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  • The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism, and: Writers from South Africa: Culture, Politics and Literary Theory and Activity in South Africa Today, and: Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee
  • David Attwell
Chidi Amuta. The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism. London: Zed, 1989. 215 pp. £32.95 cloth; pb. £9.25.
Reginald Gibbons, ed. Writers from South Africa: Culture, Politics and Literary Theory and Activity in South Africa Today. Evanston: Triquarterly, 1989. 125 pp. pb. $6.50.
Dick Penner. Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee. Westport: Greenwood, 1989. 167 pp. $37.95.

This selection of titles illustrates how significant the immediate context of scholarship can be in the construction of any "regional" or "area studies" delineation of literature. For although they are united in having something to do with the literary product of Africa, these studies have, in fact, little in common. Apart from noting the differences, one can only make rather broad inferences about the problematic relationship between literary-theoretical currents internationalized by the book industry and the texture of local and differentiated social situations.

Chidi Amuta's subtitle, Implications for Practical Criticism, keys us into his particular context of anglophone West African (Nigerian) literary studies, which has, for some years now, struggled to free itself from the shackles of British Richardsonian and Leavisite criticism which it inherits from the colonial education system. Practical Criticism was (is?), before many things, a pedagogic tool, and this remains a significant yardstick for the evaluation of any new development in literary theory, or indeed the reading of primary African texts, in departments of English or literature in anglophone African universities. But although Amuta feels he must justify himself in these terms (and he provides three chapters of readings in the latter half of the book), he is also conducting a frontal attack on what he sees as an entrenched antitheoreticism, informed by an empiricist and formalist colonial heritage and reinforced by a corrupt bourgeois-nationalist traditionalism.

Amuta is clearly allied to the "second generation" of Nigerian intellectuals (Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, and others) whose particular experience of postcoloniality has led them to break with the cultural nationalism of the "first generation" (Soyinka, Achebe) and move toward a form of historical materialism that combines the Marxist classics with readings of African activist-scholars like Fanon, Cabral, and Ngugi. Amuta's alternative to what he sees as the politically myopic work of the foregoing (established and tenured, of course) generation is a "dialectical" model of the text as generated within a matrix of three elements: "history," the "mediating subject," and the "literary event." A second level of description links "content" and "form" in a sequential order in which content (analogous to "base") becomes form (analogous to "superstructure") through the mediation of the subject and the structuring work of the text. The model is supported by a number of qualifications in which Amuta feels he must distance himself from "vulgar" Marxism, but it is a roughly Lukácsian framework, which depends on the rather unexamined notion that realism remains the natural environment of African literary production, regardless of the formal and linguistic variety of African literatures. I am suggesting that there might be a bias toward written prose narrative here; whether or not this is so, even by Althusserian standards [End Page 650] the model is certainly uncomplicated, that is, in epistemological, semiotic, and discursive terms. Its political edge, however, over the traditionalist aesthetics of its antagonists, goes without saying.

Chidi Amuta's excoriations of his colleagues and countrymen are an entertaining feature of his study, but when one turns to Writers from South Africa one is conscious that for all the pugilism of Nigerian literary academia, in South Africa far more is at stake than the proffering of new models of historical exegesis. Writers from South Africa is the edited transcript of a one-day seminar held at Northwestern University in October 1987, in conjunction with the publication of Triquarterly #69, From South Africa: New Writing, Photographs and Art, a superbly representative and timely volume edited by David Bunn and Jane Taylor of the University of the Western Cape...


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