- The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony by Eleni Coundouriotis
by Eleni Coundouriotis
New York: Fordham UP, 2014.
xi + 336 pp. ISBN 9780823262335 cloth.
Eleni Coundouriotis’s literary history of the war novel in Africa makes an important and timely contribution to the study of the war novel as genre, as well as to a renewed understanding of the African novel in general. Identifying a “fundamental discontinuity between the canon of the African novel and the novel of war” (20), in this thoroughly researched and well-written study Coundouriotis makes a compelling argument that the war novel forms a distinct literary tradition in Africa. The book is divided into four substantial chapters, three of which focus on case studies of war in Africa—the anticolonial Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Nigerian Civil War, and Zimbabwe’s anticolonial wars of liberation—as well as a fourth chapter that focuses on contemporary African war literature. In each chapter Coundouriotis recuperates non-canonical novels while at the same time recontextualizing better-known and more widely read texts. The rich historical trajectory of the study delineates a tradition of war writing in Africa in order to counter the presumption that the proliferation of war stories about/from Africa since the 1990s has somehow come out of nowhere. In this way, she situates this extensive body of literature within the context of an African literary tradition, rather than allowing it to be defined by how it is consumed by Western readers. Furthermore, by giving equal weight to popular novels and canonized texts, she identifies a tendency—or perhaps more importantly, a potentiality—in African war novels to construct a people’s history from below, as opposed to the official nation-building narratives that take the form of the postcolonial bildungsroman and are often conceived of as national allegory. [End Page 199]
Coundouriotis suggests that the “war novel in Africa” is fundamentally “a genre of protest that aims to mobilize a democratic ideal of a people’s right to history—the making and claiming of historical narration” (263). As both professor of English and director of the Research Program on Humanitarianism at the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut, perhaps her focus on provoking readers to think about the “relationship of the novel to an emerging genre of human rights history” (30) should not be surprising. Coundouriotis illustrates how, rather than understanding these novels as “extroverted”—“written while its authors are glancing over their shoulders at their Western readers” (16)—each of these texts might instead be read as “introverted” attempts to engage in a radical revisioning of the nation from the perspective of the people. Coundouriotis traces the way that the writers “negotiate the boundary between the naturalistic portrayal of suffering in war and the allegorical investment in an idea of a national future” (175). While firmly locating her study within the “naturalist” tradition of war fiction—even alluding to the 19th-century “popular manifesto of naturalism” (5), Germinie Lacerteau, in her title—she at the same time takes great pains to read her chosen novels within the context of their local production, paying close attention to their geographical, linguistic, and historical specificity.
Coundouriotis focuses on four recurring motifs in order to argue that the war novel forms a distinct literary tradition in Africa. These motifs are “the song of my country,” the “male warrior as war personified,” the “ordeal in the forest,” and the “eternal landscape.” The “song of my country” motif is illustrated in scenes of torture, where the individualizing act of torture (which often occurs away from the official battlefield and behind closed doors) is in fact transformed into a collective experience: hearing the screams, the witness is able to come to an “expansive consciousness” and discover within them “the voice of the nation” (25). In the recurring “male warrior as war personified” motif, there is an emphasis on describing “the transformational power of violence and its capacity to radically reinvent identity” (26), while at the same time, putting a human face on the “inhuman” aspects of war...