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Saturday, 2 June 2012

Looking for – The Great African Short Story

Africana Votes & Views #25

    In my younger days I was introduced to that wonderful literary genre – the short story. I devoured volumes of O’Henry, Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham among numerous other, English speaking writers, as well as compilations of the best that world literature could offer, from Russia, to America, from Italy and France to Malaysia and the Far East. As well as a few modest anthologies of South African authors, mainly early 20th century writings. It was drummed into my head that a short story required almost as much precision and constructive technique as a classic sonnet. It had to have an introductory paragraph, setting the scene; a tightly knit plot which was developed in the body of the work and a sharp, decisive end – if at all possible, with a ‘twist in the tale/tail’.

   I became enamoured of the short story and aspired one day to rank with my icon, Somerset Maugham. On my 13th birthday, I was presented with my first Olivetti portable typewriter, and my path lay clear and straight ahead of me. I would write short stories. That became a lengthy process, lasting over fifty years, so I won’t pursue that story any further in this essay. I still love reading short stories, especially as my memory is getting a little abbreviated in the short–term, and my attention span for reading a book with ever diminishing print size is getting less. At least, I console myself, I can remember the protagonists and the development of the plot sufficiently well to enjoy the ending, which is not always the case with a thousand-page blockbuster. These have become almost as futile to attempt as watching weekly episodes of crime serials on the box.

   Having said that, there have been very few short stories from our continent that have satisfied my quest for entertainment. Obviously one can’t remember them all over a period of half a century, so I started by re-reading a number of volumes to remind me in which way I found them lacking in substance, structure or finish. Let me start by treading on very thin ice from the outset. I reread Guy Butler’s collection Tales from the Old Karoo  (A D Donker, 1989) once more, and while I found them moderately entertaining, they were a strange assembly; firstly a curious number of biographical anecdotes, mostly of Olive Schreiner, with whom the author must have had both a familial connection, as well as a literary affinity. Then there were rustic tales, of the simple folk that populated the farms and villages of the region. Vignettes possibly, often caricatures, but solid plots seemed to escape the author, an autobiographer and poet of note. Then there were the inevitable ghostly tales as told and retold by travelers. One or two of these had a solid conclusion, even if they were very subtly implied, rather than strikingly portrayed. Others were left open to whatever the reader wanted to find in them, but there was no direction. Obviously an academic of his stature cannot be faulted on his prose, but I often found incongruity with his insertion of classical, academic and even scientific snippets, which detracted from his portrayal of the harsh landscape and its rustic inhabitants.

   From having the temerity to write about a professor of literature, let me get even more foolhardy. The Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer has not been one of my favourite writers. I have read a few of her novels with great difficulty. Somehow her prose reminds me of a bleak Highveld dusk over the burnt stubble of a mealie-field, where a razor breeze slashes ones face and the musky smell of charred veld assails the nostrils. Everything is shades of grey and black, with a bloody sky brooding over the scene. Yes, her portrayals of white suburban life with its black un-people that lurk everywhere, are a faithful reflection of the apartheid era and its manifold injustices and affronts to human dignity. Nobody can fault the writer for eliciting an uncomfortable wriggle from the reader of her bleak stories now and then, but it took me a few days to get through her Selected Stories (Viking Press 1976), so depressing did I find them. Once again, the elements of the short story were mainly lacking. Here was a collection of episodes – all grimly reflecting the spirit of the mid twentieth century in the subcontinent. In some Gordimer runs right over an ending and spoils it all by adding that extra paragraph or page of text; in others she never reaches a conclusion of any sort, though there are one or two exceptions, where she gets it spot-on, such as the story where a woman’s chance acquaintance with another on a train end s in the latter’s death and the traveller sends her chauffeur-cum-houseminder a curt telegram to say ‘It’s not me’. Gordimer has the tendency to write about inhabitants of fictional towns, which I find irritating – even more so because the neighbouring towns are real, with their proper names. The same goes for suburbs in Johannesburg; here you have the action taking place in Greensleeves, but Kensington is on the other side of town. Whatever for, I ask myself? Personal names, also, are often clumsily altered so that no one can feel they need to identify with her characters and feel slighted by any of the attributes the writer apportions to them. My last gripe with Gordimer’s writing would be that she includes passages of completely irrelevant environmental detail which contribute nothing to the story whatsoever, but they do lengthen her narrative to a degree that I just lose interest in the story. Setting the stage is one thing, but painting it with a number ten camel-hair brush is overdoing it.

   Somehow one gets to wonder why there is no love, no kindness and no beauty in the writer’s world. Though our lives have overlapped in the same environment, and while I can remember a number of incidents which resonate with the episodes she relates, there are also numerous others where I can recall giving, friendship, learning, sharing, love and an appreciation of the wonders of life, which involved all of those around me. So why aren’t some of these scenarios included for a rounder, multicoloured portrayal of the South African human experience?

   At last we can have a look at black writers – on the subject of Africans in Africa. I’ve dipped into several volumes during the past twenty years, and have found the offerings unmemorable to a degree that I can’t even remember the subject matter. Then I met Michael Phoya, a young man from Malawi; writer, publisher and person of many ideas, many of which were quite new to me. I read his handcrafted book, Walks of Life, which relates the adventures of a young man in search of life and experience along the city and rural roads of Malawi. A sort of African Jack Kerouac, without quite as much booze, bop and old bangers. I was charmed by the whole production of his photocopied manuscript, handsewn onto sheets of handmade paper and then cobbled into book-shape, but this was no short story, so it doesn’t really belong here. Michael told me that he also wrote short stories, and since paper is scarce and expensive in his country, he carried a copy with him on a flash drive and sold copies on CD’s. So in no time at all, I was listening to an American drawl reading African stories – which was somewhat disconcerting – but she was a friend, he said.
   Here was modern African city life as seen through the eyes of a young and passionate man. The stories spoke of his love for his country, his aspirations, the 21st century that both attracted and repelled him as well as an underlying resentment towards the remnants of the inequalities of a colonial past that persisted in his society. I was interested; though in the main the stories were na├»ve, one-dimensional and sounded stilted. Though they painted quite a vivid picture of the passing scene, there was a tropical languidness and again a lack of a strong story line. I listened to more than an hour of stories, and I was not bored – but neither was I fascinated. The time had come to dig out a wider spectrum of African stories.

   Among my stock I found three candidates, and started with the oldest African/English Literature, edited and introduced by Anne Tibble, (Peter Owen, 1963). Her introduction to the indigenous authors, and their use of an acquired language to display their talents, was the most interesting part of the book. With very few exceptions, the literary contributions were passages from longer works, and therefore didn’t have the structure that I wanted to find and compare to the classics I had read in my youth. What did impress me was the almost universal theme of the perceived differences between black writers’ literary images of black people, and that which they attribute to whites having of black people – or of themselves, for that matter. Much of the writing expands on the theme of race-relations as well as the differences of culture, while the basic common humanity of the protagonists is downplayed to express the writers’ profound indignation and resentment of being assigned second-class citizenship by the colonizing Europeans. Interesting pictures of the colonial era, but not what I was looking for.

    I skipped thirty-odd years of publications and consulted a book of ‘modern African stories’ entitled Under African Skies, edited and introduced by C R Larson (Payback Press, 1997). Immediately I seemed to be confronted by a different genre entirely. African mythology, magic, the tribal milieux, all blended into tales that, quite frankly, didn’t make a great deal of sense or grab my attention. Finally, in between were some ‘proper’ short stories, still on the central theme of race-relations between administrators and the populace, or the inexcusable treatment meted out by white employers to their workers,– then a shift of emphasis to the aspirations by blacks to emulate and partake of the twentieth century lifestyles of their colonisers. From this it is just a short jump to rebellion, the liberation struggle and the polarization between those who have made the transition and the greater mass of resentful poor that are left behind.

   Eventually the European oppressor is replaced by warring factions of Africans themselves – the warlords, the gunrunners, the manic butchers and the dictators – and then the ultimate misery of AIDS strikes. Here and there a rare touch of humour in between the stark reality of life in the ghettoes, slums and villages and more of the dreams, hopes and emotions of the protagonists of the African scene are portrayed. Still, I found that a lot of the stories seem autobiographical or anecdotal. Like life itself, there is often that realistic lack of a strong plot, and who is to say where a story starts or ends – except at the inevitability of death itself. However, while I can’t say that I was greatly entertained by the book, mainly due to the harrowing subjects treated, I was not bored.
  Lastly I tackled Writing Still – New Stories from Zimbabwe, edited by Irene Staunton (Weaver Press, 2003). The subject matter again ranged forwards and backwards through the recent cataclysms that the population of the country had experienced. From a white Rhodesian’s encounter with an insurgent, to a fancy-dress party on a farm during the Bush War, to the ethnic cleansing in Matabeleland and the decay of the economy, the increasing burdens borne by the ordinary people and the multitude of  ways by they manage to conquer the obstacles thrown in their paths. The stories are pervaded by violence, death, injustice and hardships. Citizen has turned against citizen and there is mistrust and resignation about the new structures of power. The events of the last thirty years have been so destructive and penetrating to the fabric of society in Zimbabwe, that the tales verge on reportage of a litany of horrors. No, one can’t be entertained by this reading matter. One can only read and learn, and try to understand what it is that our northern neighbours are enduring in varying degrees from Beit Bridge to the Bight of Benin and beyond and the centuries of exploitation, dispossession and oppression have not come to an end – neither have they been banished south of the border.

   So I am left still searching for tales of our continent. Tales that span the centuries and weave the foibles of human nature, our emotions and interactions into the multifarious landscapes and societies of Africa, but which are interpreted to make them palatable to readers from different cultural backgrounds – mine included. Instead of seeking entertainment to pass some idle hours among the writers of the last five or six decades, I’d rather go back a little further and console myself with Herman Charles Bosman; the ‘takhaar’ tales as related through the words of Oom Schalk Lourens. Although the era, the people,the culture and the social environment described is not one that I am over-familiar with, I can enjoy the stories and appreciate the gentle ironies and wit – and here and there a masterful end to a cleverly-spun twist in the tail.