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  • The Swahili Novel: Challenging the Idea of "Minor Literature" by Xavier Garnier
  • Rosanna Tramutoli
The Swahili Novel: Challenging the Idea of "Minor Literature" BY XAVIER GARNIER James Curry, 2013. 195 pp. ISBN 9781847010797.

This remarkable volume represents a precious resource both for literary scholars interested in Swahili novels and researchers investigating the social and political development of Swahili literature in general. As the author points out, this work emphasizes "the historical and social nature of the literature, not merely its cultural aspect" (1). The volume consists of nine parts, with an introduction and a conclusion. In the introduction to the book, the author explains his attempt to introduce a new political reading of the development of the Swahili novel over more than half a century. He suggests looking at a new dimension of the Swahili novel by applying the notion of "minor literature" to this literary corpus. Borrowed from Kafka, this concept was developed by Gille Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their essay Kafka. Toward a Literature Minor (1975) to designate literatures that "make a minor usage of major languages" and in which the political dimension is fundamental. In order to shed light on the deep political nature of the Swahili novel form, Garnier suggests that the interpretation of the metaphor of literature as kioo (mirror) has been misunderstood by critics, since in Swahili literary works "the mirror is not used for representing but for revealing" (4).

The first chapter, entitled "Narrating Values—Describing a World," reflects on the importance of the ethnographic novel, which for East African writers becomes a vehicle for transmitting Swahili customs (desturi). Swahili ethnographic novels are characterized by their emphasis on daily life as opposed to the description of exceptional adventures. A key topic in this kind of novel is marriage, which [End Page 206] is both the expression of an intimate event and a public alliance. In fact, being aimed at finding a secure space in society and regulating relationships with the Other, marriage is "custom" par excellence. In contrast to novelistic writing, ethnographic writing highlights the human necessity of a constant battle between the world of the spirits (mizimu) and the world of humans. This explains why illnesses and sterility are major topics in ethnographic narrations, since they are forces that threaten marriage and life.

The second chapter explores the crucial theme of "relocation" in Shaaban Robert's novel Kusadikika. Here, the characters are in progress because they experience a transposition from one place to another, thus revealing the need for evolution in society. Going beyond an inflexible dualism between good and bad, Garnier highlights Shaaban Robert's "optimism," for he shows that leaving one world in order to explore a new one is not a way to escape from troubles, but rather a way of looking at reality from another point of view, considering our "enemies" as our "neighbors."

In the colonial world, the theme of the education of younger generations is fundamental. However, the third chapter focuses on the failure of the bildungsroman in the Swahili repertoire. Novels like Rosa Mistika (Kezilahabi, 1971) or Kitanda cha Mauti (Mukajanga, 1971) show that in the modern world it is difficult to find a good mentor, since parents are not always the best guide, and young people have problems with managing their love relationships and studying at the same time. These novels show how school education helps young people to improve their individual status, but is not enough to succeed in society; characters need distance from reality in order to develop. For this reason, Garnier suggests defining these works as "novels of distanciation" rather than as a type of bildungsroman.

In the fourth chapter, the author analyzes Kezilahabi's novels, showing that the core topic is to reveal how disorder is intrinsic to reality, as the title of his third novel suggests: Dunia uwanja wa fujo [The World Is an Arena of Chaos]. Beyond their apparent realism, these novels display a deeply intimate aspect of society. As Garnier puts it, "characters are never who they think they are because they live in a society that does not know its own intimate life" (88). Thus, the tension between death and chaos constitutes...


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pp. 206-208
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