restricted access Reading the African Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Simon Gikandi. Reading the African Novel. London: James Currey, 1987. 175 pp. £8.95.

Despite its modest length, Reading the African Novel is a substantial work. Of course, one can pick quarrels with it. For example, in Oyono's Houseboy, the reader is aware of irony: Gikandi has not considered the implications of that novel beginning with the central character's violent death: thereafter, we read Toundi's diary in a different (ironic) light. The diary form may assume a private discourse but is born of the contrary impulses to conceal and to communicate and, as I have shown elsewhere (World Literature Today 59.3 [1985]), contrary to Gikandi, Toundi does grow in a positive direction: he dies questioning, defiant, and brave. Nor is it appropriate to say that Toundi "begins to appreciate the values" of traditional society: as Toundi tells Madame, "the river does not go back to its spring."

The dirt and filth in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born no doubt point to the corruption in and of society, but the paradox could have been discussed: corruption (and the wealth it generates) also manifests itself as something "clean," "gleaming," and attractive. Students have difficulty in coming to terms with The Interpreters, a work in which Wole Soyinka fused his poetic and dramatic genius to produce an outstanding novel; Gikandi could have dealt in greater detail with this difficult work, especially drawing attention to its language and style. Despite his criticisms of Petals of Blood, Gikandi has declined to go all the way, to confront the fact that the novel is a stodgy, over-earnest, labored work that few would reread voluntarily and with "delight." In ordering the chapters, Gikandi eccentrically deals with myth, culture, and Arrow of God, a novel set at the turn of the century, in a final chapter, after contemporary works such as Ngugi's as if he had material he was reluctant to leave out.

But these are not major reservations. Positively, the selection and grouping of texts within each chapter are not capricious or forced; the general discussion preceding commentary on the individual novels is thoughtful, and the remarks made towards the end of each chapter prepare and lead us neatly on to the next. The novels Gikandi deals with are major African works: for example, God's Bits of Wood, Arrow of God, The Interpreters, The Beautyful Ones. Consequently, much has been written on them, yet Gikandi gives the reader fresh insights, a tribute both to the novels and to the critic. His treatment of Laye and Beti are exemplary; particularly with reference to The Radiance of the King, he avoids that crudity of [End Page 755] clarification that would have destroyed the ambiguity and suggestiveness of this intriguing work. His treatment of Medza, his attention to Ousmane's techniques (see, for example, page 115) make one wish there had been more of this detailed analysis. Gikandi has read widely and makes few concessions: Reading the African Novel is no introductory work for senior secondary pupils. The argument is concentrated, and the language is not simplified: "The form and meaning of these narratives is thus mediated by a Manichean vision which is particularly suited to the antinomies on which the dramatic structure in the modernist novel moves." But if reading is not facile, if one has to pause, disentangle, and reflect, it is certainly rewarding. Altogether, Gikandi's is a thoughtful and serious study, one that repays the attention it demands.

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
Bonn, West Germany
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