Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 13

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 13
The realist novel
Casting the contradictions

A large proportion of modern African works of fiction can be defined as realist novels. Though what, precisely, is a realist novel? And what of the notion of Realism itself? As Stephen Heath has lucidly expressed it, the 'realistic' is a process of significant fictions (that is, not substantial but formal) and it may be described as the vraisemblable of a particular society, the "generally received picture of what may be regarded as 'realistic'".1 Heath, I think rightly, points out that this vraisemblable is founded partly by the novel itself. In terms of the connection between the novel and reality, then, there is a dialectical process at work. Within this process it seems important to say that there is no direct, spontaneous relation between a literary text and history. Incorporating the mediating role of ideological formations, the text "takes as its object, not the real, but certain significations by which the real lives itself" as Terry Eagleton puts it.2 Realism is therefore a convention of discourse, a range of different patternings that gives rise to an impression of reality, a range of reality-effects.

Granted that realism is a conventional, formal concept, what of the formal realism of the novel? Ian Watt and Lucien Goldmann have suggested answers to that question. The formal realism of the novel would appear to allow "a more immediate imitation of individual experience set in its temporal and spatial environment"3 than do other literary forms. And not only individual experience, surely, but areas beyond that limit: where a 'world' can be created "whose structure is analogous to the essential structure of the social reality in which the work has been written."4 Given, then, the possibility of an imitative rendition of both individual and collective experience, the use of the realist-novel form can certainly make available (through varying emphasis) a function of judgment in relation to the experience that it renders. Stated ideas, embedded in the text, could be expected to occupy a central position in the 'judging' process. But then (in approaching these realist novels) certain implicit ideological assumptions - from which the stated ideas derive their authority - also need to be noted.

An approach to the ideological concerns of realist fiction entails something akin to what Richard Hoggart has called 'reading for value'. He sees the aim as to find "what field of values is embodied, reflected or resisted, within the work ... what, in assumed meanings or counter-meanings ... is in play".5 Such a reading moves us right into the centre of the critical debate about the relationship between ideology and literary form. For these 'values' are, after all, in a novel.

There are two concepts of immediate importance here. The first has been articulated in the theoretical work of Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey.6 The literary text, they contend, presents ideological contradictions in the form of their resolution. Such a concept enforces the view that the distinctive work of literature

... is not simply a contrived harmonization of the discordant ideological themes that echo in the text: rather, it consists in a 'prior' recasting of these themes in such a way that their final reconciliation becomes possible.7

The second concept of importance is that stressed by Francis Mulhern, among others, when he points to the personalisation of social contradiction as being one of the distinguishing features of realist fiction.8 Both these concepts - the possibility of ideological contradictions being presented in the form of their resolution and (as a corollary) the projection of contradictions by literary personalisation - chart the road ahead.

Before plunging along that road, one remembers a remark by Achebe that seems to frame the whole enterprise:

... it is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant - like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.9

Given such views, an African novelist would necessarily not be concerned with the 'fleeing rat' but with the central problem of the 'burning houses' of the post-colonial period. In examining the manner in which this concern is projected through a formal literary response, the following questions are of paramount importance: what ideological contradictions are being considered, either implicitly or explicitly (at the level of stated ideas), within the presented worlds of this novel? In what manner are these contradictions personalised? To what extent is a resolution of the contradictions projected or achieved? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered.

The presented world of Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People (1966) 10 is clearly analogous to that of the Nigerian First Republic - the period that stretched from Independence to the first of a plethora of military coups. It is a world of demagogic politicians, idealistic young men, and the struggle for political power that has been activated by the possibilities of self-rule. The novel is concerned with the nature of events that are almost exactly contemporary with its writing. A wide field of values, a range of ideological contradictions is under consideration here.

In the opening paragraph of the novel, the narrator (the self-inquiring young Odili) describes Chief Nanga as "a man of the people". The importance of this phrase is stressed, by Achebe, from the outset. Odili goes on to remark that it is necessary to admit the appropriateness of the title "or else the story I'm going to tell will make no sense". His comment emphasises the central importance of the term in relation to an understanding of certain ideological issues: what is a man of the people? what does the title imply? The consideration of these questions is immediately carried forward by Odili's account of a congratulatory festival for Chief Nanga, the Minister. Odili sees the applauding villagers as being "not only ignorant but cynical." His view is expressed in these terms:

Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you - as my father did - if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth. (p. 2)

Certain juxtapositions of values are implicitly present here. Good sense versus ideals, acceptance rather than protest, a conflict between 'normal' behaviour (apparently sanctioned by folk-wisdom) and an unusual integrity, between practical politics and incorruptibility: these are the contradictions that are clearly under consideration. Achebe broadens his approach to these issues by introducing an episode where a white American searches for "authentic Africans" (p. 57). The issue is then raised - what, exactly, is an authentic African and, by extension, to what extent are Chief Nanga and Odili authentic men of the people? The question of the relevance, or otherwise, of principled behaviour is raised by the lawyer-politician Max when he asks Odili: "Now do you expect a man like that (Nanga) to resign on a little matter of principle ...?". The moral concern about the relationship between those with power and those without is given focus by Achebe's use of initials. In opposition to V.I.P., a classification of P.I.V. (Poor Innocent Victim) is posited. The reversal of the initials underlines the difference in socio-political status and introduces a sense of irrationality in regard to the value-judgements of those who would use them. Much the same process is at work in the initials of the competing political parties: the governing People's Organization Party (P.O.P.) and the opposition Progressive Alliance Party (P.A.P.). Apart from the comic implications of P.O.P. and P.A.P., there is the more serious implied question of a lack of real political alternatives. The point that any party can govern, that nothing will really be changed, is appreciated by the ex-policeman who sees the C.P.C. group (the 'new' force of Max and Odili) as merely completing a trilogy of vultures who feast on the body politic.11 Another contradiction raised in Achebe's text is that between the apparent reality of Nigerian independence and the continuing influence of the former colonial power. When Odili speaks of the necessity for 'clean' election tactics, Max replies with a question:

Do you know, Odili, that British Amalgamated has paid out four hundred thousand pounds to P.O.P. to fight this election? Now you tell me how you propose to fight such a dirty war without soiling your hands a little. (p. 142)

The essential dilemma - the necessity for political effectiveness opposed to a felt need for honesty and integrity - is projected here within the neo-colonialist frame of reference.

In terms of the socio-political contradictions that are being considered, particularly at the level of stated ideas, there is a passage in Man of the People that can be regarded as the ideological core (or thematic centrepiece) of the work. It is marked by Achebe's use of the logic of the proverb. Odili, in a period of thoughtful reflection, considers the overall position. He defines it in terms of a man who has just come in from the rain, dried himself and put on new clothes. That man, thinks Odili, is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. By metaphoric extension, he sees this as the trouble with the new nation "that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say 'To hell with it'." He sees the people as having been all in the rain together until yesterday (Independence) and then

a handful of us - the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best - had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in.

Then, Odili considers, the smart and lucky handful (the new ruling group), from their privileged position in the dry house, seek to persuade those outside that the first phase of the struggle has been won and that the next phase - the democratic extension of the house - called for different tactics. It required "that all argument should cease and the whole people speak with one voice and that any more dissent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house." (p. 42) In using the image of the rain and the house, Achebe focuses attention on the paramount contradiction of the post-Independence period: a few are inside the house of power, the majority are outside. The relationship between this majority and the new elite is under consideration. Concepts of fair-play and human justice (in the face of dishonest gains) are clearly raised by Achebe's analogy. The nature of honesty itself is in question. These issues constitute the field of values in A Man of the People.

Odili, the young University graduate and teacher (a figure who has his foot planted in the door of the 'house' and pushing hard), and Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, M.P., are the major figures created by Achebe to personalise these social contradictions. Odili, as narrative voice, is handled ironically by the novelist. In terms of characterisation, he is defined by a greater or lesser identity with the more constant values of Chief Nanga. Odili is portrayed as an ambitious youth with opinions and attitudes that are in a constant state of flux, a perpetual process of modification. He approaches the contradictions of his individual position with what is projected as a naive searching for the 'right' way, for himself and for the nation. Odili accepts, as no idle talk, the common saying that "after Independence ... it didn't matter what you knew but who you knew." (p. 19) He is willing, with some reservations, to work within this situation to achieve positive political influence and a measure of self-advancement. It is a situation where "a long American car driven by a white-uniformed chauffeur and flying a ministerial flag could pass through the eye of a needle." (p. 63) Odili, however, is a young man full of doubts and is projected by Achebe as having a limited understanding of his own motives. Does he proceed from high ideals or from a desire for revenge on Nanga for alienating the affections of his girlfriend? He constantly questions his motives and, by implication, those of all who would enter the house of the elite. He begins to see the essentially relative value of his principles. Going to University "with the clear intention of coming out again after three years as a full member of the privileged class whose symbol was the car," he undergoes a radical change. He vows "never to be corrupted by bourgeois privileges" and yet now, as a paid political organiser for the C.P.C., he finds himself motoring around the country in a party car. He attempts to answer his own question:

How important was my political activity in its own right? It was difficult to say: things seemed so mixed up; my revenge, my new political ambition and the girl. (p. 121)

It is apparent that Odili's constant self-questioning plays an important role - as catalyst and as debater - in Achebe's personalisation process.

Chief Nanga is characterised as a man of clearly defined 'principles'. He does not question his motives. He is in the house of power and intends to remain there. Despite Achebe's satiric thrusts, Nanga is projected as being a man of certainty. He is seen to have correctly appreciated the national situation and made full use of his opportunities. In this respect, the figure of Nanga is surrounded by a field of values that are projected as being 'realistic', commonsense views. Achebe's satirical treatment of the character enforces a debate on those values. The implicit questions are these: can a man be popular, and a scoundrel? can a man be honest and, at the same time, corrupt? is political success evidence of a betrayal of ideals? Nanga affirms that his purpose is to make sure that his constituents "press for their fair share of the national cake." He tells his audience that he would have preferred to speak in the vernacular but he uses English because (as he puts it) "speeches made in vernacular were liable to be distorted and misquoted in the press." (p. 15) In passages such as these, where one notes the socio-political contradictions that are revealed by the use of satire, the main target is clearly the exposure of hypocrisy. Indeed, Nanga's hypocritical approach to his role of benevolent politician clarifies the connection between 'honest' national aims and personal hypocrisy (a connection that is supported by the treatment of Odili and becomes, itself, a major projected contradiction). Chief Nanga is a man who "attracts drama irresistibly to him." (p. 51) He also attracts a large measure of Achebe's attention as a figure who activates the fictive debate of values.

Both Odili and Nanga are juxtaposed against such characters as the lawyer Max, Odili's father, and the trade-unionist who considers that nervousness is at the root of the country's trouble. "'We say we are neutral,' he says, 'but as soon as we hear communist we begin de shake and piss for trouser'." (p. 90) All these figures contribute to Achebe's personalisation of social contradiction, a process by which the consideration of values is embedded in the realist novel form.

It would appear that Chinua Achebe does attempt (or suggest) a certain degree of resolution to the contradictions that he brings under scrutiny in A Man of the People. In the final section of the novel, the main figures are shown against a backdrop of election riots and the downfall of the government. Yet Achebe portrays Odili as moving towards a state of bitter cynicism, rather than towards any positive hope for meaningful change. To say that the people have been moved to anger by the corruption of the politicians, Odili thinks is "sheer poppycock." Rather, it is a case of the people having become more cynical than their leaders, and apathetic too. This is not a popular, idealistic revolt:

No, the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers. And they had no public reason for doing it. Let's make no mistake about that. (p. 162)

The overthrow of the government is projected (through Odili) as basically an opportunist manoeuvre of no real lasting benefit in the resolution of the vast socio-political contradictions that are nationally present. Achebe presents, with deliberate emphasis, what is essentially a stalemate situation. The "fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime" disappears in the face of a military coup.

It can be seen as no mere coincidence that the novel's publication coincided with the military takeover in Nigeria in January 1966. On the contrary, the striking parallel between the limited resolution that is projected in A Man of the People and the nature of historical events can be seen as a vindication of Achebe's 'realist' presentation. To the extent that any possible resolution is suggested (albeit a deliberately minimal one), it would appear to be based on the liberal humanist ideals of personal honesty and individual integrity. But Achebe's novel gives no indication that these values will be sufficient to shelter the Nigerian people from the rain on the horizon. Nor does it (can it) draw, with any clarity, the future lines of battle.

While the presented world of A Man of the People is analogous to that of the civilian-rule era in Nigeria, Wole Soyinka's Season of Anomy (1973)12 extends the realist picture to include the period of civil war and the years immediately following it. As one can deduce from the title, it is a time of lawlessness, chaos and disorder. It is a period of national aberration when relationships between men and men (and men and nature) have been warped into destructive patterns of hostility. Soyinka's novel, although dealing with ideological contradictions similar to those that are projected in Achebe's work, tends to be more intense in its questioning of values, more desperate in its search for valid answers.

The section-headings of Season of Anomy - from "Seminal" to "Buds" to "Tentacles" to "Harvest" to "Spores" - suggest a general movement from natural birth to fruition and then to a distributive rebirth. This arrangement has relevance on three levels. The first is on the level of ironic thematic comment, with the enforcement of the implied view that the process of national independence has worked, in fact, in the reverse of a 'natural' order. The second is on the level of the protagonist Ofeyi, sometime head of the government's Cocoa Campaign (itself shown as being a most unnatural enterprise). The third and interconnecting level is that of the communalist centre of Aiyero: the symbolic generator of fruitful values, an island of sanity in the surrounding chaos, and the focal point of Ofeyi's search for definitive values. Turning to an examination of the ideological contradictions that are under scrutiny in Season of Anomy, it is necessary to look closely at Soyinka's remarkable village of Aiyero.

From the start, the text underlines the distinctive nature of Aiyero. It is a place quite different from the society that surrounds it. A "quaint anomaly" it is called, and much more besides. It is a village that has

... long governed and policed itself ... so singly-knit that it obtained a tax assessment for the whole populace and paid it before the departure of the pith-helmeted assessor, in cash, held all property in common, literally, to the last scrap of thread on the clothing of each citizen ... .

Clearly, in the encircling rush for wealth and power, Aiyero represents a radically unusual way of life. Aiyero's existence provokes strong guffaws from the 'outside' world. It is dismissed (by that world) as "the prime example of unscientific communalism, primitive and embarrassingly sentimental" (p. 2). There is another unusual feature which intrigues the visiting Ofeyi: the people of Aiyero always return to the place of their birth. Aiyero has a strange compelling power, too, for Ofeyi. What brings them back? The answer is to be found in the positive nature of the place itself. In many ways, Season of Anomy is the story of Ofeyi's search for that answer. Ofeyi tells Ahime, Aiyero's Chief Minister, that "'our generation appears to be born into one long crisis'" (p. 6). Yet there seems to be no crisis in the traditional village of Aiyero. It is a place where the rural values of communal living are being constantly affirmed, a ceremonial centre where human activity is tuned to invocations of renewal.13 Aiyero works as a referential model of positive behaviour and, significantly, provides a point of comparison that allows Soyinka's text a degree of affirmation.14 For, thanks to Aiyero, Ofeyi can see his goals clearly ahead. Having resigned from the Corporation (an arm of the exploiting Cartel), his dream is of

... a new concept of labouring hands across artificial frontiers, the concrete, affective presence of Aiyero throughout the land, undermining the Cartel's superstructure of robbery, indignities and murder, ending the new phase of slavery. (p .27)

With the support of the Aiyero "presence" (as central to the nation's spiritual and political rearmament) the dream is set up as a potential reality, an alternative way forward. The projected clash between the old-new ideals of Aiyero and those of the governing Cartel is designed to emphasise certain conflicting issues. A potential for 'good' against an actual 'evil', an affirmative presence against a destructive exploitation, a fruitful reality against a specious mockery15 - these are the polarities that are presented.

As he carefully delineates the competing sets of values, Soyinka effectively introduces certain supplementary questions that are pertinent to the realisation of Ofeyi's dream. For it is apparent that the dichotomy between Aiyero and the Cartel sets off a chain of oppositions that proceed from the basic clash of values. While the nature of the Aiyero dream is fairly clear, the method of its enactment is not. There is also the possibility, deliberately canvassed by Soyinka's narrative method, that these ideals can perhaps never be enacted on a grand scale. Once Aiyero becomes "a moral thorn in the complacent skin of the national body" (p. 86) the forces of the Cartel are shown as moving into a vicious counter-attack. Immediately, the implied question is raised: how, legitimately, can positive ideals of peace and harmony be defended against a destructive power? How to defend the Aiyero people (at the strategic settlement of Shage) from the "Cross-river whiff of violence, rape and death" (p. 89)? The framing of these questions leads straight into the timeless debate about means and ends. Demakin (the Dentist, and professional revolutionary) asks Ofeyi: "'What did you think it would lead to, the doctrines you began to disseminate through the men of Aiyero?'". Ofeyi's answer is a significant one. "'Recovery of whatever has been seized from society by a handful, re-moulding society itself ...'" (p. 117), he says. So the process that Soyinka outlines in Season of Anomy is one of recovery and subsequent re-moulding. In the debate between the two figures (the Dentist and Ofeyi), particularly around the question of the use of violence, the author constructs the text's ideological frame of reference.16 The examination of socio-political alternatives is well under way.

In terms of the personalisation of social contradictions it is apparent that Ofeyi is Soyinka's asker of questions, his searcher for confirmation. It is Ofeyi who deliberately engages in the constant debate regarding tactics and aims. He it is who is always present at such harrowing moments as the ghastly massacre at Kuntua church (pp. 196-201). It is Ofeyi who undergoes a process of self-examination as he searches for his woman (Iriyise), kidnapped by the Cartel. It is clearly for him that the arguments of old Ahime and the militant Demakin are meant. Soyinka uses the figure of Ofeyi, the searcher, to fill in the details of the continuing dream of Aiyero. Ofeyi speaks to Zaccheus, his jazz-playing foil, of creating "'new affinities, working-class kinships as opposed to the tribal'" (p. 170). Shortly after, the two friends stand and gaze at the floating, bloated corpses on the lake, vivid evidence of the Cartel's determination to prevent the building of new kinships of the sort that Ofeyi has in mind. When Ofeyi reaches Temoko prison it is through his progress into the various areas - from the outer area of the self-imprisoned, to the Lepers yard, then past the Death Cells, and finally into the Lunatic yard - that Soyinka creates his complex analogy of national imprisonment and absurdity. Starting from his statement to Ahime that the Aiyero "'grain must find new seminal grounds'" (p. 6), Ofeyi becomes the main traveller along the text's fictional road. It is a road that leads to that pointed confrontation with the absurd when men, women and children (trying to escape from the murderers) begin to break into the Federal prison.

Of the numerous subordinate figures in Season of Anomy, all of them filling out minor facets of the text's total process of personalisation, Demakin (the Dentist) fulfils an important function. Ofeyi meets him during his travels abroad, seemingly by accident. However it transpires that Demakin is one of the Aiyero men himself. He appears to represent the militant, urban-guerilla thrust of the revolutionary movement. Demakin, more than any of the other figures, clarifies the characterisation of Ofeyi (and his ideas) by a process of reflection. By presenting the Dentist as a determined, no-nonsense figure and having Ofeyi react to his various opinions, Soyinka is able to chart the progress of Ofeyi's movement along the Aiyero road. As that progress also represents the possibility (or otherwise) of the Aiyero ideals being realised, Demakin has a significant role to play. Ofeyi sees the Dentist as a "self-effacing priest of violence ... whose single-mindedness had resusicitated his own wavering commitment" (p. 22). He later remarks on the Dentist's "unassailable logic of extraction before infection" (p. 92) and listens while Demakin contends that the spreading of ideals by the intellectuals is not, by itself, sufficient. "'Rich black earth or rich blackguards - you can only shoot one'" (p. 96), the Dentist says. Demakin strives for the creation of a situation wherein the Aiyero ideas can take root. As to envisaging what will happen then, he leaves that to Ofeyi. While Ofeyi is, as the Dentist puts it, occupied with "'seminal rounds of the distant ideal'" (p. 118), Demakin is concerned with channeling what he sees as the inevitable violence and with directing it towards the necessary targets. By means of this continuing dialogue, the text brings under scrutiny the potential coalition of the radicalised intellectual reformer and the practical revolutionary. The narrative thrust of Season of Anomy enforces the view that such a coalition is a necessary one.

During a key meeting with Ahime and Demakin at Cross-River, Ofeyi's role is contrasted to those of the others. Ofeyi is shown wondering about the link between his work for Aiyero and his search for Iriyise. He realises that there is a connection and begins to sense that "'the search would immerse me in the meaning of the event, lead me to a new understanding of history'" (p. 218). Demakin, for his part, is concerned with the projection of Iriyise as a "'super-mistress of universal insurgence'" (p. 219). When the plan for a trek of the Aiyero people is broached, Ahime sees it as a cleansing act that will "'purify our present polluted humanity and cure our survivors of the dangers of self-pity'" (p. 218). Demakin is determined that the trek should mark the route for a successful return. The reader notes that, rather than joining this tactical regrouping, Ofeyi continues with his search for the girl. It is significant, in terms of the socio-political implications of these varying attitudes, that Ofeyi is also imprisoned and, although he does find his Iriyise, it is the Dentist (the man of action) who rescues him. In a practical sense, it is Demakin who makes possible the continued presence of the Aiyero dream.

Soyinka's novel ends on a note of partial resolution. As the men leave the walls of Temoko prison, the anonymous narrator informs us that "In the forests, life began to stir" (p. 320). It is a concluding line that is informed with a sense of guarded optimism. The Aiyero ideas have not triumphed but they have not been crushed either. Pitted against the destructive forces of the dominating Cartel, the dream of Aiyero has survived intact. The coalition of militant revolutionary and intellectual idealist has been cemented and shown to be potentially effective. The text clearly suggests that the season of anomy in Nigeria (and elsewhere) is a temporary one. The values of Aiyero provide the basis for a fruitful way forward. Soyinka's creation of the Aiyero alternative thus allows him to suggest a partial resolution of the contradictions that are presented within the novel. It is a resolution that includes the use of necessary violence to protect the communalist vision of rebirth. A return to sources and then a positive counter-attack: that, implies Soyinka, is a way to end the season of anomy.

What is happening here, then, is a discussion of values through novelistic investigation. Turning to realist novels from East Africa, there are clearly shared socio-political concerns with those of the Achebe and Soyinka texts. Evident, too, is a strong grasp of the imitative and 'judging' potentialities of the realist form. A brief appraisal of three novels - A Grain of Wheat (1967) by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Peter Palangyo's Dying in the Sun (1968), and The Future Leaders (1973) by Mwangi Ruheni - will serve to emphasise the shared nature of authorial concerns across the continent.17

Just as in A Man of the People, where the passage dealing with 'the house in the rain' works as a thematic centrepiece, there are certain sections in these novels that fulfil the function of activating and shaping the total formal design. I will concentrate on the identification of these fulcrum passages. Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat is a novel centred on the fight for Uhuru in Kenya. After stressing (in a frontispiece statement) that all the characters in the novel are fictitious, Ngugi adds that

... the situation and the problems are real - sometimes too painfully real for the peasants who fought the British yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side. (p. vi)

Ngugi then goes on to create the figure of Mugo, a man tormented by memories of his part in the betrayal of a Kenyan guerilla leader. In order to dramatise the tension within this man, Ngugi presents an heroic speech given by one General R. It is a speech designed to confront the traitor, given by one of the leaders in the struggle for Uhuru, and meant to answer the questions: why did we fight? why did we kill? After giving his reasons for the struggle, General R. moves on to ask some questions for himself:

'The whiteman lived on our land. He ate what we grew and cooked ... That is why we went into the forest. He who was not on our side, was against us. That is why we killed our black brothers. Because, inside, they were whitemen. And I know even now this war is not ended. We get Uhuru. Tomorrow we shall ask: where is the land? Where is the food? Where are the schools? Let therefore these things be done now, for we do not want another war ... no more blood in my ... in these our hands ...'. (pp. 250-51)

Although the novel is (on one level) the tale of Mugo and his crisis of conscience, General R.'s speech clearly enforces the larger imperatives of meaning that are inherent in Ngugi's presentation of events: that "tomorrow" has arrived; that General R.'s questions are being asked now. Ngugi's text makes certain that the questions are heard.

Peter Palangyo's novel Dying in the Sun tells of the ugly, long-suffering Ntanya. As he thinks back over his miserable life and tries to make some sense of it, Ntanya also begins to ask some questions. What does it matter if I am a simple man, he thinks. For

'What would I do with intelligence here other than rot my gut and commit suicide?' Indeed what does anybody want intelligence for in a thoroughly unintelligent, even unintelligible world?

This bitter feeling of alienation and frustration prompts Ntanya to continue his questioning. Who needs intelligence, he reasons, when "one is chopping wood all day to light a fire for washing somebody else's laundry ...". And Ntanya is shown to know, from his own observations, that not all his countrymen are in the same predicament. While he has been walking for miles and miles, looking for work, he has seen the "big black fat faces in shining cars that blow dust in your eyes so that you cannot see the signs all over the road, 'No work! No work!' which you cannot read in any case ..." (p. 37). As Palangyo continues his narrative of Ntanya's return to the village, the subsequent narrated events become a commentary on the questions that Ntanya has raised. By the use of this fulcrum passage, the novelist elevates the realist story beyond that of an imitative rendering of individual experience. Ntanya (the asker of questions) becomes one with all those who walk on the dusty road of Uhuru. Dying in the Sun probes the meaning of that journey and the nature of the state to which it leads.

A similar process can be seen at work in The Future Leaders. Again one notices the deliberate placing of questions within the narrative; questions that provide the ideological matrix for an examination of values and (because they are never merely rhetorical in nature but demand, at least, an implied answer) radiate out into the narrated story, giving it point and direction. As indicated by the title, Ruheni's novel is concerned with the quality of African leadership, present and future. The central figure is that of the young protagonist Reuben Ruoro. When Ruoro attends his Graduation Ceremony at Makerere University College in 1958, the main speech is given by Sir James Henderson, K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O.. He tells the African graduates:

'You are the future leaders of this country ... The hopes of the peoples of the great territories of Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika will only be fulfilled if your performance justifies the effort that has been put into your training. This great country is waiting for you, it is waiting to welcome you with open hands, it is crying out for your leadership.' (p. 1)

Yet, when he returns to Kenya, Reuben finds that the country is far from welcoming him with open hands. Nor does it seem to be crying out for his leadership. He encounters great problems, particularly with the remaining expatriates, in his attempt to break into the organisational-elite group. After being knocked from pillar to post, he decides that there is something radically wrong with the Henderson view:

Above all, there was this rotten speech by that old colonialist ... This statement of his that we are the future leaders of this country was all bunk. How did he know? Does it mean that if you get a degree you become a leader whether you like it or not? ... How can they all be the future leaders? And who will do the work? (p. 66)

By moving the figure of Ruoro into this position of sarcastic inquiry, Ruheni meshes the account of the young man's 'progress' with what amounts to a projected reassessment of educational values and their relationship to the need for post-Uhuru leadership. The Graduation speech sets out the socio-political boundaries within which the narrative thrust of inquiry proceeds.

The presence of a barrage of pertinent questions (as a unifying formal device) is strikingly apparent in Ayi Kwei Armah's powerfully-written novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968).18 Armah's central figure (the nameless Man), his wife, the politician Koomson and others move through a dung-heap of slaughtered hopes that is analogous to the Ghana of the immediate post-Independence era. Yet the contradictions and competing values that are being presented here are the universal ones of hope and despair, honour or corruption, love against hate, cleanliness and filth, pride or ambition. As the narrative focus ranges over the excremental scene, socio-political facts become the equivalent of psychic phenomena - a process that reinforces the connection between body and mind, nation and individual.19 As Gareth Griffiths has noted, certain correspondences are set up by a series of metaphorical shifts so that "the inner processes of feeding, digestion and excretion are linked intimately with their social equivalents, inheritance, consumption and corruption."20 The physical decay of the presented world becomes synonymous with the crumbling of moral ideals. As the Man wanders amongst the shit and the mucus (some of it his own), he asks himself: why the moral degeneracy? why the political corruption? why is an honest man now seen as a naive fool? The Man does not have the hardness that the new African "gleam" requires. He is not sure that he wants it.

Ayi Kwei Armah achieves the personalisation of contradictions (taken to be a key feature of the realist novel form) through this figure of the Man. As part of the filth that surrounds him, the Man becomes a seeker for answers that will enable him to live with himself, the carrier of the contradictions.

It is in Chapter Six, the pivotal section of the narrative, that the questioning process can best be seen at work. The density of stated ideas emphasises, in terms of thematic shaping, the formal importance of the meeting here between the Man and the naked Teacher. Although it would appear to be the Teacher who asks the majority of the questions, there is an element of deliberate functional confusion on this point. The initial doubt as to the identity of the narrator clearly serves to give this history of the childhood and youth of a man (and a nation) more than individual significance. The narrated record of experience begins with a query: "Why do we waste so much time with sorrow and pity for ourselves?" (p. 72). After a recounting of events that stretch from the Second World War to the days of Kwame Nkrumah,21 the statement is made that "So much time has gone by, and still there is no sweetness here" (p. 78). As the euphoria of the immediate post-Independence period is seen to fade away, the questions that are being asked are these:

What can people do when there remains only so much meaning in their lives and that little meaning is running so irretrievably away with every day that goes? What can people do? (p. 89)

These are the quintessential questions of an evident disillusionment, the puzzled queries about a dream gone wrong. How can this have taken place? "Why should there be such a need for shrinking the hoping self, and why must so much despair be so calmly embraced?" (p. 92), thinks the Man. With the enforced shrinking of the hoping self comes a sense of betrayal and a note of anger: "How long will Africa be cursed with its leaders?" (p. 94). Being what they were, how could these leaders have realised that "while they were climbing up to shit in their people's faces, their people had seen their arseholes and drawn away in disgusted laughter?" (pp. 95-6). In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, one of these leader-figures - the ex-wharf labourer His Excellency Joseph Koomson, Minister Plenipotentiary, Member of the Presidential Commission, Hero of Socialist Labour - comes, at least, to that realisation. Escaping from a coup, he is thrust through the slimy depths of a common latrine, expelled from the body politic.

Koomson's fate provides no answer to the more general questions, for there are issues here that transcend the boundaries of purely personal default. Could there have been some inherent (and inevitable) factors that led to this destruction of a beautiful promise for the future? That possibility is also canvassed in this fulcrum section:

How could such a thing turn so completely into this other thing? Could there have been no other way? The beauty was in the waking of the powerless. Is it always to be true that it is impossible to have things strong and at the same time beautiful? (p. 100)

Over and over again these questions are being raised here. The memory of their asking is always present as the Man plods on through the Ghana wasteland. The socio-political situation is shown to be only superficially changed by a sudden coup.22 "How could this have grown rotten with such obscene haste?" (p. 103) - only with the coming of 'the beautyful ones' can that question be answered with any certainty. In Chapter Six, Armah fashions the ideological core of his novel. Through the meeting of the Teacher and the Man he relates the elements of personal experience to a history of the rise and fall of the Independence dream.

Ayi Kwei Armah suggests no easy answers to the contradictions that are portrayed in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It is interesting, in this respect, to consider the Man's thoughts as his wandering (and the novel) moves to a close. "A man would just have to make up his mind that there was never going to be anything but despair" (pp. 180-81), he thinks. Even when he considers the possibility of a new life, his doubts are shown to overpower any hint of optimism:

Someday in the long future a new life would maybe flower in the country, but when it came, it would not choose as its instruments the same people who had made a habit of killing new flowers. The future goodness may come eventually, but before then where were the things in the present which would prepare the way for it? (p. 188)

So even if there is to be some new life, some "future goodness", it is (at best) an uncertain, long-term prospect.23 Armah allows the Man a limited 'victory' when Oyo, his wife, comes to realise the worth of her husband's integrity. However, the basic stance of the Man, from beginning to end, is that of the enduring stoic. Nothing really has changed, yet the Man (unlike the Teacher) is last seen still on his feet, still coping with life. Given the nature of Armah's presented world, it is apparent that optimism and pessimism become irrelevant concepts.24 For the analogous Ghanaian socio-political situation would appear to offer, at least for Armah, no clear possibilities for a resolution of the contradictions that plague the Man's life. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a work that possesses the coherent unity of an achieved fictional construct, projects no individual answers. It is motivated by the recognition that a change in individual relationhips can, ultimately, only be achieved within an altered socio-political situation. Only then, hints the text, will 'the beautyful ones' be able to grow to maturity.

These representative novels by Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Ruheni and Armah show the way in which the potentialities of the realist novel form have been utilised by modern African writers. The dominant presence of socio-political concerns focuses attention on the treatment of ideological contradictions and on the significant relationship between ideology and literary form. The imitative trend of realist fiction, allied to the possibilities that are present for judgement on the experience that is rendered, provides a clearly appropriate medium for socio-political debate.


1. Stephen Heath, The Nouveau Roman: A Study in The Practice of Writing (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1972), pp. 19-20.

2. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: New Left Books, 1976), p. 72.

3. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 33.

4. Goldmann, Towards A Sociology of the Novel, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1975), p. 1. Goldmann's work was originally published in 1964 as Pour une sociologie du roman. It is important to note that Goldmann insists on the radical complexity of the ideological structure, on the fact that relationships between economic forces and philosophic or poetic systems are never automatic and unilinear.

5. Hoggart, "Contemporary Cultural Studies: An Approach to the Study of Literature and Society", in Contemporary Criticism, ed. M. Bradbury and D. Palmer, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 12 (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), p. 161.

6. Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, "Sur la litterature comme forme ideologique: quelques hypotheses marxistes", Litterature, No.13, (fevrier 1974), pp. 29-48.

7. This passage forms part of the summary of the Balibar-Macherey position by Francis Mulhern in "'Ideology and Literary Form' - a comment", New Left Review, No.91 (May-June 1975), p. 86.

8. Ibid.

9. Achebe, "The African Writer and the Biafran cause", The Conch, I, No.1 (March 1969), p. 8.

10. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People (1966; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

11. "'There were three vultures ... The third and youngest was called C.P.C.'" (A Man of the People, p. 140).

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

13. See Soyinka's presentation of the ritualistic killing of the Aiyero bulls: "He moved swiftly now, the sighs of release were woven among the spreading mists, a thousand eyes followed the motions of the priest whose flutist blade was laid again and again to ivory pipes, tuned to invocations of renewal" (Season of Anomy, p. 16 - my emphasis).

14. Regarding the role of Aiyero as a referential model, it is interesting to note this phrase from Soyinka's novelistic autobiography: "... the soul of the revolutionary dance is in the hands of the flutist" (The Man Died, p. 92 - my emphasis).

15. A mockery that is presented with great satiric force. See, particularly, the episode of the cocoa-promotion songs - Cartel balloons - St. George fountain (Season of Anomy, pp. 32-49).

16. See, particularly, the Dentist's remarks (to Ofeyi): "'... you rationalists have given birth to a monster child by pretending that the lunatic can be reasoned with. That is why our people die. Because you paced in silence at the incubation of a monstrosity, preoccupied with a study of the phenomenon ... violently spit it out ...'" (Season of Anomy, p. 134).

17. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (1967; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1971); Peter K. Palangyo, Dying in the Sun (1968; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1970); Mwangi Ruheni, The Future Leaders (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

18. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972).

19. A feature that has been noted in modern writing from Eastern Europe. See Under Pressure: The Writer in Society: Eastern Europe and the U.S.A., ed. A. Alvarez (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 23.

20. Gareth Griffiths, "The Language of Disillusion in the African Novel," in Common Wealth, ed. A. Rutherford (Aarhus: Academisk Boghandel Universitetsparken, 1971), p. 67.

21. The 'Nkrumah days': March 6, 1957 to February 24, 1966.

22. See the episode of the bus driver, the policeman and the bribe (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, pp. 213-14). A military and police coup in Ghana (February 24, 1966), headed by Lt.Gen. J.A. Ankrah, overthrew the Convention People's Party Government and led to the formation of a National Liberation Council.

23. Three further relevant points, in connection with Chapter Six, need to be noted here:

(1) The flower-hope analogy is reinforced by the use of a flower as a visual textual emblem, in this section alone.

(2) The tendency towards parabolic characterisation is evidenced by the naming of the Teacher and the Man.

(3) One is also reminded of the cogent view (expressed by George Levine) that such "apparently unrealistic elements in realist fiction are not to be seen as aberrations in the writer's control over his own method but rather as crucial to the formative energy of the novel" [Levine, "Realism Reconsidered", in The Theory of the Novel: New Essays, ed. John Halperin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 254].

24. The comment by James Olney on the Francophone writer Yambo Ouologuem that "The only possible reason for not saying that he is disillusioned about the present state of African society is that there is no evidence that he ever held any illusions about Africa or anything else" [Olney, Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 293] can be seen to apply, with equal force, to Ayi Kwei Armah.

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