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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 228-230

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Book Review

Le jeu et le sérieux: essai d'anthropologie littéraire sur la poésie épique des chasseurs du Mande (Afrique de l'ouest)

Le jeu et le sérieux: essai d'anthropologie littéraire sur la poésie épique des chasseurs du Mande (Afrique de l'ouest), by Karim Traoré. Studien zur Kulturkunde 113. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe , 2000. 294 pp. ISBN 3-89645-208-8.

The Mande epic is hardly a neglected topic in modern African studies, but Karim Traoré brings to this theme a rare combination of literary training, anthropological perception, and the language skills of a native speaker. The result is a very informative and insightful analysis that should set standards for further studies of oral literature.

The genre that Traoré sets out to study here is the hunters' epic, whose content and performance context is distinct from, although clearly related to, the more familiar heroic narratives from this region that address the careers of rulers and elite lineage heads and are the monopoly of bardic lineages (jeliw or griots). Traoré makes a specific and very [End Page 228] useful effort to link hunters' epics not only to this obviously linked genre (especially its classic version, Sunjata) but also to forms that are the property of no specific group, especially folk tales and female song. We are thus introduced to a very full range of oral literature and one aspect of Traoré's anthropological effort consists in setting out this variegated world of verbal creativity within a single cultural zone.

The literary analysis at the core of the book is introduced by a more conventional ethnography of the Mande world and especially its division into hierarchical, although interdependent "castes" (nonintermarrying descent groups) of horon ("nobles") and nyamakalaw (artisans, including bards). While Traoré stresses the impossibility of crossing these boundaries within general social life, his study focuses upon hunting societies whose exclusively male members do maintain an egalitarian or at least purely meritocractic ethic. The epics of these groups are thus performed by specialists recruited from any sector of society (but rarely from among griot lineages) purely on the basis of their demonstrated skill. Traoré uses mythic narrative and other sources to examine the values of hunters, which he sees as deeply ambiguous--on the one hand stressing ultramasculinity and on the other acknowledging a dependence upon various incarnations of a mother figure.

The culmination of this analytic effort is the lengthy analysis of a single hunters' epic, "Famori," as performed by the well-known bard, Seydou Camara. This text provides an excellent vehicle for the exploration of the issues raised by Traoré, since it stresses both the occult powers necessary or hunting success and their close ties to the relationships between the male protagonist, the animals of the bush, and ultimately various females. Of particular interest here is Traoré's ability to move beyond the well-known antagonism between hunting prowess and sexuality to indicate how certain forms of marriage (to a first wife, chosen by the mother) can be perceived in the same asexual category as motherhood while other forms of more autonomous sexuality are equated, at least metaphorically, with hunting.

The scholarly value of this study here must be assessed in relation to the earlier writings of Charles Bird, who not only worked more directly with Seydou Camara than Traoré (who apparently never met this bard) but also co-authored the hitherto canonical statement of the heroic values embodied in Mande epic. Traoré consciously builds upon the work of Bird and nowhere criticizes him. In large part, this new study does elaborate (in very useful ways) upon the main concepts introduced by Bird: nyama (dangerous spiritual forces confronted in the bush); fadenya ("father-childness" = rivalry among half-siblings and the spur to anti-social heroic action); and dalilu (the magical "means" used by heroes). However, the relationship between hunters and women stressed by Traoré considerably complicates (and...


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