- Patterns of Decadence, Visions of Regeneration in Armah's Fragments
Although in Fragments, Armah's second novel, we find not only that Ghanaian writer's most vivid picture of the materialism, ostentation, corruption, greed, selfishness, and irresponsibility choking Africa but also his most poignant vision of the alternative values that could tame the tide of disorder on the continent; critics have seldom accorded recognition to the significance of the book in Armah's oeuvre.1 Nor has the novel's pre-eminent position within the whole corpus of postcolonial African fiction in English been reckoned. And yet Fragments is a feat of the imagination, one of the few novels in English from Africa that deals in any compelling way with the maladies that have come with the colonial encounter. Fragments represents a major literary accomplishment in the sense that, like the work of the other great artists of the world—Yeats, Joyce, Soyinka, [End Page 529] Faulkner2—its vision of regeneration entails the use of form, images of delight, a lyrical language, and a design to combat the novelist's own terror, his fear of the reality of chaos captured in the novel's disordered narrative sequence. Blended with a range and depth of tenderness and nostalgia, and an achievement of scope in verisimilitude that was absent in its largely parabolical predecessor The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Fragments lacks the utopianism of The Healers, Armah's fifth and most recent novel; and its vision is more balanced than that of his other novels Why Are We So Blest? and Two Thousand Seasons—essentially two brutal and disorienting books whose mood of gloom is aggravated by their manichean aesthetics.
Because of Armah's experimental, idealist, and iconoclastic vision, it is not surprising that the question has always inevitably cropped up in discussions of his work concerning whether or not his writing embodies any specific and firm commitment to his society. On almost every occasion his mainstream critics have found him guilty of being an artist who writes about his own people with the aesthetic distance of an outsider.3 [End Page 530] In "Negritude and Armah" I have argued against this conventional view and proposed that he generally conceived his writing in therapeutic terms, as an attempt to heal the wounds of colonialism, not to fan them. What I hope to show with specific reference to Fragments, in contrast to the views of those critics, is that in its frank and fearless exposé of the problems of postcolonial Africa, Armah's second novel conforms to the notion of a postcolonial text whose intent, in the words of Bill Aschroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin in their recent book The Empire Writes Back, is to be "subversive rather than filiastic, counter-discursive rather than a continuing expression of the original imperial discourse" (20).
One pertinent question raised by the trio of Aschroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin that is of great relevance to understanding Armah's Fragments concerns: "Why should post-colonial societies continue to engage with the imperial experience?" (6). "Since all the post-colonial societies we discuss have achieved political independence," they ask, "why is the issue of coloniality still relevant at all?" (6). Among the various reasons that they offer explaining why "the empire needs to write back to a centre once the imperial structure has been dismantled in political terms" (6-7) is that for most of the former colonized peoples the center still continues to exercise cultural and economic domination, as political independence proves to be nominal freedom which does not necessarily bring about a dialogue of equality between the colonized people and their colonizers. As they argue, if colonialism were a means by which colonized people were culturally degraded, physically and mentally displaced, and economically exploited, political independence could not restore to the natives their dignity as humans.4 For postcolonial Indians, Africans, Canadians, and Australians, therefore, writing serves as an enabling means of restoring the authority of power in the colonized people's continuing quest for self-revalorization, self-regeneration, and fecundation. Although they do not discuss Armah's novels at any length in their extensive and incisive book (which...