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A Mask Dancing: Nigerian Novelists of the Eighties.

Adewale Maja-Pearce is a controversial, iconoclastic Nigerian critic who has dethroned a number of literary reputations (Naipaul, Tutuola) while rescuing lesser ones from neglect, notably those of Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta. In his book A Mask Dancing: Nigerian Novelists of the Eighties, his opening salvos are fired off at one of the great sacred cows of modern African writing, Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). Because of its rational and secular origins, argues Maja-Pearce, the novel form is not suited to "rooting around in archaic fields" and "pantheons of archaic gods" (32). Further, the secularity of Achebe's vision undermines his claims that traditional Igbo culture had "dignity," "poetry," and a "philosophy of great depth," insofar as these are attached to a body of religious beliefs that are shown to have no ultimate value: "It is not enough, after all, to simply assert the dignity of precolonial African society on the spurious grounds that it had its own elaborate pantheon of gods, if these gods are then shown to be merely the objects of a degraded fetishism so easily unmasked for what they were by the first Europeans who challenged them" (15). Maja-Pearce subsequently argues that the precolonial missionary and the postcolonial African novelist, though coming from opposite angles (one denigrates what the other elevates), arrive at the same conclusion about indigenous culture. He concludes, mischievously, that Achebe has unwittingly written the District Commissioner's book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, for him. However seriously this is meant, the critic is perhaps pinning undue importance, in this novel and in Arrow of God (1964), to the failure of the local gods' power--a power on which the artistic success of the novel is made to depend. After explaining how local religion collapsed before "a superior Christianity," Maja-Pearce goes on to say: "It would seem to be simpler to acknowledge this in a few short sentences than take the trouble to write an entire novel in order to arrive at the same conclusion" (22). In this he comes perilously close to the narrowly functionalist view of fiction that he deplores in his prefatory response to Achebe's essay statements: "there is all the difference in the world between a work of art and a manifesto" (3). By the same principle, Things Fall Apart cannot be reduced to and identified with Achebe's stated polemical purpose: it is a complex work of fiction, recreating in great detail a tumultuous period of Igbo history--though one takes the point that Obierika's brief doubts about divine law hardly amount to "a philosophy of great depth," the structures for sustained thought and debate being largely absent. That the English language in which Achebe's successors choose to write does have these intellectual structures, and that they have not been fully exploited by the next generation of novelists, are the basic tenets of Maja-Pearce's study. Merely to write in English is not to partake automatically of the modern world. If, as Achebe has said, English as a world language must be prepared to submit to many different uses, then the corollary is also true: to develop the full potential of a sophisticated literary language and move beyond a merely functional relationship with it, the African writer must understand the civilization that produced it, its literary traditions, and the extent to which both of these have become part of himself. For Maja-Pearce the Nigerian novelist's failure to grasp everything that the language contains, and the ways in which it represents the "other world" in the colonial confrontation, goes hand in hand with his failure to come to terms with his complex colonial inheritance and the modern Europeanized world. The failure is in "understanding the modern world to which we all belong--Nigerians no less than British; Africans no less than Europeans" (99)--a paucity of understanding from which Achebe's novels of contemporary life are not exempt. English, says Maja-Pearce, is now as much a Nigerian language as Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa, but the continuing provincial response of the Nigerian novelist regards the language as an alien import, even as he uses it to describe the Nigerian reality. The result is a strange schizoid mentality and some oddly artificial oppositions. The critic argues that, with the notable exceptions of Soyinka's The Interpreters (1965) and Okri's The Landscape Within (1981), there is in the modern Nigerian novel no moral introspection of individuated consciousnesses to fuel the communal stock-taking necessary in a viciously corrupt society. Keme's private stand against corruption in the Okri novel "might yet have profounder ramifications for the future of the country as a whole. Keme is only one person; multiply him a hundredfold and one begins to see the first flicker of a greater hope" (96). Institutions, mass movements, collective ethoses are, after all, but the systematizations of individual human impulses. Creative tensions within the community arise only when, as Maja-Pearce puts it, "what it thinks resonates with what you think, the extent to which you are yourself part of the community which is doing the thinking" (141). Unfortunately, however, the majority of modern Nigerian novelists and critics relegate the importance of individual introspection in the forging of a social conscience by erecting simplistic, spurious dichotomies between the "individual" and "communal," the "traditional African" and "European" (Chinweizu), or the "innocent native" and "decadent Westerner" (Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi, 1983)--all in total disregard of the complex hybridized modernity of late twentieth century African experience. Through such false dichotomies, the writer tries to rescue a notional precolonial African sensibility from European influence while absolving himself from engaging with the complex modern world that has formed him. For Maja-Pearce, as for Soyinka, there is no such thing as "tradition" in the sense of an authentic, pristine pre-European body of values. Traditional societies, in order to survive the colonial onslaught, drew upon their inner resources to adapt and change. Yet the very adaptability and subsequent hybridization that ought to be celebrated are in fact denigrated by an intelligentsia who cling to the idea that they have somehow betrayed their heritage, which must therefore be constantly exhumed. The Nigerian intellectual erects false oppositions to resist the interpenetration of old and new experience by projecting what is modern in the African reality into the category of "foreign," marginalizing it to the other side of some artificial border. Maja-Pearce says, with reference to Omotoso's recent fiction, it is one thing to assert a proper pride in one's heritage and quite another to suggest that an indigenous heritage that is plainly unequal to twentieth-century experience can answer the modern Nigerian's psychic needs.

In the Conclusion Maja-Pearce anticipates that his call for a more complex response through a more sophisticated literary English will produce a barrage of protest from Nigerian writers and intellectuals that he has "internalized the prejudices of imperialist criticism" (172). But, as he demonstrates, the writers themselves have already done this by misguided exercises in cultural archeology, race-retrieval and other unnecessary forms of negation that were dictated by, and took their terms of reference from, imperial racism. Achebe's use of the word "dignity" begs the question "dignity in relation to whom?" (10), for what Achebe seems to have in mind is a relative definition that is to be measured purely in terms of the European other. This myopic Eurocentricity finds its reductio ad absurdum in Emecheta's preposterous novel The Rape of Shavi, in which colonial indignities are countered by the ultra-dignity of saintly Africans and the novelist passes immediately from the dehumanized to the superhuman, missing the complex humanity of modern Africa that lies in between. This failure to present complex humanity is, for Maja-Pearce, the besetting vice of the modern Nigerian novel. The neurotic refusal to look inward into the intricacies of the modern Nigerian psyche has had unfortunate results, ranging from the shallow, irresponsible political cynicism of Achebe's novels of contemporary life to the ineptly satiric and feebly didactic social fables of Osofisan and Iyayi. It has also helped to perpetuate the literary brutalization of women as mere chattels, domestic slaves, and incubators or gross objects of male sexual fantasy. This, though the heroines of women novelists like Okoye and Alkali appear, with the aid of sentimental happy endings, to collude with their own denigration. What is missing from these slightly textured, often pamphlet-like novels is an introspective probing beneath surfaces to penetrate the complex tangle of human motives--love, duty, ambition, greed--that constitute the proper psychological domain of the novelist. Even a more complex writer like Iyayi, in The Contract (1982), fails to develop the full implications of the moral depths he has plumbed. Superficiality is compounded by language deficiencies. The "rotten English" of Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy (1985) is insufficiently sensitive as a medium to carry the subtle and profound things that his hero has to say, and the survey of novels by Osofisan, Emecheta, Okolo and even the early Okri reveals an abundance of mixed and collapsed metaphors, sloppy phrasing and plain bad grammar. Maja-Pearce's critical watchword comes from D. H. Lawrence, who is quoted in the Introduction: "Literary criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing" (5). In the case of this critic, the feelings generated are mainly negative in disposition, and this is not surprising, considering the dismal collection of novels arrayed before him. Of course, this begs the question of why, having declared these novels to be failures as imaginative literature and interesting only as social documents--"as a record of the dilemma of the Nigerian intellectual in the modern world" (3)--Maja-Pearce then proceeds to write a 200-page book about them. And certainly, there are moments when he gives the impression that he would rather be writing another book, about the authors he clearly admires (Soyinka and the Ghanaians Kojo Laing and Ayi Kwei Armah) or about novels like Nuruddin Farah's Sardines (1979), in which the horrors of infibulation are at least fully confronted--whereas in Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi they are merely the pretext to discover the heroine's colonially-contracted syphilis, as if the two things were not equally gruesome! The answer is, perhaps, that Maja-Pearce's study is a necessary book, one that had to be written. It is, moreover, refreshingly rugged and robust polemic, with a shrewd eye for the phoney and pretentious--one cannot but agree with his assessment of the overrated The Famished Road (1991)--and it is fired by a raw, exhilarating vigor that has not been surpassed in Nigerian critical writing. It rises above its subject matter and is that rare phenomenon, a good book about bad ones. And as with all such books, its crusading spirit will make it few friends among its subjects. A Mask Dancing is not without its flaws. Too much space is taken up by plot summaries, and the detailed discussions of the abuse of political power in novels by Aluko and Sowande seem out of place in a chapter entitled "A Woman's Place." Maja-Pearce, oddly, does not take issue with Soyinka's bland allegorical conceptualization of Iriyise as "life-force" in Season of Anomy (1973), though, arguably, this is as artistically crude, in its way, as the other fantasy-ridden reductions of women in some of the lesser novels that he discusses. The book also has its fair share of careless errors (Sekoni, in The Interpreters, does not commit suicide but is killed in a car crash) and, surprisingly for a Zell publication, an alarming number of misprints: "play" for "place," "abrogate" for "arrogate," "Idem" for "Ikem" (2, 166, 169). But these are minor blemishes in a book that sets out, bravely and provocatively, to explore the Nigerian literati's failure to meet the demands of their predicament in the modern world, demonstrating in the process that they themselves are part of the problem and revealing how this is reflected in the books they write. Maja-Pearce reminds this intelligentsia that, if it is to determine its own destiny, it must first forge from its irretrievably alloyed experience the complex meaning of what it is to be a Nigerian in the modern world. This meaning can no longer be reduced to any single strand of human experience: in the words of the epigraphic Igbo proverb, "The world is like a mask dancing: if you want to see it well you do not stand in one place."
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Author:Wright, Derek
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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