By Amos Tutuola. Faber and Faber. 205 pp. $15.95 MASSENI. By Tidiane Dem. Translated from the French by Francis Frenaye. Louisiana State University Press. 174 pp. $12.95
IT IS DIFFICULT enough to write well in one's own language. To have to write in a language other than the mother tongue and then to do it with verve is an act of skill as dazzling as any high-flying Wallenda performance. Yet for writers in post-colonial countries in Africa, Asia and the West Indies such an experience has been not only necessary but commonplace. They have been forced by their history into "the paradox of nationalism expressed in English and French," as one Africanist has put it.
It is, of course, a paradox with historical precedents. For centuries Latin was the only written language of Europe, and most of the seminal works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were written in that language.
Similarly, in modern times no one can ignore the contributions of writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire. These writers have all produced works that have revitalized and enhanced their respective adopted traditions. Such works show a freshness and innocence that give new life to old and worked- over themes. Perbaps because the other language has had to be so consciously acquired, these writers have been more alert to its suppleness and possibilities. Like the piece of antique furniture that looks surprisingly good in a white-walled, stripped-down contemporary room, the old languages gain from the new cultural perceptions and experiences. Africa, in particular, with its distinct customs and traditions, is a growing source of this writing, both in French and English. Two recently published books, Amos Tutuola's The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town, and Tidiane Dem's Masseni are welcome additions to this small but important evolution of two old literatures.
Amos Tutuola, a Nigerian writer who received little formal education, has enjoyed a considerable reputation since the publication of his first novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard in 1952. Described by one critic as "both the Grimm and Edgar Poe to Africa," he writes in particular of the myths and legends of the Yoruba tribe. These legends, together with the culture of which they were part, are rapidly disappearing as new technologies, beliefs and habits encroach upon the older way of life.
The hero of Tutuola's new book is the hunter of the Rocky Town, a town of many gods, the chief being the awesome god of state, who holds a human skeleton in his left hand and stands on a platform surrounded by hundreds of skulls, human and animal. The hunter's beautiful wife, Lola, remains barren after several years of marriage, and he is advised to travel to the Remote Town, where the Witch-Herbalist lives, to find a cure. A dangerous journey but necessary "because a woman or man without even one issue would, in fact, have no respect or honor." This journey, which forms the central part of the book, takes more than six years, a time in which the hero races from one cliff-hanger encounter with danger to another.
As son of the "chief priest of oracle and chief of the pagans," the hunter starts his quest armed with certain advantages -- magic amulets and gourds, thunderbolts for emergencies, and the assurances of his safe return from the gods of iron and thunder. He also enjoys the benefit of his not always reliable first "mind," his dependable second "mind," his memory that records the offences of both minds, and his "Supreme Second," the invisible presence that keeps him from harm on the journey.
On this journey he meets fantastical and grotesque creatures: the abnormal Squatting Man of the jungle, who can chill his victims with the cold he blows from his belly; the strange round shadow that lifts him up to a mountain top for a trial by creatures that would be more at home in a nightmare, the wild jungle wealthy people; the crazy Removable-Headed Wild Man, and the Witch-Herbalist herself, dressed in the polished skins of boa constrictors and meeting daily in her vast palace with thousands of burdened ones seeking her help. Tutuola's descriptions of these places and beings are vivid and credible, if bizarre.
As in other fairy stories and legends, the success of the guest depends on the hunter obeying all his instructions. Like his counterparts, the hunter is disobedient, though only under extreme duress. His punishment is both ironic and comic -- he also falls pregnant. But ever resourceful he manages to triumph and the book ends, appropriately for such a cheerful man, with the townspeople celebrating the birth of his child and his success in ending the dreaded customary sacrifice of a young couple to the river gods.
It is a tale that Western readers will recognize as having much in common with classical mythology and the early joyous stories of the Middle Ages, when Christianity's hold was still tenuous and the countryside populated with spirits and strange beings that had to be fought or propitiated with witchcraft and sacrifices. The hunter is ebullient, self-confident and seldom downcast, happy when all is well and fearful when it is not, but never troubled by the modern condition that questions the point and purpose of all actions.
Tutuola writes with an appealing vigor and his idiosyncratic use of the English idiom gives the story a fresh and African perspective, though at times the clumsiness of some phrasing does detract from the thrust of the narrative. No eye-dabbing sentimentalist, Tutuola's commentary is clear-eyed if not acerbic, but underlying the tale is a quiet and persistent lament for the simpler, unsophisticated and happier past of his people.
Masseni, awarded the Pegasus Prize for Literature, is the first novel of a writer from the Ivory Coast, Tidiane Dem. Established by the Mobil Corporation, the prize is intended to introduce American readers to distinguished writers whose works are seldom translated into English. Originally written in French, the author calls the book a "novel of manners" set in the recent past when traditional customs still prevailed. The French colonial presence is, in the beginning, still peripheral to the familiar rhythms of the towns and villages of the northern region of the Ivory Coast, but the threat of inevitable change is palpable. As the book progresses the intrusion of French influence increases.
Masseni, the beautiful heroine, is a woman whose life parallels the changes. Her parents, wealthy but childless, had spent a great deal of money consulting marabout (local pundits) and sorcerers before her birth. Since many are charlatans, demanding outrageous sums of money and expensive sacrifices, as a last resort her father consults an old friend who is a hunter and soothsayer. Following his advice the promised daughter, Masseni, is born -- "a daughter slated for great things."
Dem evokes the warmth of the gentle ordained routing of village life and social conventions that were an intrinsic part of Masseni's traditional childhood, a childhood that is no longer possible for it was a "life led out close to nature . . . And an upbringing based from childhood on respect for tradition." Masseni becomes president of one of the youth associations, is protected by a cavalier and loved by her platonic lover Babou with whom according to custom she is to live until the time comes for marriage to a man of her parents' choosing.
But as the French extend their control over the countryside by the introduction of forced labor, "men, beasts, and things were subject to the constant threat of of requisition by the government." Masseni's beauty attracts an unscrupulous official who orders her to join his household in the nearby town. Well aware of her likely fate she prefers to marry the wealthy chief of the town, who is also smitten with her. Threatened by the chief's former favorite wife with witchcraft, Masseni is saved by her quick wits and many allies in the chief's harem.
The narrative and pace is at times obtrusively uneven: certain places and events are lingered over and lovingly described, while others are noted with a perfunctory briskness. But Dem does give us a sympathetic and eloquent picture of a society in transition with Masseni, a woman of intelligence and courage, caught between the demands of the old and new orders. Her death at the end is disappointingly trite for a a woman who had been "slated for great things" but in a way the very bathos of the event reinforces the passing away of the old. It is a very modern death.
Nominally Moslem, Masseni's culture is more African than Islamic; though the villagers pray facing Mecca, they do not neglect to propitiate the sorcerer and soothsayers with appropriate sacrifices. And Dem writes with a cadence and rhythem that is far more indebted to Africa than the more formal structure of French. Though Demi is better at evoking the old order than describing the new, he has given us in Masseni a heroine who transcends national and cultural barriers.