Forms of Telling
- Aina Pavolini Taylor (Translator) and Amadou Hampaté Bá (Author)
The Fortunes of Wangrin. Indiana University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Titi Adepitan
The heritage of verbal art bestowed by the story tellers of old constitutes a major component of the character of West African fiction, which is remarkable for bridging the gap between traditional and modern (European) forms. The blurring of the fine line between fiction and fact in narrative, now fashionably called faction, has been there for eons in the avocation of the griots of the West African Sahel who insisted in times past, as does Djeli Mamadou Kouyate, the reciter of Djibril Tamsir Niane’s version of the Sundiata epic, "My story is free from all untruth. A griot does not know what lying is." The Yoruba (Nigerian) novelist D. O. Fagunwa built a panoply of alibis in his novels to convince his readers that his protagonists were real, and each work ended with a drawn-out moral on the benefits of good conduct as well as correspondence between the author and his fans.
Amadou Hampaté Bâ’s The Fortunes of Wangrin is one of the more remarkable examples of the meeting points between the griot’s insistence on history and the fabulist’s licence. "This book is the fulfillment of a promise I made to a man I met in 1912," the author writes in the foreword. The man, alias Wangrin, an official interpreter to the French colonial administration, told the young man a few years later, "[Y]ou must take down the story of my life and after my death compose it into a book which will not only amuse but instruct those who read it." The author solemnly declares, "I have faithfully related. . . all that was told to me here and there. Let no one try. . . to look for any kind of thesis, be it political, religious, or other, in these pages" (my emphasis).
Wangrin speaks impeccable French, one of seven or eight languages he has mastered, and has everyone, superiors and subordinates alike, coiled around his little finger. There is a lot of Joyce Cary’s Johnson in him, and it is sometimes difficult to see how he could possibly be less objectionable as a portrait of the small-time African colonial official than the better known bête noire of African postcolonial criticism. Wangrin is certainly not the kind of "hero" to admire in the face of the contemporary African leadership crisis. The delightful rogue, either in folklore or in modern literature (including the European archetypes cited in Abiola Irele’s illuminating introduction), is a well known figure. He is delightful because he blows as he bites, though his bite may carry no long-term sting. In spite of his bonhomie Wangrin is a reprobate whose antic energy and propensity for causing grievous injury run against virtually every signpost of traditional morality.
The author rejects views of Wangrin as "a vulgar scoundrel with an almost total lack of human dimension," and proceeds to list "some of his remarkably good deeds" in the afterword. Modern narrative theory would frown on such interventions, but a raconteur in a folkloric mode may not see why an afterthought should not wield the authority of a substantive text. The Fortunes of Wangrin is richly textured, multi-layered and rendered with a bardic élan worthy of the griots of old. The translation by Aina Pavolini Taylor succeeds in capturing the weightiness of traditional speech forms, but her escape route from the challenges of French patois in the original is Nigerian pidgin. Bâ (?i9oo-9i), raconteur, folklorist, prolific author and former member of the UNESCO executive council, is also famous for making the oft-quoted statement: "In Africa, when an old person dies, it’s a library burning down."
- New Close Readings by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E.M. Forster's Fiction by Parminder Kaur Bakshi, Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influence in 19th-Century U.S. Literature by Scott S. Derrick, and Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism by Joseph Allen Boone
- Question d'identité by Charles Le Blanc
Books reviewed: Un coeur rouge dans la glace by Robert Lalonde
- Alone with the Memory of Everyday by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: The Baldwins by Serge Lamothe, Sleeping on the Moon by Sylvia Adams, and Moving Day by Terence Young
- Amour et jouissance by Christine St-Pierre
Books reviewed: La Blonde de Patrick Nicol by Patrick Nicol and Pour une croûte by Alexandre Laferrière
- City Tensions by Ian Dennis
Books reviewed: Ascension by Steven Galloway and The Fiend in Human by John Morgan Gray
MLA: Adepitan, Titi. Forms of Telling. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 147 - 148)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.