The African Past. Edited by Basil Davidson. Longmans. 30s.

Modern African Stories. Edited by Ellis Komey and Ezekiel Mphahele. Faber and Faber. 18s.

Modern African Prose. Edited by Richard Rive. Heinemann African Writers. 6s.

These are samplers to African history and literature, ingenuously implying total coverage: rather like those LPs which offer the whole of jazz from ragtime to pantonality in a dozen tracks, while understating that the selections all come from a single West Coast catalogue. Thus Davidson’s efforts ‘to consider African history as a whole’ (this, the first, is an anthology of ‘chronicles from Antiquity to Modern Times’) were originally excellent as a slap-down to the old orthodoxy that the only history was that of Europe-inAfrica, but are now beginning to retail the myth of their own bias. Instead of the Long Night of Barbarism, so essential to the colonial psyche, are we now maybe getting the Sweet Mediaeval Morn of the sentimental (European) humanist? There is a touch of the William Morris about Davidson, and a distinct lack of nuance to his perspective on old Africa, which I suspect to be less popular among educated Africans, than Anglo-Saxon liberals. Come clean. This is really a matter, not of history, but of contemporary political attitudes. The old campaign days are gone when English Left-wingers ‘interested in Africa’ were justified in the simple promotion of nearly everything indigenous to the continent as good and progressive. Loyalty has now to be a more complex and painful business, and isn’t that something which men like Davidson, Brockway and Hodgkin, whose attachment spans ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases of the struggle, should have learned only too well?

The special bias of the two literary anthologies is that, apart from the ritual extract from Laye’s L’Enfant Noir (and Rive apologizes for that!) and a solitary tale from Mozambique—almost the best thing in either book—the pieces come entirely from English-speaking Africa. The outstanding body of modern African prose is, of course, that of French Africa, and not the least harm done to the cause by publishers and foreign cultural agencies has been to abet the defensive ignorance of English-speaking writers about their French counterparts by promoting anthologies like these, and holding separate conferences (sometimes at the same campus in successive weeks) for ‘Writers of English/French Expression’.

Certainly the confrontation might embarrass, because a thorough reading of—say—Beti, Oyono and Cheikh Hamidou Kane scarcely equips one to treat seriously most of the novels in English; in nearly all points—formal, political, dialectical, philosophical—the disparity is absurd, reflecting, perhaps, similar but less noticed differences in the respective metropolitan cultures. One example. Put the District Officers, etc, in Achebe’s best book, Arrow of God, beside the official colons in Oyono’s Une Vie de Boy. With Achebe the attempt at caricature is childish, almost impertinent in its inaccuracy, scarcely two dimensional, whereas Oyono not only commands the minute detail by which his creatures damn themselves, but their passions are also lively, not paste.

Where the English novels are bad, the main lapse is often structural. The novel’s form eludes and there is capitulation to length without legitimate form—to lightly fictioned anthropological data (Nzekwu) or false picaresque (Conton). These anthologies show a relatively greater success in the use of forms not based so much on European models and not written (sometimes it comes to the same thing) with an eye on the hard-cover reader in London and New York. Parables, cautionary tales, heavily moralistic rogues’ yarns, or even the mere ‘writing up’ of a deeply felt or observed episode—there are several good pieces on these lines—but efforts to capture the ‘tight totality’ of the inbred short story flop, and quite right too. Where the subject, as often, is racial or colonial, it seems, perhaps predictably, that the West Africans are generally over explicit and self conscious (two leaden pieces from Sierra Leone) and that it is the South African who really has something to say. Virtually the only item with a definite post-independence political theme (by one of the Faber editors) is appallingly coy and retreating. This was to be expected, but still depresses. The Heinemann anthology is better value for money.