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Research in African Literatures 32.1 (2001) 153-154

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Book Review


Story, by Harold Scheub. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1998. 351 pp. ISBN 0-299-15934-5 paper.

Story, as Harold Scheub defines, "is the artful mixing of images by means of pattern, drawing on and working within two contexts, the past and the present (14)." As the generic title and definition suggest, Scheub intends Story to be a novel analysis of story telling art. Even though Story revisits people and places featured previously in Scheub's scholarship (The World and the Word, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1993; The Tongue Is Fire, Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996; The African Storyteller, Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1990), readers are encouraged to suspend a natural inclination to position this exploration as an ethnoaesthetic exposé of the South African region. Scheub casts a panoramic historical net to capture his analytical morsels. Along with stories recorded during his now thirty-year-old research in South Africa, Scheub's web also snares ancient San rock art, the collected stories of one nineteenth-century San storyteller, as well as published stories from twentieth-century South African-born writer Pauline Smith.

While casting time and again into southern Africa's narrative waters, the focal point is, paradoxically, never the narrative traditions of the political entity that is South Africa. There are instead specific Ndebele, Xhosa, Swati, or Zulu stories and story tellers. However, Scheub's point in juxtaposing these translated texts is to underscore the complex narrative plotting by which a handful of masterful tellers evoke the emotions that continue to reverberate among listeners, long past the actual moments of telling and listening. What Scheub confirms for readers is that storytelling art is the work of masters, regardless of whether the tales are ancient or modern; painted, oral or literary. In this carefully selected sampling, the artists are black and white, male and female, favored local speakers as well as alienated outsiders. In all these variations, "story" is the leading character in a very thoughtful and far-reaching analysis.

Scheub writes like his storytellers speak, in clipped sentences, punctuated by pregnant ideas that both elaborate and engage readers in increasingly deeper levels of interpretation and understanding. The story transcriptions resemble familiar literary forms--stanzas of poetry, a play's [End Page 153] monologue. As wonderfully as these representations and discursive devices elaborate the emotional theater at the heart of tale-telling art, what Story lacks is that essential business that might better communicate the play between teller and audience. That collaborative dialogue is discussed, but never presented. The transcriptions dish up one monologue after another as Scheub reserves for his commentary these more explicit interactions between speakers and listeners. For future consideration, a sampling of transcribed texts with parenthetical asides or audience responses included would augment the various literary formats while allowing readers a measure of independent inquiry into these moments of interplay and intertextuality.

Scheub achieves his intellectual goal of generic engagement through an apolitical inquiry that makes obvious omissions. Mentions of apartheid are hidden in a few brief notes, one example of Scheub's refusal to ponder bigger questions provoked by his subject matter. An additional irony is that this sampling of stories from southern African fails to consider the role of place. In these narratives constructed and performed by women and men of words, Scheub never fathoms the role of gender. South Africa is a nation with a hotly contested past and present. Its economic and social policies have made it the longstanding object of Western gaze--a rarity among African nations. Yet, Scheub's appraisal fails to fully investigate these emotional ramifications on story's art and audiences.

Brief biographical details accompany only two of many tellers. A few relevant historical or anthropological details might intrigue rather than mystify readers unfamiliar with Scheub's previous scholarship or with the region under discussion. These shortcomings do not deter from an otherwise provocative analysis. Given Scheub's sustained interest and sophisticated lens, one anticipates he will some day turn to the tales of horror recorded by South Africa...


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pp. 153-154
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