- Postcolonial Criticism and Representations of African Dictatorship: The Aesthetics of Tyranny by Cécile Bishop
One might initially understand from the book’s title that it focuses on the rather understudied question of the representation of dictatorship in African literature. While this is to some extent true, Cécile Bishop instead uses literary and filmic representations of dictatorship to support her argument for a form of (postcolonial) criticism that foregrounds the complexity of the reader’s or spectator’s experience. The theme of postindependence dictatorships in Africa, Bishop acknowledges, is selected because it is ‘illustrative of themes and questions that have been central to the field of postcolonial criticism, and mobilizes very directly the entanglement between politics and aesthetics’ (p. 3). The result is a thought-provoking study examining the heavily politicized rhetoric [End Page 430] of much postcolonial criticism and arguing for a new engagement with aesthetic experience. In Chapter 1, Bishop sets out her position in response to the contradictions arising from the simultaneous investment of postcolonial critics in aesthetics and politics. The chapter focuses particularly on Congolese writer Henri Lopes’s celebrated novel Le Pleurer-rire (Paris: Présence africaine, 1982), firstly to consider Lopes’s treatment of dictatorship, highlighting the narrative complexity of the novel as a valorization of the literary text as a site of ‘playful contestation’ (p. 12). Bishop then calls this reading into question by tracing echoes of Congolese realities throughout the novel. Despite Lopes’s refusal of any direct link between his literary and political careers, or between his novels and reality, this approach invites us to consider ‘the novel’s play with referentiality, its often sarcastic treatment of political commitment, and its defence of aesthetic autonomy’ (p. 32), and foregrounds the tendency of postcolonial criticism to preclude the separation between author and text that is often advocated in other fields of literary criticism. Chapter 2 demonstrates that similar tensions are apparent in works that do not correspond to canonical conceptions of aesthetic value or ‘literariness’. Bishop considers three contrasting films about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada: The Last King of Scotland (dir. by Kevin MacDonald, 2006), Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (dir. by Barbet Schroeder, 1974), and Amin: The Rise and Fall (dir. by Sharad Patel, 1981). She analyses the interplay between the political and the aesthetic, emphasizing the complexity of the experience these works create. Pursuing this angle, Bishop turns to Achille Mbembe’s essay ‘Provisional Notes on the Postcolony’ (Africa, 62.1 (1992): 3–37) in her final chapter, which she selects for the questions it raises about the relations between aesthetics, politics, and knowledge. Mbembe’s analysis of fictional works by Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi as ‘a kind of socio-political evidence’ interests Bishop because it ‘destabilises and confirms the distinctions through which Mbembe’s essay may be said to produce new forms of knowledge located not in the text itself, but emerges from the confusing experience of reading it’ (p. 13). Despite a few questionable translations, this is an impressive first book that calls for renewed engagement with established critical approaches and opens up intriguing new avenues of research.