Monday, January 11, 2010

Nkem Nwankwo

Nkem Nwankwo (1936-2001) was a Nigerian writer (he spent the last part of his life in the US) who wrote three novels, Danda (1964), My Mercedes is Better Than Yours (1975) and The Scapegoat (1984). He also wrote short stories some of which are anthologized under the title Tales Out of School. I have just read Danda as part of my ongoing project of reading West African novels of the 50s and 60s.

This was a comparatively innocent (or a better word would be "optimistic") period when both the novels and the poetry tended to celebrate the positive aspects of traditional African life while also embracing the social responsibility of the artist. Leopold Senghor had edited the first anthology of French-language poetry from the region in 1948; he would go on to be the president of Senegal from 1960 to 1980 as well as a major theorist of post-colonial "negritude." Chinua Achebe (b.1930) published (after some difficulties with finding a publisher) Things Fall Apart in 1958, setting a high standard for regional social criticism that was as critical of traditional cultural injustice (notably injustice towards women) as it was of colonial rapine (I was surprised to learn on Wikipedia just now that he is apparently still with us and a literature professor at Columbia University in New York).

Later on the optimistic dreams of a progressive Africa governed by Africans would come up against harsh realities of entrenched tribalism and a seemingly endemic kleptocracy, particularly in Nigeria, and the relationship between African writers and their governments would become much more problematic. My Mercedes is Better Than Yours represents this harsher, later phase, as one would expect. Today Nigeria is both a huge, cosmopolitan nation and a theater of the worst kind of modern injustices, and many Nigerian intellectuals work in exile.

African novels from the 60s, then, are novels from a land in historical transition. The familiarity of the writer with traditional rural village life is personal and literal, a perspective taken for granted that is difficult to replicate today. There is a great deal of abiding humor, and a great deal of educational content about language and custom. These novels tend to be short and picaresque, and focused on character and family. Our historical perspective gives them a sharp poignancy, but for myself I enjoy visiting this circumscribed world of traditional village life for its own sake: for all the hardship and trouble that we find in the African novel of the 1960s it remains a comforting and humane world, where everyone treats everyone else, friend and foe, as fellow human beings.

This is certainly true of Danda. The title character is the perennial lovable rogue, an essential character in all traditions with deep folkloric roots (classical Chinese and native North American literature share this element, "monkey" and "coyote" respectively). The errant scamp can be simultaneously the bane of authority and the champion of ancient virtues. Danda's father Araba is aging and concerned to maintain his family as ozo, a high social rank among the Ibo. His promising son, Onuma, has long since left for the city and when he returns he does not stay long. Onuma has been Christianized to such an extent that he does not want to participate in traditional obi (village compound) life. The Christian evangelists are a source of conflict because they are at once a high-status group (one must wear nice clothes to the church!) and at the same time a culturally destructive force (imagine having only one wife!). He leaves again much to Araba's disappointment.

Meanwhile Danda is a musician and a layabout who wears bells on his robes, drinks too much palm wine and plays his flute for the workers instead of working himself (not that they mind this - he often helps get things moving). He causes scandals with his blithe seductions of girls and his seemingly irreverent ways (such as carrying a ngwu agelega, a ceremonial staff, when he has not attained the proper status to do so). Like all good "trickster" characters Danda's virtues and vices are difficult to sort out. His wife is angry that he has disappeared on a drunken toot for three days. She is visited by a spirit who stands outside her window excoriating her to be a good wife, but she points out that the voice sounded quite a bit like Danda's friend Nwafo.

This is a serious error on her part. To overtly state that the hovering spirits are in fact human masqueraders is a grave alu (a violation of taboo). It is she who is forced to apologize to the elders. This is a deliciously complicated sequence. The Christians have forbidden the agbogho mnonwu (the spirit masquerade), while the villagers consider denying it something akin to a four-year-old denying Santa Claus (for all the talk of "gravity" the penalties for these formal transgressions are often left unenforced). Dando's motives are strictly selfish - he cares nothing for his own social standing, let alone traditional propriety - and yet it is he who somehow comes to champion tradition. His father, obsessed with tradition, considers Dando to be a failure and a rascal, but Dando is the son who is living out a traditional village life.

It is agreed that if Dando will submit to ritual facial scarification (something he ran from as a child years ago) he may assume the family's traditional leadership role, and this is arranged, but as soon as the knife starts to carve Dando's face he leaps up and flees: another mortification for the long-suffering Araba, whose political enemies are now triumphant. Dando runs away, but some years later, at the death of Araba, Dando returns and takes possession of the obi after all. Does this represent the collapse of tradition, or is Dando in fact the authentic village man?

Nwankwo does not give us any easy answers to these questions. He shows a society in transition and does not pretend to know where it is going. What does come through is that the motives of most of the other characters, be it ambition, greed, modernism or reaction, are impure. It is Dando, who lives in the moment and seeks neither to preserve nor to destroy, who endures as the embodiment of the local life force.

Much of my African reading over the past couple of years has been of editions of the superb African Writers' Series, published by Heinemann, but this edition is from the Fontana African Novels series (that has no internet site that I can find). Many if not most of these books are out of print. I have grown increasingly convinced of the importance of the historical moment of the late 1950s-early 1960s for African literature. Who will step up to preserve this heritage? Most of these novels are less than 200 pages; omnibus editions are now badly needed.

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