Sunday, October 11, 2009

Asare Konadu's A Woman in her Prime

One of my ongoing projects with the Stack is to read through a shelf-full of novels in the African Writer's Series from roughly the 1960s, the combination of two departing colleagues' gifts of boxes of miscellaneous African literary stuff. The novels are mostly short, many but not all have been written in English. They are mostly West African, the literary constellation revolving around Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. It is not a big world, at least not on the internet: I received a nice e-mail from Cameron Duodo after I posted about his novel The Gab Boys (1967); I touched up (very slightly!) my post on Peter Abraham's A Wreath for Udomo (1956) when I realized that anyone Googling it on Earth was likely to have my post on their first page of links; and the best so far was having the Lagos magazine Farafina reprint my post on J. P. Clark's America, Their America (1963). I'm coming to appreciate some of the similarities among these "60s" African books, with their depictions of tough environments both rural and urban, their love of happy outcomes and celebration of life, and their Janus-faced didacticism, one half social criticism aimed at the national reader, the other cultural defense ("apology," in the classical Greek sense of that word) aimed at the Developed World, a much more well-defined entity in the post-colonial "sixties" than today in the post-modern "aughts."

This week I have discovered Samuel Asare Konadu (1932-1994), a Ghanian publisher and novelist who wrote many novels, at least nine by the 1971 publishing date of my Heinemann edition of A Woman in her Prime (1967). There is very little information, although I haven't done a long search. A Woman in her Prime was the 40th novel in the AWS, and his novel Ordained by the Oracle was the 55th.

Woman is a critical novel of village life with a progressive message that is modern but not reactionary. It deals with the problems of an African woman, Pokuwaa, who is in her 30s and has not had any children, considered a tragic condition by her society, not least by her mother. She has fired two husbands for this reason and her third, Kwadwo, is fearful of losing her. He loves her for her own sake: she has grown up to be a strong person and a good farmer. It is Kwadwo who provides the unconditional acceptance that helps her to resist the psychological pressure of her life (although the author understates this nicely).

Abetted by her obsessed mother Pokuwaa has been visiting various shamans and healers. But the omens are never good. When lightening strikes and burns an old tree near the village there is ominous talk of looking about for a witch. Pokuwaa's mother sees things the old way and is much alarmed. The last straw for Pokuwaa is when she comes across the body of a man near her farm. Out of fear, she doesn't say anything, letting the men go out and find the missing man themselves. A dire episode indeed.

But the last straw is a good thing for Pokuwaa. She gives up on the magic, on the theories of fate. She decides that she must just let life run its course. She gives up her burden. Ah, but this is a West African 60s novel, all 107 pages. So in no time at all she is pregnant and lives happily ever after. I think that Konadu wanted to make the point that a woman needn't have a child to be fulfilled (at least, no more than a man does): she comes to peace with herself first, gets pregnant after. But his view is that the traditional folkloric account that defined the emotional regime under which Pokuwaa lived was oppressing her, and perhaps contributing to her problems. That is, his target was not so much sexism as superstition, although he understood the negative social consequences for women of magical explanation.

In this way his novel is interesting to the western reader today. The western stereotype of the African novel is that it illuminates the positive side of Africa as a cultural soldier defending the homeland. But 60s African writers, like feminists, are often critics of traditions that have come to seem unenlightened and abusive. They did not have much international readership and thus were not as self-conscious as the modern African writer, who tends to criticize regimes more than societies. They thought that they were living through a transformative time, and they try to open doors to the future. They are gentle prophets of modernity, at times, and it is interesting to put their optimism up against the reality of modern Africa (I don't say that presumptuously, there are lots of ways that comparison could be played out). And there is the persistent theme that good character will out: that is a theme that links African and North American letters.

Related novels that are subjects of blog posts here include Onuora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys; Francis Selormey's Narrow Path; Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure; Nkem Nwanko's Danda; Chukuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel; Cameron Duodu's The Gab Boys.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill's 1995 How the Irish saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe was an easy home run for its author, with its appealing premise that Celtic monks preserved the best of Roman-period high culture and literature during the "Dark Ages" following the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth at the beginning of the fifth century AD. Mr. Cahill has a remarkable fluency with the classics, an old-school education that is all too rare these days, combined with a storyteller's ability to tease a world and an epic out of dauntingly scanty and arcane folklore and archeaology. His comparison of the strong and orderly Roman culture abutting wild back-country tribes was compelling.

It is harder to get a grasp of the Pre-Christian Celtic people, but our author is nothing if not into the spirit of the thing. There is often a tendency to "Orientalize" the Irish, but one has to admit that Cahill (who is also obviously fiercely loyal to them) gives us a consistent account of a tough pagan way of life. The relatively quick conversion from warrior culture to monastic society recalls the conversion of Tibet to Buddhism and raises the same kinds of questions.

Cahill continues to impress as a scholar during the extended discussion of the Irish leaders who followed Patrick, about whom he knows a great deal. Of course the old Latin culture continued in the Mediterranean as well, mostly through the vehicle of the Church, but Mr. Cahill is pleasantly persuasive that there was a place under the brush, if you will, off to the side, where some precious endangered shoots of human culture survived for a time. At points there is too much rhetoric around, but part of the difficulty here is filling out a story based on, sometimes, very little.

I also recommend Philip Freeman's The Philosopher and the Druids for some nice imaginative attempts to visualize the ancient Celtic world without taking too much liberty with the known facts. Also there is quite a bit about Patrick including a short autobiography and that is a topic I recommend.