THE MYSTERIOUS LTERARY FONDNESS FOR DARKEST AFRICA
THE MYSTERIOUS LTERARY FONDNESS FOR DARKEST AFRICA
But why Africa? Writers have always drawn on other cultures, of course — Chaucer on France and Italy, Henry James on all of Europe, Malcolm Lowry on Mexico and Canada. Certainly there are times when a developing literature seems to ransack the world for molds, models and definitions. But why does Africa have such fascination for Canadian novelists these days?
Margaret Laurence broke the ground a decade ago, with This Side Jordan and the later collection of stories The Tomorrow-Tamer, long out of print and recently reissued in a New Canadian Library paperback. Her very first book consisted of translations from Somali literature, A Tree For Poverty. In The Prophet’s Camel Bell she produced an arresting account of her year in Somaliland, and, though she wrote no fiction about Africa after the early Sixties, she returned to African material in 1968 with a volume of criticism of Nigerian fiction and drama, Long Drums And Cannons. Of her 10 books, five are deeply involved with her African experience.
Audrey Thomas’ first novel, Mrs. Blood (Thomas Allen), reveals a number of parallels with Margaret Laurence’s work. Like Miranda of This Side Jordan, Mrs.
Thomas’ heroine is worriedly pregnant in West Africa; like Hagar Shipley of The Stone Angel she spends many a memorable day in an acutely observed hospital. The parallel runs deeper, however.
Like Margaret Laurence,
Audrey Thomas chronicles the anguish and comedy of being a woman, with needs and desires as strong as a man’s, but without a man’s capacity to satisfy them. She is profoundly — though not narrowly — a feminine novelist. Bleeding and miscarrying in an African hospital, dredging up fragments of her past, reviewing her relations with her children, her husband, her father, “Mrs. Blood,” as she calls herself, crowds the African scene into a smallish corner of the book, reduces it to some kind of colorful background. She could encounter much the same experience in Guatemala or Calgary, and it is she, rather than her Africa, that lingers in the mind.
Africa, on the other hand, is what chiefly happens to Henry Farquharson, the hero of David Knight’s magnificently titled Farquharson’s Physique: And What It Did To His Mind (Musson). Farquharson is 37, an English professor from Toronto with a “workable wife” and a two-year-old son, come for a one-year stint at the University of Ibadan. Without being gushy or condescending, Farquharson is eager to know Africa, and his year in Nigeria is more than eventful. It is 1965-66, and Nigeria is beginning to split open.
Ibadan offers him riots, curfews, love affairs; new sights, tastes, sounds; murder and servants and a crisis in his marriage; and, finally, death. An ironic and workmanlike novel, Farquharson’s Physique shatters two of my private theories:
that novelists can no longer consider professors human, and that male Canadian novelists understand sex as either an embarrassment or an occasion for bragging, but never as a complex or difficult human interaction. Well, there’s Farq: a good lover, but unable to pace himself with his wife, and a man so likable and human that Knight dedicates the book to him. I’m not surprised: I liked him, too.
In a broad sense, Farquharson’s Physique is a political novel, a study of the way social forces and power struggles impinge on the lives of private individuals, shaping and changing the people they touch. Does anyone feel the same about being a Canadian as he did before October, 1970? Looking back from this angle, one realizes that an important dimension of Margaret Laurence’s fiction is political, too, and she herself has pointed out some of the political implications of Dave Godfrey’s Governor General’s Award-winning first novel The New Ancestors — of which she shares the dedication with several of the author’s friends and mentors.
Though Godfrey is a celebrated Canadian nationalist, there are no Canadians in The New Ancestors; here Africa takes over entirely. Set in Lost Coast — or, roughly, Ghana — The New Ancestors is divided into five parts. The London Notebook introduces the major characters and themes through the voice of Michael Burdener, an English Marxist teacher wrenchingly married to an African woman. In the second section, Burdener’s wife, Ama, relives her marriage, her relation with her demented, inspired mother, the death of her son, her time in the sexual service of Kruman, the Redeemer. Ama’s brother, Gamaliel Harding, is a drummer
who has worked in America but has returned to become one of the Redeemer’s journalistic apologists, and the third section ends with his death at the hands of his bastard half-brother, First Samuels, the revolutionary full of pain and rage at what has become of his country under ostensible socialism and independence. In The Fifth City, the fourth, surrealistic section, is a powerful nightmare set in Mali, in which among other things an American agent is repeatedly and variously liquidated. Burdener returns covertly to Agada, Lost Coast’s capital, and the brief final passage, his Agada Notebook, recapitulates themes enlarged in the Fifth City sequence.
Godfrey keeps a bewildering variety of themes in play: politics, sexuality, race, myth, ancestry, the landscape, the nature of vision, to name only a few. Though his Africa is made real by innumerable details of language and custom, it is clear that Africa is, finally, a metaphor. Godfrey is talking about the human condition in our time, about the way we shape our experience while it shapes us. An intricate and sophisticated vision, it is triumphantly carried by Godfrey’s astonishing gifts of language. As George Woodcock says, The New Ancestors is a book of such quality that one feels a kind of awe at the thought of what his next may be.
Conceivably the attempt to understand so various and exotic a society helps to define experience for novelists from a society which has never really defined itself. As we, like the Africans, face the confrontation of cultures which seems to characterize modernity, we need to unite our politics and our private lives through courage and endurance: the qualities of Mrs. Blood, Henry Farquharson and First Samuels. ■
Don Cameron teaches English at the University of New Brunswick
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