentation of conflicting ideas (alternatives) is thus incorporated in a novel of historical concern.

There are certain formal features in Mazrui's work, particularly on the level of presented ideas, that lead to an artistic disharmony. Despite the author's attempts to establish, through the network of charges, a unified artistic-sociological-political treatment of ideas, the impression remains that there is a substantial difference between the creation of art and the creation of a nation. While he does attempt a description of such factors as the competition of rival elite groups in Nigeria (on the level of human tragedy), Mazrui does not succeed in establishing a connection that is central to the realization of his narrative strategy - that of Okigbo, poet and soldier, to the Ojukwus and Gowons of the socio-political struggle. The result is that these two strands tend to work as mutually competing areas of interest within the novel. The frequent quotations from Okigbo's poetry, such as (p. 7):

The stars have departed

the sky in monocle

surveys the worldunder.

The stars have departed,

and I - where am I?

do little to consolidate the necessary connection. Okigbo's poetry (personal and metaphysical in approach, imagistic in technique) tends to emphasize the universal, rather than the particular, and works as a disruptive element in the general treatment of political events. Similarly, by extending the charges to cover Biafra, attention is distracted from Mazrui's handling of questions concerning artistic creation. Even if one sees Okigbo as a committed writer, in the broader sense of an artist who attempts an internal orientation of awareness, Mazrui's presentation of the man as one of a poetic, truth-telling social vanguard is hardly enough to preserve the necessary formal unity upon which the work depends. Mazrui, with the evident concern of a political scientist (as novelist), presents various verdicts on the charges in an aesthetic attempt to close a discussion that is essentially open-ended. Consequently, the verdicts of NOT PROVEN on Okigbo and Biafra create a distinct sense of anticlimax rather than a unified concluding design. The author writes, in his preface, of his ambivalent feelings about the Civil War: "My moral support was for the Federal side; my sympathies were with the Ibo" (p. x). It can be seen that The Trial of Christopher Okigbo attempts an imaginative resolution of this conflict. It is, however, a striking example of a novel where internal discrepancies in artistic form result from what Lukacs has called "unresolved (and therefore especially compelling) social contradictions".14 Despite the fact that Mazrui does not succeed in "Making harmony among the branches" (p. 145), his historical novel clarifies, at least, the possibilities that are created by formal experimentation.

Ayi Kwei Armah's historical novel Two Thousand Seasons15 stands as the most achieved work (in the sense of total unified form) within the present corpus of modern African literature. It represents a significant instance of the harmony of literary form that can be created by an artistic design uniting structure and meaning, ideology and performance. Two Thousand Seasons is clearly a work that is adapted to the articulation of great alternatives. The novel appears, in its origins, to stem from the sort of comment made by Modin, in Armah's earlier work Why Are We So Blest? that "war against the invader" should be an educational process for creating "new anti-European, anti-elitist values".16 Two Thousand Seasons represents Armah's literary 'warfare', directed (as it is) to the articulation of values that will enable the African peoples to move forward, collectively and fruitfully. In the scope and scale and profound human importance of its subject, it is epic in sweep. In the explicit handling of great alternatives of conduct (constantly balanced one against the other), it is dialectical in nature. The total epic-dialectic form is aimed towards what Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus have called for, in their Declaration of African Writers (1975), "the full retrieval of the African past in the quest for a contemporary self-apprehension and design for the future".17 The work proceeds from a very clear awareness that culture is not neutral politically (to use Meredith Tax's phrase)18 and that it is impossible for it to be so. Such an awareness carries with it the realization that men and women can fully comprehend their own existence only when it is seen as something historically conditioned. Armah, by portraying changes of viewpoint and relationships, changes of possible and actual resolutions (as forms of literary organization),19 attempts a cultural synthesis of the highest order.

The novel's title is based on an imagined prophecy of the female visionary Anoa, who has spoken of a thousand seasons and another thousand seasons: "a thousand seasons wasted wandering amazed along alien roads, another thousand spent finding paths to the living way" (p. xv). A passage from Armah's prologue (a forceful, poetic and visionary description of the modern African moral inferno) makes it clear that the work is aimed at a reshaping of the meanings of historical experience, a reshaping that will help to rescue the integrity of Africans alienated from "the way" by centuries of Arab and European destruction. The seer-narrator of the prologue speaks of the "remade" who are "pointers to the way, the way of remembrance, the way of knowing purpose" (p. xv). That the way of purpose rests on a racial imperative is also clear. Those who have been destroyed are spoken of as having known "Whiteness" but "of our own blackness they have yet to learn" (p. xvii). It becomes apparent that the novel incorporates a specific, collective pan-African vision of the essential oneness of the black peoples, suffering from a common oppression and with a common need for future directions. One also notes the narrator's projected role not only as visionary truth-teller but as a racial healer. The larger aim is "to find ... our healing self, we the black people" (p. 13). The proud, positive statement that ends the prologue makes it very clear that Two Thousand Seasons is not to be seen as a manifesto of disillusionment (p. xviii):

Leave the killers' spokesmen, the predators' spokesmen, leave the destroyers' spokesmen to cast contemptuous despair abroad. That is not our vocation. That will not be our utterance.

The most significant formal aspect of Armah's work (in the sense that it defines and shapes the whole narrative) is the fact that this tale of two thousand seasons is told in the collective voice. This device allows Armah to shape his novel to suit the collective, racial response at which it is aimed. As the thrust of ideas within the work is directed towards a communal, rather than an individual, interpretation of historical events, the use of a narrator who can be seen to be 'speaking' in terms of the whole African experience is of obvious artistic advantage. Not only does the collective voice reflect the collective solution, but (by its nature) it enforces a view of the presented details of Armah's story that amounts to a striking reassessment of African history itself. It also, of course, moves the narrative viewpoint away from the individualistic focus of a figure such as Freddy Onuoha (in Behind the Rising Sun) and into the traditional realm of African oral narrative: the Speaker, the wise one, and his communal audience sharing the group experience. Here again one notices narrative technique that reflects, and reinforces, the ideological thrust of the novel. In Two Thousand Seasons there is a strong sense of a gathering, shared tale. It is indicated by the constant use of rhetorical questions: "What need then had any cripple for dreams of vengeance?" and "Why after that should the cripple acquiesce in silent suffering?" (p. 44). Such questions call for an imaginative response from the reader/listener and work to involve this response with intellectual awakening. "Hear this for the sound of it" (p. 54), says the collective voice, and the concept of 'sound' clearly includes that of meaning. With a faceless narrator such as this, Armah also achieves another important formal task: to divorce the temporal locus of the action from the western concept of time. It is vital to the success of his work that Africans should see that (p. 1):

We are not a people of yesterday. Do they ask how many single seasons we have flowed from our beginnings till now? We shall point them to the proper beginning of their counting.

The use of an all-seeing narrator allows Armah to range over centuries of experience and to locate the modern colonial period as a relatively temporary phenomenon, no matter how destructive it has been to 'the way'.

The comments and questions of Armah's narrator are embedded within an exciting, parabolic story that traces various representative African groups as they move from a period of natural egalitarianism (origins) into successive stages of oppression (by the Arab predators and European destroyers - both, significantly, seen as 'white') and then, out of slavery, into a condition of awakened revolt. The white threat that leads to alienation is defined in these terms (p. 3):

Killers who from the desert brought us in the aftermath of Anoa's prophecy a choice of deaths: death of our spirit, the clogging destruction of our mind with their senseless religion of slavery ... Killers who from the sea came holding death of the body in their right, the mind's annihilation in their left, shrieking fables of a white god and a son unconceived, exemplar of their proffered senseless suffering.

The Africans are shown, by the use of particularly located episodes, in the process of resisting the threat and of being subdued by the invaders and their minions, the self-appointed African 'kings'. Armah employs the description of representative situations (such as the killing of Arabs at the height of a sexual orgy, or the selling of an initiation-group of young people into slavery) as definite parables for the experience of the whole race. Always, within the historical-record stream of the narrative, there are hints of the positive alternatives available. Speaking of the askari-zombis, the voice states that "The new-found end of their lives was how to keep from doing anything different from the hollow cycle of shitting, smoking, fucking, drinking, eating, playing" (p. 47). Immediately afterwards, the reader is told of those who were trying ways to end this humiliation, finding ways to destroy the destroyers. The narrative voice also provides a commentary on the presented events. Regarding the African puppet-kings, for example, it tells us that the "quietest king, the gentlest leader of the mystified, is criminal beyond the exercise of any comparison" (p. 100). By such means, Armah succeeds in embedding a subtle dialectic of values within the framework of narrated situations while preserving the strong authorial control that is always guiding and stressing the implications inherent in the thousand seasons spent travelling the alien road.

Forming a substantial part of the narrative is the account of an elite group of young people - eleven girls and nine boys -who are sold into slavery, revolt, and then return to meet their aged teacher (Isanusi) and to organize armed resistance against the destroyers. In the process, they set free other groups, some of whom (an enlightened minority) join the struggle. The small group is made up of those who are committed to a return to 'the way'. They are surrounded by violence and apathy. Clearly, here, Armah sets up a microcosm of the total situation along Fanonist lines. His select group is formed from those who are (as Fanon puts it) "engaged in the struggle ... freed from colonialism and forewarned of all attempts at mystification ...".20 In Two Thousand Seasons, their success is shown to depend upon the use of violence, committed by the people, organised and educated by those who see that "between the creation of life and the destruction of the destroyers there is no difference but a necessary, indispensable connection" (p. 319). The extent to which Armah incorporates the militant ideas of Frantz Fanon within his novel is an indication of his projected solution to the problems of the neo-colonialist period. The use of 'rightful' violence is shown as necessary for a return to the straight path ahead.

As the positive pole of moral values, the concept of the way (and the search for it) plays an essential part in the formal structure of Two Thousand Seasons. The way is never exactly defined, except by its negative alternatives. The way is not that of a people who have lost sight of origins and are deaf to purposes. It is seen as the forgotten and the future way. It is the way of reciprocity, the way of beauty, and the way of collective endeavour. The way is "not a random path" (p. 61). It is the path of wholeness, creativity and hospitality. It is "an energy in us, strongest in our working, breathing, thinking together as one people; weakest when we are scattered, confused, broken into individual, unconnected fragments" (p. 151). The way is shown not to be a blind groping backward along a nostalgic road. Yet its closest meaning is said to be "the search for paths to that necessary beginning" (p. 233). The way is a companionship of the mind and the spirit: "There is no beauty but in relationships. Nothing cut off by itself is beautiful" (p. 321). Weapons and violence are not beautiful in themselves.21 Only if they are used "for creation's life", for the finding of the way, are they seen as positive things. For death is not the way. The way is life. The search for the way, of which Armah is careful to avoid a close definition, becomes the central formal thread that unites this novel. The process of reading the work is the process of growing understanding of the way. One sees, then, that the forward-reading dimension corresponds (in an exact sense) with an awareness of the meaning and importance of the ideas that lie beneath the narrative surface.

In formal design and direction Two Thousand Seasons is essentially a forward-looking work. As the narrative voice points out: "What are we if we see nothing beyond the present, hear nothing from the ages of our flowing, and in all our existence can utter no necessary preparation of the future way?" (p. 317). Whether or not Ayi Kwei Armah's racial vision is accepted and subsumed, this novel (by the example of its formal coherence) will be seen as a necessary preparation of the way ahead for much of modern African literature.


1. Georg Lukacs, Writer And Critic and other essays, ed. and trans. A. Kahn (London: Merlin Press, 1970), p. 21. The emphasis is mine.

2. S.O. Mezu, Behind the Rising Sun (London: Heinemann, 1971).

3. Behind the Rising Sun carries a dedication "To all the innocent victims of the Biafran War".

4. Rene Maran, Batouala (1921; rpt. Washington, DC: Black Orpheus Press, 1972, and London: Heinemann, 1973).

5. "Therefore this novel is entirely objective. It does not even attempt explanation: it is a witness. It does not criticise, it registers. It could not do otherwise."

6. A feature that Georg Lukacs notes as being part of the 'classical form' of Scott's historical novels. See Lukacs, The Historical Novel, trans. H. and S. Mitchell (1937; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 42.

7. Wole Soyinka, Season of Anomy (London: Rex Collings, 1973).

8. A paradox that has been noted by Arnold Kettle in "The progressive tradition in bourgeois culture", in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 166-67.

9. Ali A. Mazrui, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (London: Heinemann, 1971).

10. Mazrui writes in his preface: "Why not write a novel? Why not write a novel set in the Hereafter, with dead men living again, and live issues debated by the dead? Why not put Christopher Okigbo and Giraffe on a platform of destiny beyond the grave? In short, dear Ali Mazrui, why not fictionalise your anguish?" (Ibid., p. x).

11. Ali A. Mazrui, as anonymous political scientist, appears through a "voice from the clouds" (Ibid., pp. 137-38).

12. Lord Byron arrives from 'After-Europe'. Mazrui clearly recognizes the audacity of the 'subpoena' device. See the narrator's remark: "if Counsel for Salvation could unearth a connecting theme between Byron and Biafra, he might be on his way towards making legal meta-history" (Ibid., p. 109).

13. Wole Soyinka's 'voice of vision' statement is, in fact, incorporated in the text of Mazrui's novel. It reads, in part: "The artist has always functioned in his society as the record of mores and experience of his society and as the voice of vision in his own time. It is time for him to respond to this essence of himself" (Ibid., p. 90).

14. Lukacs, Writer and Critic, p. 9.

15. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973). Subsequent pagination references are to this edition. And London: Heinemann, 1979.

16. Armah, Why Are We So Blest? (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 222. And London: Heinemann, 1974.

17. Soyinka and Brutus, "Declaration of African Writers", Issue, vol. IV, no. 4, 1974, p. 8. Armah's work also has affinities with another part of this Declaration: "To refurbish and render accessible the reality of an African civilization through works of literature."

18. Meredith Tax, "Culture is not neutral, whom does it serve?", in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, p. 15.

19. A process outlined (on the theoretical level) by Raymond Williams. See Williams, "Literature and sociology: in memory of Lucien Goldmann", New Left Review, no. 67, May-June 1971, p. 15.

20. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. C. Farrington (1961; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 117-18.

21. "We do not utter praise of arms. The praise of arms is the praise of things, and what shall we call the soul crawling so low, soul so hollow it finds fulfilment in the praising of mere things." (Two Thousand Seasons, p. 320).

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