Comparative Literature Studies 40.3 (2003) 340-344
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In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance. Edited by Ralph A. Austen. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. x + 349 pp. $49.95/$18.95.
The 14 chapters of this volume on different aspects of Sunjata establish, despite the differences of their methodologies and assumptions, the meaning making and meaning bearing status of the text in contention. The content of the meaning is, as it should be expected, a matter that cannot be fixed definitely: does Sunjata reveal the structure of authority and power among the Mande? is it a poetic record of some historicizable motifs in the Mande's march to becoming a nation? are these questions themselves important outside of scholarly circles and the coterie of griots, both of whom [End Page 340] may be performing identical functions? I should note from the outset that the last question, which is raised tangentially in the conclusion of Charles Bird's contribution (292), speaks to the origin of the essays in the book, most of them being contributions to the "Sunjata Epic Conference" held mid-fall in 1992 at Northwestern University, far away from the land of the Mande.
The essays fall into two main groups: the larger one deals with the material shapes, or the meaning making forms, which the epic has taken over time; the other group of essays tries to sort out the hermeneutic functions of the variant forms.
Essays in the first group examine composition dynamics, performance variables, dispersion patterns, regional diversity, textual variants within the same geographical locality, textual transformations brought about by new technologies like the audio cassette and novelistic adaptations. I am also classing in this group papers that examine questions of form like the epic as royal panegyric, as a preservation of historical records (tariku), or as official commemorations, etc. Some of the articles here are case studies that are full of great details which will be very useful to both Sunjata specialists and scholars of Mande culture in general. Students of other oral traditions will, without doubt, also find invaluable resources in the micrological studies. Stephen Belcher's "Man for Tomorrow" renders a solid study of the dispersion of the epic and its relationship to the history of the people that claim it. For its methodological implications, I would like to single out Ivor Wilks's ("The History of the Sunjata Epic") interpositioning of the epic between poetry and history. This essay argues that historical facts are to be found in the epic not as bald literality but as features intrinsic to the epic discourse itself. The essay also proposes that the epic form too is subjected to the influence of the history it carries.
Studies of the material shape of the epic show that there is not one Sunjata and there cannot be one. From the most basic question of when was the text, the specialists cannot agree on whether the text as we know it now first coalesced in the 18th century (Ralph Austen, "The Historical Transformation of Genres") or the 14th (Stephen Belcher, Ivor Wilks, and Charles Bird). More comforting textual studies argue that the epic has lived and continues to do so in the aggregation of the identifiable genres, modes, and traditions that make it up and its dispersion into other close or remote forms found all over West Africa. Two examples: Karim Traore ("Jeli and Sere: The Dialectics of the Word in the Manden") discusses the epic as an intertext of other cannibalized forms, and Paul Fernando de Moraes Farias [End Page 341] ("The GESERE of Borgu") finds elements of Mande praise poetry practices in faraway Borgu, close to the Eastern end of West Africa. Many Sunjata motifs, as shown by James McGuire ("Sunjata and the Negotiation of Postcolonial Mande Identity"), have also migrated unnoticed into fiction. Robert Newton's "The Epic Cassette" outlines the effect of the technology of permanence on the dispersion dynamics--performance, aesthetic consideration, "patron-performer and audience performer contracts" (326), etc...