Only works of the highest artistry, written by writers who have attained a supreme understanding of the human condition and the very predicament called life, could have the range and the singularity of mind and elevated vision to capture the “possibilities of life”.
By Chimezie Chika
The word “Classic” in art often refers to works that have been generally accepted to be the ultimate representations of the best achievements in that art form. Such works would have passed through years of critical evaluation and private and public appraisals, and have been certified almost unanimously as epitomes of human excellence. In the arts, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the royal bronze sculptors of the Benin Empire, among others, are judged to have produced incomparable works of immense beauty and careful craftsmanship. In literature, Shakespeare’s works, Homer, Virgil, and various religious literature in Asia and Africa also occupy similar pedestals.
However, literary classics are not identifiable by the similarity of plot or style. Books that are considered classics are often unique in the peculiar impact they have had on the world of literature. It could be the originality of the ideas they explore and the depth of the themes, the innovative newness of the style, the strangeness or uncanny relatability of the subject matter, the complexity of the structure, the fecundity of the language, or how it evokes the currents of a particular time in history. One way or the other, classic works of literature should have one or more of these attributes. Above all these, classics should be able to stand the test of time and ultimately continue to have the same effect and influence on readers through the succeeding decades. So, we understand that classics usually have the backing of history. This is why, in some cases, a badly received book at one time could be considered a classic at a later time, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and John Williams’ Stoner, to mention a few.
I should draw attention here, to a practice in book reviews, of labelling – in characteristic rhapsodic language – recently published books “an instant classic”. While some of these labels may admittedly seem justified based on the projections of the particular book’s future influence, it is always better to allow the passage of time, even for the most masterful works of literature, before the crowning label of “classic” can be conferred.
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I am aware of how the last statement raises questions of who or what privileges these high-falutin labels on these books. The truth is that any well-read person can reasonably determine when they have just encountered a work of genius. Still, it is not easy for such a person to claim that his view of the book remains the standard, if over the years, other discerning people do not back that view – and herein lies the real problem. I have previously written about the ambiguity surrounding the identification of great literature. I believe that one undeniable criterion for considering classics is longevity (the etymology of the word itself implies it); time lessens the bias of subjectivity and tilts the rational mind towards objectivity.
In his important book, The Great Tradition, critic F.R. Leavis wrote about the “complacent confusions” that cause people to mistakenly label any literary work from history as a classic. This, he said, is the sort of wrong-footedness that leads literature down the wrong path. Going by this argument in relation to African Literature, it would mean that Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm can be called a classic simply because it was published in 1883 — this sort of rosy retrospection rears up frequently in literary and art circles. This means that not everything from the past was great. That a work was published a century ago does not automatically make it a classic, it has to have some of the enduring high qualities I have listed earlier.
Leavis goes on to explicate the basis for such considerations: “It is necessary to insist, then, that there are important distinctions to be made . . . And as a recall to a due sense of differences, it is well to start by distinguishing the few really great – the major novelists who count in the same way as the major poets, in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life.”
Let us now consider the modern African literary works which have, over time, opened up for us an awareness of the possibilities of life. Some of the earliest written works of African literature, for example: Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, Olaudah Equiano’s The Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789), and Thomas Mafolo’s Chaka (1925) are important on two counts. The first is the dignity of these pioneers; the second is the basis of the subject. Most of the time literary quality is not considered when labelling these works classics, these two counts are what is usually copied. Such criteria hardly inspire confidence.
When we examine these works on a more strictly literary basis, we will surely reach a conclusion that while Schreiner’s and Equiano’s works are important social documents, they do not contain the attributes of a true literary classic as Mafolo’s Chaka does. In the novel, the transposition of a historical figure into a mythic presence ruled by natural and supernatural forces, and whose actions are tainted by an oversized hubris, results in a work of such enduring historical and artistic importance.
Much of African literature from the early part of the twentieth century came out of South Africa. That glut of literature produced a couple of classic novels. Of them, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), a novel of immense delicacy and understanding about the human condition, stands out. In the novel, an old parson leaves his village to go to the city to find his son. The novel then follows his journey around the city amidst the restrictive atmosphere of the early 1940s ante-Apartheid South Africa. What marks this novel is the great empathy with which the characters are drawn, and the beauty and lyricism of Paton’s delicate language.
Peter Abrahams, a contemporary of Paton, but far more prolific, wrote many novels treating the subject of the lives of Africans in the Apartheid society of early twentieth-century South Africa. As a novelist, Abrahams is important for being historical rather than artistic. His best novels — Mine Boy (1946) and A Wreath for Udomo (1956) — are very good novels whose real value lies in their social currency. Mine Boy captures the conditions of miners in the gold mines of Johannesburg. A Wreath of Udomo, certainly his more mature work, takes on the topic of the struggle for independence in Africa, the subsequent political climate of post-independence African countries, and its take-over by greedy politicians. This was the novel that pioneered post-independence political books, which Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o took further with their respective masterpieces, Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and Petals of Blood (1977).
Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, unquestionably his most formally daring, follows four friends in a fictional African state, where one would later become Head of State. The novel’s elevated modernist style and fusion of oral language searingly captures the dysfunctions of military rule in Africa. It will be difficult to find a novel in which the same topic is treated with the power and potency as Achebe does here. Ngugi’s Petals of Blood is a comprehensive study of a society on the brink of collapse just after independence. Ngugi’s masterpiece is a work of great lyrical power, possessing within its pages, a strident ethical criticism of the immoral compromises of post-independent Kenya, and the fraught personal vendettas that complicate its problems.
Achebe’s indisputable classic, Things Fall Apart (1958), received widespread acclaim upon its publication. It was the first novel that truly captured pre-colonial African society with great skill. Beginning with its iconic opening sentence —“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond”—, Things Fall Apart is imbued with Achebe’s aphoristic wisdom, and his uncanny ability to capture fleeting moments in history with knowing sympathy and understanding of the human failings. Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God (1964) (my personal favourite) is another straightforward classic. This is the novel in which Achebe, a novelist at the apex of his considerable powers, most deployed his range with the English language as a fusion of tongues, the experiment in this case being the conflation of Igbo and English. Heavy in its treatment of colonialism, religion, and politics, it is also the most psychologically and philosophically grounded of Achebe’s work.
A colossus of African literature, Ngugi has other classics in his prodigious oeuvre. His first novel, Weep Not Child, is a classic of delicate writing — a particular attribute of Ngugi’s style, which is again replicated in The River Between. These novels are certainly artistic successes; his later novels (barring his great masterpiece Petals of Blood) are somewhat marred by Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. But Ngugi’s work is not the only classic work out of East Africa. One of Africa’s most tremendous works of poetry, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Ocol (1966), possesses the sort of inimitable oral gravitas reminiscent of ancient African griots, minstrels, and storytellers. That depth of artistry is evident in other great works of poetry by African poets. Today, Christopher Okigbo’s Labyrinths and Path of Thunder (1971), J.P. Clark’s Casualties (1970), and Kofi Awoonor’s Rediscovery (1964) are variously considered classics for their formal innovative language, strength of imagery, emotiveness of feeling, poignancy of experience, lyricism of language, and compassionate approach to their subjects. Apart from these literary monuments, not much else can be seen in African poetry. There was a long hiatus in the eighties and nineties, except for brilliant pockets here and there. Recently, there have been magnificent poetic forays from such poetic talents as Cheswayo Mphanza and his ilk. But we cannot confer the classical crown on them just yet. The years are still too young for such pronouncements.
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With drama, two names immediately stand out; Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard. Soyinka has at least four plays that are straightforward classics, showcasing Soyinka’s legerdemain command of language: Kongi’s Harvest (1965), A Dance of the Forests (1971), The Beautification of the Area Boy (1995), and the primus interpares of dramatic literature, Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), whose treatment of the colonial clash with indigenous traditions is one of the most indelible in world literature. Area Boy has that combination of mystical realism and Freudian symbolism which only a writer of Soyinka’s bristling intellect could have produced. As an accomplished essayist, Soyinka’s memoirs are also classics of the genre. With the biting satire of Apartheid South Africa, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972), Fugard brought African drama to a high promontory from which it can never look back. Here is a dramatist who combines Benard Shaw’s social awareness and Bertolt Brecht’s minimalist experiments in class consciousness. Ọla Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame (1968) stands on the same pedestal — a brilliant example of dramatic adaptation. Few other dramatic works meet the high artistry of these plays; those dramatists who may lay claim to the classic label will have an abundance of years to prove it.
No novel in African literature has confronted ethical questions of corruption in the way that Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) has. Armah’s uncompromising vision of a pseudo-dystopia of man’s worst nature is a cautionary tale of modern life in Africa, written in antiseptic prose brimming with allegory. An established African classic, its effect is simultaneously chilling and jolting. On the other side of the spectrum is Ousmane Sembene’s propulsive classic of proletarian revolt against French colonialism, God’s Bits of Wood (1960). Also a renowned pioneering African filmmaker, Sembene’s cinematic background is evident in the narrative as well as in its broad feminist themes. Another early novel by a Francophone African writer, Camara Laye’s The Dark Child (1954) — titled The African Child in some translations — contains some of the most evocative prose in African fiction. Laye’s autobiographical story of growing up among his Malinke people in Kouroussa in his native Guinea is notable for its poignant descriptions of gold mining, spirituality, and nostalgia for bygone times.
The most established classic from North Africa is the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s monumental work, The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57). The novel follows the family of a Cairo merchant through the remarkable decades between 1919 and 1944. No African novel in living memory has brought urban Arabic life in North Africa before readers with such empathy and insight. South African Nobel Laureates, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, have also written books that are now prime additions to any list of African literary classics. Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), a novel of inimitable grace and poise, tackles a very difficult issue in South African history. Though the book remains eternally divisive, Gordimer’s scathing look at the disintegration of societies remains ever-relevant. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) is a novel of acknowledged mastery. Its take on the disruptive society of post-Apartheid South Africa and the subtleties and emotional undercurrents that attend human relationships, as well as the raw power of Coetzee’s vivid prose, makes it a remarkable cornerstone in modern African literature.
A notable South African writer who should enter this conversation is Zakes Mda, whose The Heart of Redness (2000) represents a powerful synchrony of history and myth which only the most notable talents can achieve. Mda’s work has the sort of symbolic power that Nigerian writer, Ben Okri’s work also does. The Famished Road (1991), Okri’s resounding masterpiece, marked the turning point in African literature when writers began to replicate the liminality of Africa’s spiritual and physical spaces in fiction. The result is a trail of Marquezian magical realist works, from Kojo Liang to Moses Isegawa, none of which comes close to the poetic power of Okri’s sublime fiction. Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land (1992) is a notable novel in the magic realist mode, perhaps the best to come of Lusophone Africa. A Ugandan novel that will surely become a classic in the coming decades is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu (2014), a novel packed with history and bravura, and written in multivalent prose. One classic of ineffable quality from Southern Africa is Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (1973). There isn’t any African writer who has confronted the psychology of social hierarchies as Head has. In her novels, she confronts the horrid agony of mental breakdown with Jungian understanding of how the stifling regulations of certain environments wreak havoc on the psyche. The symbolic power of A Question of Power is its commentary on the dysphoria that societal paranoia can be wrought on the human psyche.
In The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta gives us an enduring classic. The Joys Motherhood is, at its core, the story of early twentieth-century Nigeria as it is and the story of Nigerian women. There is empathy and irony in the way Emecheta treats the themes in this book, to overwhelming emotional effect. Emecheta is an influence in the work of arguably Africa’s most notable writer of the 21st century, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Without a doubt, Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) are already classics, and the coming decades will validate this even more. Purple Hibiscus is a novel of great delicacy, remarkable for the realism of its treatment of teenage longing. Kambili is one of the most remarkable characters in modern African fiction. The same can be said of Odenigbo, Olanna, and Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun, which is set during the devastatingly gory Biafran War. Half of a Yellow Sun is the most important war novel to come out of Africa.
Bookending the list of modern African classics are Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger (1978), Adulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise (1994), Nuruddin Farah’s Maps and From a Crooked Rib – all of which are great artistic accomplishments that tackled the troubled personal psyches of individuals negotiating life in the fraught environments of South and East Africa. Binyavanga Wainaina’s beautiful memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, is quickly becoming a classic. Other books that present convincing arguments for becoming classics in the coming decades include Arminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, Uzodimma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, Teju Cole’s Open City, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sacred Night, Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, and a few others. What all these books have in common, more than anything else, is the sublimity of language — a combination of lyricism and postmodern experiments — which situates these works above the rest.
There have been many African books published since the 1900s. But as far as classics go, only a few attain that level of accomplishment. This however does not mean that some of those literary works are not good; not at all. But being merely good is not enough to be called a classic. Only works of the highest artistry, written by writers who have attained a supreme understanding of the human condition and the very predicament called life, could have the range and the singularity of mind and elevated vision to capture the “possibilities of life”. Even then, such works must have endured through generations of reading and appraisal — and not faded off (there are many highly praised works in their time which are no longer relevant today, no less due to their ephemeral vision, if any) — before they can be called classics.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.