- A Forest of Flowers by Ken Saro-Wiwa
Saros International, 151 pp, £7.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 7824 6003 8
- Fools, and Other Stories by Njabulo Ndebele
Longman, 280 pp, £2.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 582 78621 5
- Hungry Flames, and Other Black South African Stories edited by Mbulelo Mzamane
Longman, 158 pp, £2.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 582 78590 1
- Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Heinemann, 150 pp, £10.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 434 44028 0
- Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard by Gabriel Josipovici
Carcanet, 137 pp, £8.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 85635 641 7
- The Seven Ages by Eva Figes
Hamish Hamilton, 186 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 241 11874 3
Three African writers, from very different parts of the continent – Saro-Wiwa from Nigeria, Ndebele from South Africa, Macgoye from Kenya. My ignorance of all three regions being deep and extensive, I am obliged to accept these three books in great part as documentary reports, as information about unknown ways of life. But perhaps this is right. One of the many problems for an African writer in the English language is the question of his audience. Who is he writing for? For his own people – for the small fraction of his own people who will ever be able to read him? Like Joyce, ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’? Or is it his task to inform the rest of the English-speaking world about a continent still dark to those outside it, about its hopes and its fears, its ambitions and its stagnation, its advance and its relapse? The latter must be a large part of his intention. Yet this confronts the reader with the social and political history of a hundred tribes and a dozen emergent nations of which in the nature of things the outsider can have only a faint and distant understanding.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s extremely accomplished collection of short stories stands to Nigeria in something of the same relation as Joyce’s Dubliners to Ireland. They are brief epiphanies, each crystallising a moment, a way of living, the whole course of a life. When as a youngster I first read Dubliners I remember being baffled by the way eerie characters and their bizarre motivations were calmly accepted as part of the ordinary nature of things. Saro-Wiwa’s tales bring back something of this feeling. There is great variety in these glimpses. The book is divided into two parts – innocence and experience, you might call them. The first part deals with Dukana, a village community, the second with the more sophisticated life of the towns. Not that there is anything idyllic about the village; it is sunk in dirt, apathy and superstition. An educated girl comes back there, thinking of it as home, and eager to see an old friend from schooldays. But she finds the friend has disappeared, been driven out, no one knows where. She has committed the misdemeanour of having twins. A solitary man who talks to nobody but gets on with his farming by himself is suspected of witchcraft, simply because he is a loner, and is burnt alive in his hut. Yet all the families are close and affectionate; and an element of placid bargain-keeping does something to mitigate the harshest arrangements. A beautiful girl is married, and married well, since it is to a lorry-driver: but she turns out to be barren and so is repudiated – with the agreement of all, including the girl herself. She simply pays back her bride-price, goes back to her mother, and resumes her life as before, without resentment or disgrace. Less sombre are the vagaries of the Holy Spiritual Church of Mount Zion in Israel, and the complex arrangements to defeat the Sanitary Inspector – involving, of course, the defeat of all attempts at sanitation.
This brings us on to Part Two, where the towns, repositories of government and business, are exposed in all the depths of their squalor, incompetence, chicanery and corruption. Some of this is the stuff of comedy: in the negotiations about the Acapulco Motel muddle and cheating seem to be tolerantly expected on all sides. But in the two stories ‘The Stars Below’ and ‘Night Ride’ we get a steady look at the heartbreaking hopelessness of this society. In each case an idealistic young official surveys the ruin of his life, the wreck of the world around him in the aftermath of a ghastly civil war, and the doubt whether the old apathetic stagnation or the new conscienceless greed is worse.
But I have made these stories seem more sombre than they are. An unlovely world, but much of it is rendered with affection; and there is immense satisfaction for the reader in the adroitness and variety of the presentation. A few of the tales are in pidgin, which I can hardly judge. Others use interior monologue and make a wonderfully happy accommodation between the idiosyncrasy of the characters and the decorum of the English language; while the parts where the narrator speaks in his own person have a straightforward elegance that is extremely attractive.