January 2010 Archives

The language of literature

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Ngugi_wa_Thiong'o_reading.jpgNgugi wa Thiong'o writes in Gikuyu, the language spoken by the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.  He translates his own work into English.  

His choice to do so, as he recognizes in a recent video interview with Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, is not popular with the "new generation" of African writers, many (if not most) of whom write in English.  Ngugi wa Thiong'o reserves judgment of these young writers, acknowledging that writing in an African language decreases the chances of publication.  But he criticized the assumptions underlying African literary prizes:   

Look at prizes given to promote African writing . . . They all assume that African writing is only that which is in English.  They assume that European languages are the beginning or the only means by which the African imagination can work, and it's not true.
The question of the language of the imagination is an important and interesting one.  But in framing the issue as he does (and in attacking the faceless "they" to whom "assumptions" can be attributed), Ngugi seems to be setting up a straw colonist for attack and missing the key issue: whether to write in the language of an oral society.

All written literature builds on other writings, through references, allusions, quotations or outright copying (Shakespeare, for example, used other authors' plots).  A writer who decides to write in a language that has no literary canon deprives his or her work of the richness of that dialogue with preexisting literary works.  Attaining aesthetic quality in such a context is an even greater challenge than normal.

That "new generation" African writers are writing in European languages may not simply be a function of wanting to be published, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o suggests, but may result from what Binyavanga Wainaina identifies as a desire for recognition based on "the very 'aesthetic' of their work, not their political leanings or their arrival from a wayward 'Dark Continent.'"  In other words, Wainana urges recognition for quality writing, rather than for the identity or politics of the author - or the language in which he or she writes.  

To produce quality writing, all writers must translate the story in their imagination to words on the page.  And, in the end, the language of the imagination and the language of literature differ, even when both nominally occur in English.  (For instance, the imagination can operate in pictures, while literature uses words.)  

When the writer in question has a choice of languages into which to translate the story in his or her imagination, selecting a non-native language has time and again resulted in innovative works that enrich the language in which they're written (think Vladimir Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, Ha Jin).  Penalizing African writers for choosing English is likely to result in a loss both to English and to literature.

(Photo of Ngugi wa Thiong'o from his website)   

A literary lover

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Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from Byronetc.com.)

Waiting for the break

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Beth_Bauman.jpgReading a 2003 New York Times profile of author Beth Ann Bauman, I was struck by her perseverance.  At 38, Bauman had been living an impoverished life without publishing success for twelve years, despite an MFA in Creative Writing and a connection to Tina Bennett, a leading agent.  '''Everyone around her was getting published first,'' said Alice Elliott Dark . . . one of Ms. Bauman's teachers in a writing workshop. 'I've seen this happen to a number of really talented people. It's very flukey.'''

When her first story collection, Beautiful Girls, was finally published, Bauman's characters shared a common characteristic:

 ''All of the characters are waiting for something,'' Ms. Bauman said. ''They're all waiting for their lives to unfurl.''

Which is, of course, exactly what she has been doing all these years.

''I have,'' she agreed eagerly. ''I have been waiting, feeling trapped by my circumstances - the day job, never having enough time to write, wanting something larger and more comfortable, a better life. Maybe not a better life, but just wanting to arrive somewhere.''  
This account of Bauman's experience resonates with me.  I am familiar with that agony of feeling that my life is stalled until I can get a book published (although my fictional characters aren't "waiting for their lives to unfurl"; on the contrary, my fiction fairly bursts with people charging into adventure and the unknown).  And I feel acute indignation at the costs that Bauman has paid for her eventual success: they are unfairly high.  

At the other end of the spectrum - an author who met with success early and with super-success by the time she was Beth Ann Bauman's age - Elizabeth Gilbert on her website quotes Werner Herzog on the question of an artist's response to the costs involved with making art: 

Quit your complaining. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to be an artist. . . . [I]t's certainly not the world's obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. . . [S]top whining and get back to work.  
I am not persuaded.  Of course, in the literal sense of no one promising to pay us for our writing, Herzog is right.  But in the larger sense, he's wrong.  

Society does promise us baselines: our reasonable expectations for our lives.  The promise of these baselines is called the social compact, and it's not a new concept.  Indeed, anything recognizable as a society would be impossible without this compact.

In Masai communities, for example, females can reasonably expect to have multiple lovers, to be married and - unless they're barren - to have children.  They can also expect to have enough goats, sheep and cows to ensure that neither they nor their children will ever be hungry.  A woman whose life doesn't include these factors is unlucky or has been treated wrongly.

In American society, females can reasonably expect that if they work hard, their merit will be rewarded.  They can expect to be paid the same amount as their male peers for their work.  They can expect to be paid for their work - we don't condone unpaid labor in the U.S.  They can expect to enjoy a career and a family life.  A woman whose life includes hard work that goes unrewarded, lower-paid or unpaid labor, or labor that requires her to give up the enjoyments of family and children is seen - in many instances - to have been discriminated against.

Notwithstanding the social compact, Bauman, myself and (no doubt) countless other female writers are not seeing our entitlements honored.  Hard work doesn't have as much correlation with pay-off as does luck.  Women writers routinely work for free and are expected to do so; publishers think nothing of requesting rewrites without a contract in place to pay for them.  And many women writers find that a family (for many reasons) is out of the question if they want to write.

Complaining, as Herzog notes, is unattractive and often unhelpful, and I don't mean by this blog post to bellyache about the plight of women writers.  Rather, my aim is to enrich the storehouse of that most American of stories - that of triumph over unfair adversity - by saluting Beth Ann Bauman (and all the other similarly situated women writers) who are asked to run an unfair gauntlet, one that represents society's failure to uphold its end of the social compact.

(Photo of Beth Ann Bauman from MacAdam/Cage)  

An industry with the loyalty of Iago

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Iago.jpgThe New York Times magazine recently ran a profile of James Patterson, the world's best-selling author, in which his former publisher at Little, Brown, Sarah Crichton, "says she was continually surprised by the success of Patterson's books. To her, they lacked the nuance and originality of other blockbuster genre writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz."

Lacked the nuance and originality of Dean Koontz?  That's like saying he lacks the grammatical competence of Sarah Palin. 

Whatever the legitimacy of the criticism (and I don't know because I haven't read Patterson), I have to wish - however naively - that publishers were more publicly supportive of their authors.  

Of course, authors can generate terrific material insulting their publishers (for example, Lord Byron's "Dear Doctor, I have read your play").  But such artistic impishness doesn't strike me as being as shockingly discourteous as Critchton's remark.  John Murray, after all, made money off Byron's poem mocking him.

(Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Iago from the Victoria & Albert museum)

A rebuttal to Kihika

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Captured_Mau_Mau_fighters.jpgIn Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat, Kihika, a Mau Mau rebel leader, expresses some brutal opinions about the way preceding generations dealt with imperialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  

While wa Thiongo doesn't outright endorse Kihika's view of history, he doesn't refute it, either.  But - though Kihika's unyielding condemnation and lack of interest in nuance might be appropriate (and is probably necessary) for a guerrilla fighter - history is more complicated, more interesting and kinder to Kihika's forebears than Kihika allows.

As an overall descriptive of the black African response to British imperialism, "weak" is an inadequate adjective.  "Measured," "thoughtful," "multi-faceted," "practical" or "wise" are all more accurate.  A close reading of the historical record reveals, decade by decade, a slowly-evolving, pragmatic African response to the British colonial presence.  Here is a summary:
  • From 1895 (when the British officially arrived) through 1914, the colonists came with - in addition to a breathtaking sense of superiority and the ideology of Pax Britannica - some things the Africans wanted and/or adopted: Jesus, medicines, new ways of living and - importantly - enough power to banish the twin menaces of the Masai and the Swahili slave traders.  Some Africans did rebel and resist the British, and the British mounted "punitive" military expeditions against those tribes; but Africans also cooperated with the British, and some African leaders allowed themselves to be co-opted into service of the imperial cause. 
  • From 1914 through 1922, Africans adjusted their views of the British.  The whites came to be revealed as fallible humans - and hypocrites: not super-human bringers-of-peace and banishers-of-slavery-and-tribal-warfare, but self-interested farmers who warred among themselves and forced the Africans into the white fight.  Criticism of British government policies began to be voiced.  Africans protested against "alienation" of African lands and reassignment of such property to whites.  Africans additionally began to question to white missionaries' interpretations of Christianity, where such interpretations condemned traditional African practices.
  • From 1922 through 1939, African opinion condemning colonial abuses coalesced, although little agreement could be reached about how to address such abuses.  The Kikuyu, the largest tribe, split internally on the issue of how to engage the British.  Few were willing to allow white missionaries to continue to "represent" black interests, but advocates for slow-going diplomacy found opponents in favor of more radical measures designed to bring faster results.
  • From 1939-1952, Africans again adjusted their views of British rule, this time in light of WWII and India's triumphant achievement of independence.  The Africans saw that the British could be defeated.  The condemnation of colonial abuses hardened into a rejection of the imperial presence altogether.  Jomo Kenyatta emerged as a leader who could shepherd Kenyans into independent nationhood.
  • From 1952-1963, the Emergency pitched black Africans (and the Kikuyu especially) into a guerrilla war for independence.  British atrocities during this period confirmed the worst suspicions about the white man being more devil than human and promoted a dichotomy of black-African-good/white-Colonist-bad that was to influence subsequent thinking about the colonial era.  Nonetheless, not all blacks resisted the British (e.g., the spear-carrying soldiers depicted in the accompanying photograph), and the British had some African supporters.
As this overview suggests, the black African response to imperialism in the time leading to the years covered by A Grain of Wheat was not at all passive or submissive, but complex, sophisticated and characterized by a reluctance for reflexive, knee-jerk behavior.  In its diplomacy, the response asserted that Kenyans were a people of a nation dealing as equals with another nation.  In its entirety, the response was one about which Kenyans, including Kihika, could justifiably feel pride, if reductive, backwards-glancing concerns about emasculation and, to use Kihika's word, "weakness," didn't force a less positive interpretation.

For all its admirable undermining of reductive ideologies (explored in this post), A Grain of Wheat could have and should have done more to depict the variegated reality of Kenyan history and to honor the individual men and women whose forbearance, patience and negotiations skills gave the Mau Mau violence its claim to justice - and who made Kihika a freedom fighter, rather than a thug.

(Image of black African soldiers [carrying spears] escorting captured Mau Mau fighters from The Daily Mail)

Ngugi_wa_Thiongo.jpgI am a fan of art transcending reductive ideologies and, in A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiongo may have provided us with an example of such transcendence.  

The story follows Mugo, a young Kikuyu man, who has been tapped for leadership roles in his village in the aftermath of the 1952 Emergency that pitted the British colonial forces against Mau Mau freedom fighters.  Mugo is deeply conflicted about serving as a leader because he has a shameful past: during the Emergency, he betrayed Kihika, a fiery rebel commander, to the British.  In the end (spoiler alert), Mugo confesses his betrayal to the assembled villagers, and he is condemned to death by the former resistance fighters who have long been seeking Kihika's murderer.

Despite two audacious acts - betrayal and public confession - Mugo is an ambivalent person:  

Mugo . . . . had always found it difficult to make decisions.  Recoiling as if by instinct from setting in motion a course of action whose consequences he could not determine before the start, he allowed himself to drift into things or be pushed into them by an uncanny demon; he rode on the wave of circumstance and lay against the crest, fearing but fascinated by fate.
(p. 23-24.)  In the course of the novel, Mugo struggles to identify with his family, which has abused him; with his tribe, which wants to force him first into war and then into leadership when he'd rather abstain; and with the British, from whom he craves absolution but receives, instead, total rejection.  These struggles endow Mugo with the strength to make a final moral decision (public confession) that leads to his death, rather than to enjoy a diminished life as a corrupt leader with a guilty conscience.

By contrast, Kihika is a person to whom ambivalence is a stranger.  Here, for example, is Kihika discussing his forebearers' responses to colonialism:

I despise the weak.  Let them be trampled to death, I spit on the weakness of our fathers.  Their memory gives me no pride.  And even today, tomorrow, the weak and those with feeble hearts shall be wiped from the earth.  The strong shall rule.  Our fathers had no reason to be weak.  The weak need not remain weak.  Why?  Because people united in faith are stronger than the bomb.  They shall not tremble or run away before the sword.  Then instead the enemy shall flee.
(p. 180.)  Throughout his life, Kihika has exhibited a devil-may-care rebellious bravado.  He alone among the boys at school challenges the religious instruction against female circumcision (a Kikuyu custom).  He similarly rejects his devoted girlfriend, Wambuku, because accepting her love would require him to settle down into village life.  In the end, Kihika dies because - unused to any approach involving compromise or tolerance of differences of opinion - he too forcefully tries to push Mugo into fighting for the cause.     

And now we arrive at what may be transcendence.  From his two-dimensional and unsympathetic depictions of the colonists in A Grain of Wheat, we know that wa Thiongo is not especially interested in a holistic understanding of the white man.  From his choice (after A Grain of Wheat was published) to write only in Kikuyu, we know that wa Thiongo is not even especially interested in communicating with non-Kikuyus, let alone whites.  And yet A Grain of Wheat ultimately discourages the reader from embracing inflexibility of mind or heart.

By the novel's end, two conclusions - both arrived at by women - complicate the novel's moral landscape.  First, Wambui - a feisty crone who'd risked her life running guns to the Mau Mau fighters and who served as the judge in Mugo's trial - is seized with regret at Mugo's execution.  Mugo was a conscientious man who could have contributed much to an independent Kenya; instead, he had been executed for ideology:  "Wambui was lost in a solid consciousness of a terrible anti-climax to her activities in the fight for freedom.  Perhaps we should not have tried [Mugo], she muttered."  (p. 228-229.)

The second conclusion involves the resolution of a sub-plot involving Mumbi, a gorgeous woman, and Gikonyo, her husband who was imprisoned by the British.  During his imprisonment, Mumbi succumbed to the sexual advances of a former suitor, who has been installed as a village leader by the British.  Returning from prison to find his wife having given birth to his former rival's child, Gikonyo punishes Mumbi for her unfaithfulness.  By the end of the novel, however, Gikonyo wishes to rebuild his relationship with Mumbi, and she refuses any easy reconciliation:

"No, Gikonyo.  People try to rub out things, but they cannot.  Things are not so easy.  What has passed between us is too much to be passed over in a sentence.  We need to talk, to open our hearts to one another, examine them, and then together plan the future we want.  But now, I must go, for the child is ill."
(p. 232-233.)

In short, although the novel condemns white missionaries and humiliates a black teacher in a missionary school for his complicity in the white man's Christianity, A Grain of Wheat also preaches for the redemption of Judas and the forgiveness of Mary Magdalene - on her own terms.  Despite its unquestionable allegiance with the anti-colonial cause (and what appears to be genuine dislike of white people), the message of A Grain of Wheat is hardly the propaganda of militant nationalism.  This textured multi-facetedness - even (possibly) inconsistency - imbues the novel with an admirable humanity.  With these qualities, A Grain of Wheat joins the ranks of works that enlarge the author - and, by extension, all of us - beyond the confinement of our personal limitations.  

I could wish that wa Thiongo had taken the additional step of providing a nuanced portrait of Pontius Pilate and his ilk, but perhaps such a greedy desire for even more transcendence would be un-Christian of me.

(Image of Ngugi wa Thiongo from University of Kwazulu-Natal website)

"Dear Doctor, I Have . . ." issues with rejection

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I love George Gordon, Lord Byron's poem, "Dear Doctor, I Have Read Your Play."  It's funny, fun to read out loud, fun to imagine a play that Lord_Byron.jpg"purges the eyes and moves the bowels" - moves the bowels?!  Apparently, the good doctor of the title (Byron's friend, John William Polidori) invented an entirely new (and not-to-be-seen-again) genre: the laxative drama.

But, much as I believe the English literary canon would be diminished for its absence, I have to wonder why Lord Byron wrote the poem.  The man, after all, was a super star by 1817 when he wrote "Dear Doctor," by which time he'd long been famous for accomplishments like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the unpublished (but no lesser known) I Had An Incestuous Affair With My Half Sister.  

"Dear Doctor" allows the reader to infer that recent criticism of Byron's writing might have been a reason for the poem's composition:  

There's Byron, too, who once did better,
Has sent me, folded in a letter,
A sort of - it's no more a drama
Than Darnely, Ivan, or Kehama;
So alter'd since last year is pen is,
I think he's lost his wits at Venice.
Nonetheless, such cause seems a tad inadequate.  Byron was not a man unfamiliar with rejection.  His clubfoot, for instance, did not provoke an outpouring of acceptance and tolerance from his peers.  And his personal life - incest, anal sex, divorce - seems to have generated sufficient expression of social condemnation to convince him to go into self-imposed exile.

Moreover, whatever the critics opined about his work, Byron was never at a loss for either publishers, fans or sales.  

So why should Byron care about a rejection from John Murray, much less care enough to write a rhyming verse poem about it - a poem that, even for as skilled a hand as Byron, surely required more effort than the dismissive sigh of, "Well, that happened, moving on," that characterizes (for example) my reaction to rejection from publishers?

Plainly, something needled Byron into diverting poetic energies from the Romantic imperative of composing verses as aids to seduction and devoting those energies, instead, to a Philip Roth-like anxiety orgy of venting/moping/carping.  I can think of at least three motivations for this trek off Byron's beaten path:

1.    Byron was outraged, not by rejection of him, but by rejection of his friend, John William Polidari.  The poem, in this interpretation, was an expression of loyalty and friendship.
2.    Despite his experiences, Byron was unusually sensitive to criticism, to the point that he'd stoop to bashing easy targets.  According to this theory, the poem is an expression of insecurity (and possibly immaturity).
3.    Byron felt a heroic passion to expose the brutality of the publishing industry, which was inhumane in its treatment of authors and destructive to the cause of literature.  In this scenario, the poem is an expression of reality.

In proffering this critique of the publishing industry, my own motivations are, of course, transparently obvious: to bring healing to the ill.  Out of concern for what appears to be a plague of industry-wide, chronic constipation (of which reflexive rejection is a symptom), I am pioneering the laxative blog post.

(Image of Lord Byron from The Independent)

Cover art that cover's the author's ass

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The photograph on the cover of Ferdinand Oyono's Houseboy depicts a serving tray with two roses and a full glass of some liquid (water, maybe, or white wine).  Between the flowers and the libation is a blond woman's head.  She's looking up; her mouth is pinched; the overall expression is one of long-suffering exasperation, the appeal to God to help her endure all that is beneath her.  The tray is held by a black man, but the picture depicts only his chest and arms - his head is also cut off.

The picture is great fun and an aggressive act of political art (you could see Cindy Sherman coming up with a similar tableau if she was interested in colonial issues), but the photograph has only the most tangential relationship to the book.  Houseboy is an account of how the colonial system served up black people's heads on platters, not the other way around.

Whether the photograph is an example of typical marketing practices that use a book's cover the way a pimp uses a whore, I have no way of knowing. 

I like to think, though, that George Hallett - the photographer - was supporting Oyono by making explicit a perspective that Oyono leaves the reader to infer.  Hallett's photograph is a portrait of a white colonist's fear: if you don't watch the servant, he'll be serving your head on a plate

By providing this interpretation, Hallett is adding a layer of flesh to the skeletal characterization Oyono has provided.  If Oyono's colonial Madame harbored this fear about Toundi, Houseboy's protagonist, it would go some way towards explaining why she targeted him, alone among the servants who knew of her infidelity. 

Why Toundi triggered such a fear and other servants didn't, of course, remains an unanswered question.  But answering such questions is rightfully the author's job, and looking to the cover artist for help is, if not unfair, an act in which one should engage with limited expectations.  Hallett's contribution is an impressive example of visual and word collaborating to complicate one's understanding of the whole.

What the Houseboy saw

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oyono-ferdinand.jpgI am grateful to University of Nairobi history professor Margaret Gichuhi for bringing to my attention Ferdinand Oyono's 1960 novel Houseboy.  Originally written in French, it's a valuable and rare document of black perspectives on colonial rule - exactly the sort of post-colonial literature that is unlikely to see another print run and, unless it finds new life in digital form, will bury its insights with its lack of availability in hard copy form.

A quick read - 122 pages (properly a novella by some people's score) - Houseboy is an entertaining, fast-moving account of a peasant boy's employment with a French colonial family in Cameroon and the dismal end to which it brings him.  Nonetheless, I wish Oyono had slowed down the pace.  As credible and interesting as is the voice of Toundi, the protagonist, he doesn't reveal enough truly to earn the novel's sad ending.  

The opacity against which the reader struggles is a built-in limitation to the first person voice; Toundi can only tell us what he sees, experiences and thinks.  The reasoning of the colonists around him is hidden, except to the extent that they unburden themselves to Toundi, which they do not in any significant way.  But Toundi's account - his observations and analysis - are too slim, and the reader is asked to infer too much, to give the conclusion the weight Oyono clearly wants it to have.

Toundi's demise occurs, in part, because he is insufficiently discreet about the affair his "Madame" - the wife of the Commandant - is having with M. Moreau, the prison warden.  Toundi's indiscretion is not a matter of gossiping, but of ignorance: he asks too many questions, he doesn't know what condoms are when, cleaning up, he finds them, etc.  His co-workers warn him:  

Toundi, will you never learn what a houseboy's job is?  One of these days you'll be the cause of real trouble.  When will you grasp that for the whites, you are only alive to do their work and for no other reason. 
(p. 87.)

[B]ecause you know all their business, while you are still here, they can never forget about it altogether.  And they will never forgive you for that.  How can they go on strutting about with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth in front of you - when you know.  As far as they are concerned you are the one who has told everybody and they can't help feeling you are sitting in judgment on them. 
(p. 100.)

Toundi doesn't heed their warnings because, as he rightly points out, "I'm not the only one who knows that Madame sleeps with M. Moreau . . . ." (p. 100.)  

The chambermaid, Kalisia, predicts that Toundi will be punished as a scapegoat because, "At the residence you are something like . . . a representative of the rest of us."  (p. 100.)  But Toundi doesn't listen, and the reader can understand why: Kalisia's explanation isn't enough.

Colonists - indeed, anyone with a coterie of servants - is used to having house workers knowing all their business, indiscretions and moral lapses included.  Moreover, people with servants have to acclimate themselves to the judgment of those who know their failings and secrets.  If the judgment is subtle, unstated or otherwise easy-to-ignore, employers are probably happier; but if the servant is valuable enough, an employer can accommodate him or herself to extremely high degrees of articulated disapproval.   P.G. Wodehouse wrote scores of books making comedy out of exactly this situation.  Karen Blixen understood the dynamic as being intrinsic to the master-servant relationship.  When she is leaving her farm in Out of Africa, she describes the response of her servants as follows:

There is a paradoxical moment in the relation between the leader and the followers: that they should see every weakness and failing in him so clearly, and be capable of judging him with such unbiased accuracy, and yet should still inevitably turn to him, as if in life there were, physically, no way round him.  A flock of sheep may be feeling the same towards the herd-boy, they will have infinitely better knowledge of the country and the weather than he, and still will be walking after him, if needs be, straight into the abyss.  The Kikuyu took the situation [of the sale of the farm] better than I did . . . but they sat round my house and waited for my orders; very likely all the time between themselves expatiating freely upon my ignorance and unique incapacity.
(p. 318-319.)

In short, knowing of a master's indiscretion is not enough to justify imprisonment, flogging and death, but Oyono doesn't tell us enough about why Toundi was less lucky than the other servants who knew of the Madame's infidelity.  He doesn't show us Madame's (or her husband's, or her lover's) point of view to explain why Toundi, especially, was a threat.  The fact that Toundi asked questions and was ignorant and insufficiently familiar with the ways of an ideal houseboy could just as easily council in favor of treating him as a harmless idiot, rather than a scourge to be eliminated, and Oyono doesn't help us understand why Toundi fell on the unhappy side of that choice.

Oyono leaves the reader to infer that Toundi's fate follows from his skin color: that a black servant in the colonial scheme was not permitted to sit in judgment of his overseers, and that the punishment for violation of that rule - even inadvertently - was death.  No doubt colonialism encompassed such arbitrariness and abuses, but colonialism also embodied complex dynamics.  Colonists, as much as the colonized, were humans with ambiguous, emotional, contradictory and inconsistent traits, but too often - as here and in Ngugi wa Thiongo's A Grain of Wheat - they are depicted as cardboard, two-dimensional "baddies."  The portrait is as diminishing to the colonized as it is inaccurate.  Oyono is a talented writer (in addition to being a renaissance man, an actor and a diplomat); had he devoted himself to fleshing out the complex motives at work in Houseboy, our historical record and our literature would have been much enriched.

(Image of Ferdinand Oyono from deslivres.com)

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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