A Good Girl in Africa

D.A.N. Jones

  • Double Yoke by Buchi Emecheta
    Dgwugwu Afor, 163 pp, £3.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 9508177 0 8
  • The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
    Bodley Head, 304 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 370 30926 X
  • A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin
    Hodder, 220 pp, £6.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 340 28586 9
  • An Ice Cream War by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 370 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 241 10868 3
  • Tempting Fate by Michael Levey
    Hamish Hamilton, 220 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 241 10801 2

Buchi Emecheta’s novel is dedicated to her 1981 students at the University of Calabar. Double Yoke is a tale of student life at that university and evidently the teacher has learned a great deal from her pupils, pulling out passages from their essays and exercises to make her own point about their lives and ideas. This is not an English-style comedy of university life, like Chukwuemeka Ike’s Toads for Supper: it belongs to another genre of Nigerian fiction – the self-confidently didactic style of S. L. Aluko, the engineer who wrote One Man, One Wife and One Man, One Matchet, informing the outside world about Nigeria and telling Nigerians how to behave: two burdens, perhaps, a double yoke.

Like Aluko (or Henry Fielding), Miss Emecheta is happy to halt her pacey narrative and tell the reader bluntly what she thinks of her characters and life in general. This technique, the sermon in parenthesis, is acceptable in skilful story-tellers, like Miss Emecheta. Storytelling is a traditional Nigerian accomplishment, so that one wonders whether the students of Calabar really need a modern course in Creative Writing.

Double Yoke firmly suggests that they do. It begins with a Calabar teacher instructing pupils to write ‘an imaginary story of how you would like your ideal Nigeria to be’. This teacher, Miss Bulewao, is a Nigerian writer normally resident in England, ‘better known abroad than in her own country’ – like the author herself. Only male students come to her classes, since the girls are too shy. The boys are surprised that she seems ‘more like any mum, any farmer’s wife’, than a writer.

One of the boys, Ete Kamba, plans a story about the punishment of a wicked professor who seduced Ete’s girlfriend by promising extra tuition and a good degree. This interesting, violent tale takes up most of the novel (told in the third person, mostly from Ete’s point of view, with Miss Emecheta’s authorial comments). Finally, the teacher’s voice is heard again, praising her pupils for writing so autobiographically. When she gets Ete on his own, she rebukes him for the lifestyle he has revealed to her and urges him to sort his ideas out, so that he becomes ‘a modern African man’. She says that his girlfriend, Nko, is ‘a modern African lady, but you are still lagging – oh, so far, far behind!’ Miss Bulewao’s next lesson begins: ‘Today we shall explore the possibility of working on biographical details, to make them look fictitious. Ete Kamba, you have to start ...’

But Ete is not there. His girlfriend, distraught over her father’s death, has gone to her family home, with Ete in attendance. Miss Bulewao draws a moral lesson from this (with her familiar feminist sting in the tail) about the ‘double yoke’ of tradition and modernity – here seen as community-versus-individualism. Many other aspects of ‘tradition-versus-modernity’ are discussed in the novel, and one of them is now expressed by Ete’s friend, Akpan, who says dreamily: ‘Give me a 14-year-old village girl with uncomplicated background any time.’ The fictional Miss Bulewao mocks him for this – and the real Miss Emecheta joins her. The last sentence of the book is: ‘Poor Akpans of this world!’

Modern feminism has given the organised women of southern Nigeria an extra weapon, perhaps an unfair advantage, in their traditional struggle (or sporting contest) against organised males. Miss Emecheta offers Nigerian women the benefit of her European experience: she left Nigeria for Britain in 1962. So did I, as it happens, after two years teaching in a girls’ selective boarding-school: so I am still fascinated by the ‘double-bind’ of academic girls who want to be ‘modern’ (standardised by schooling and television) but also good ‘traditional’ Nigerian wives, following particularised customs, as their grandmothers did. This can lead to religious hysteria (sharply discussed by Miss Emecheta). In such a fit, some of my pupils tore the dress of my best Latin scholar, for ‘stealing their brains’; when, in remorse, they subscribed to buy her a new one, she proudly used the money to buy a book for the school library, a book for girls like herself, not for brainless ninnies: it was Rex Warner’s Julius Caesar.

The incident is recalled by Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome, another account of the clash between the messy, human values of the village and the deadly, idealistic standardisation imposed by the idea of progress, here represented by a dedicated Air Force taking over from the world of squires and vicars. Rex Warner wrote (in 1941) that he had deliberately made both the possible worlds somewhat repulsive, adding that in the real world, ‘both for the Air Force and for the villages of my own country I have the utmost affection and respect. Anyone who has read my other books will know that I do not even aim at realism.’ But Anthony Burgess, in his interesting new foreword, holds that The Aerodrome ‘functions, in spite of the author’s disclaimer, as a realistic work with larger overtones’.

When I first read this symbolic novel, thirty years ago, it seemed almost disappointingly ‘realistic’ after the wonderland of The Wild Goose Chase, where Warner had used Kafka’s technique for brilliant political satire, rather than for spiritual questioning: it was a world of mad, laughing policemen and football matches between Left and Right fixed for the latter’s benefit. But in The Aerodrome one could see real-life Dorset, villages swallowed by the armed services, with Rex Warner and his friend, Cecil Day-Lewis, choosing between two worlds, constructing ‘magnetic mountains’ under the influence of T. E. Lawence, brooding at Bovington. I did not notice the spiritual and religious concerns of The Aerodrome, hinted at by the epigraph, a verse of George Herbert’s about sin and love.

Rex Warner was a Classical scholar, and his prose – carved, marble-hard, balanced – reads like a very good translation of Classical Latin. The story he tells, with children’s discovery of lost parents and of parental crimes, is the sort we read in Euripides’s plays. The Air Vice Marshal who forbids his men to marry and makes fine speeches about a cleaner, more manly world is like a Roman general planning to become emperor. (It was only in the second century AD that the liberal Severus permitted Roman soldiers to get married.) The Air Vice Marshal, this Prince of the Air, almost succeeds in taking over the nation: but his coup fails, thwarted by the messy human spirit of the village. This fine novel of 1942, based on the experience of the Thirties, is obviously concerned with the attractions and horrors of Fascism and Communism: but it is so like a Greek tragedy about a Roman emperor that it seems timeless.

Chris Mullin has attempted a realistic novel about a much more successful coup, in 1989. ‘British’ is the word to emphasise in A Very British Coup. We are concerned here with a Labour prime minister – a non-Oxonian, working-class version of Tony Benn – who is brought down, quietly and peacefully, by the forces of the ‘Establishment’ when he attempts to pull out of the American alliance and threatens the power of the newspaper-owners. This improbable prime minister is most plausibly drawn; so is the world of Labour politicians, the government offices and the layout of Chequers. The part played by the newspapers in the story has strong credibility: but only when Mullin is dealing with their cruel and fake-antique ‘morality’ in handling sexual scandals about their political opponents. It is harder to believe in the press lords conspiring with conservative civil servants to support, openly, a power-workers’ strike – even a strike designed to damage a Labour government.

The editor of Tribune, Chris Mullin is (roughly speaking) a Bennite: the Civil Service is presented as a danger to democratic socialism, no less mean and formidable than the press. The country-house world of Chequers is also a menace to the cause: the whole ‘Establishment’, bishops and all, cheerfully conspire to do down the good premier. When they meet in the Athenaeum to congratulate Sir Peregrine, head of the ‘secret’ service, on his victory over democracy, the Bishop of Bath and Wells is there, ‘looking years younger’. Being more of a Footite (roughly speaking again), I don’t believe in these bogey-men: their coven seems to be under the chairmanship of the very fat man who waters the workers’ beer.

William Boyd brings us back to the realities of the ‘modernisation’ of Africa. An Ice Cream War is about what Africa can do to European modernisers – in this case British and German settlers in East Africa during the 1914-18 war. Boyd starts with a real-life letter from a British settler-soldier in Nairobi, writing in 1914 to his sister in England, assuring her that the war will be over in two months: ‘It is far too hot for sustained fighting ... We will all melt like ice-creams in the sun. Ever your affect. brother ...’ This is a chirpy letter, very much of its time, and William Boyd has tried to capture its tone in the dialogue of his British characters, plucky and ignorant, troubled by Late Victorian public-school ideals and doubts. Descriptions of sexual congress emphasise the difficulties of women trying to arouse such men in bed. The sympathy and admiration Boyd must feel for these boyish men in the wilderness is echoed by his epigraph from Kipling’s ‘The Brushwood Boy’.

The novel starts with fantasy and a snappy opening sentence: ‘ “What do you think would happen,” Colonel Theodore Roosevelt asked his son, Kermit, “if I shot an elephant in the balls?” ’ Gradually we discover we are in a dream – dreamt by an American settler in 1914. When he wakes up and laughs at it, we are in his real world, German East Africa. This is a neat way to draw us into the past, especially with the American observer there to point out the characteristics of these exotic foreigners – British and Germans, that is: the Africans appear only as good Nigerian troops and bad ‘jerry niggers’.

This is a historical novel in the Victorian tradition, like The Cloister and the Hearth. William Boyd seems to have enjoyed immersing himself in the period, so that his details of language patterns and railway timetables emerge naturally, unaffectedly. The talk of opponents of the war, guilty at Oxford, unfit for service, has an especially natural air, as if derived from eavesdropping rather than research. All the same, we cannot ‘lose ourselves’ in this historical romance, since we are always conscious of a 1980s mind treating the past as ‘another country’.

The British did badly in the East African campaign. There are passages in An Ice Cream War which remind us of the risks involved in a more recent, icier struggle, the battle for the Falklands – which, had it ended in failure, would have made this novel morbid reading. It is, in fact, almost enjoyable enough to become a historical ‘blockbuster’, suitable for screening: but it is perhaps too clever for that. As an ambitious novel, its flaw is a lack of human involvement. Author and reader observe the characters but do not feel with them, let alone ‘identify’.

With Tempting Fate we are coaxed into an uneasy relationship with Nicky, a handsome, homosexual youth, determined to attract older men. On the dust-cover the author has drawn a picture of Nicky, posing in his bathing trunks. When clothed, we learn, he wears ‘a denim jacket (brown, not blue), bearing my “I love paedophilia” badge. Dennis was taking me to the Reform Club for lunch ...’

Dennis is one of Nicky’s lovers, formerly his teacher at his boarding-school. ‘ “Kick us,” he murmured fondly as he knelt at my feet.’ That is the first sentence of the story, narrated by Nicky himself. He soon realises that his admirer was actually saying ‘Kickers’, not ‘Kick us’, in his admiration for Nicky’s shoes. The reader is tempted to mutter: ‘Oh, knickers, Nicky.’

But the book soon gets to be more like another kind of ‘teaser’ – the detective-story type, so much so that one must not reveal too much of the plot. Nicky’s home life is dominated by smart, actressy women, including his mother: he has no father. He goes to stay with his godfather, a good clergyman, impervious to Nicky’s homo-erotic appeal: if he has a temptation, it seems to be a matter of young girls. After this clergyman’s mysterious death, Nicky (who is only 16) is taken into the household of a policeman and his wife: they teach him a more healthy way of life, with bird-watching and sensible food. Will Nicky try to seduce either of them? Will things get messy? Now read on ... We may feel we have met this clever-naif teenage narrator before, in the novels of J. D. Salinger, Denton Welch and Colin MacInnes. But the device is still successful; and Nicky is, in a surprising way, a prize specimen.