`Voyages' Across French Africa

Contemporary African writers are bringing new social and cultural elements to their continent's literature.

By , Carl Wood is professor of English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

MILDRED MORTIMER'S literary journeys in this book take us to exotic locales - Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Algeria, and Northwest African communities in France - all the while pointing to familiar themes that stress common human connections. Discussing novels by renowned African authors like Camara Laye and Ousmane Semb`ene, as well as such important newer voices as Ahmadou Kourouma and Mariama B^a, Mortimer traces journey motifs that are immediately reminiscent of books like ``The Return of the Native'' and ``Huckleberry Finn.'' In more traditional times, journeying was a normal phase of many individuals' lives, after which they returned to their home communities enriched by experience and with new ideas to contribute. But disturbing modern patterns in African travel mirror those in the rest of the world. Twentieth-century Africa, as portrayed in books Mortimer discusses by Mongo Beti, Chejkh Hamidou Kane, Kateb Yacine, and Mouloud Mammeri, has not escaped the more erratic and unsettling mobility of modern times.

In each of her chapters, Mortimer discusses two representative but contrasting novels, always focusing on the journey motif. She portrays the indigenous African novel as growing out of the colonist novel but reacting against and responding to its racist stereotypes.

Not only are modern African voyagers sometimes so changed by their journeys that they no longer fit into the traditional communities of their youths, but also, because of Africa's extremely rapid social and political transitions, ``home'' as the travelers knew it is often no longer there when they return. In Africa, as throughout the third world, travelers are finding poignant new meaning in Thomas Wolfe's dictum, ``You can't go home again.''

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The kinds of journeys Northwest Africans typically undertake, Mortimer shows, are circumscribed by sex. Men make outward, physical journeys for familiar educational, economic, or military reasons and find increased awareness and self-understanding - inspiring or discouraging.

Women must travel on inner, mental journeys. This inner space is a major focus as Mortimer discusses works by the female novelists Mariama B^a, Assia Djebar, Ken Bugul, and Lelia Sebbar. Responding to the Koran's prescriptions for feminine enclosure, this travel within, when successful, finds refuge in one's thoughts and memories or in the ``comforting haven of female bonding.'' Through such journeying, Mortimer shows, African women can develop spiritual strength to fight remaining colonialism and traditional patriarchy.

Mortimer supports a feminist hypothesis of ``a universal female literary tradition,'' transcending race, culture, and geography. In this tradition the historically oppressed sex responds psychologically and artistically with images of enclosure and the impulse to break free.

We also are shown the literary expression of midcentury cultural conflicts in Africa centering around the Western institutions of the church and school. Mortimer discusses historical novels about the rise of African national solidarity beyond tribalism and selfish individualism. And like many other critics, she notes African writers' disillusioned reactions after independence as colonial rulers have often been replaced by corrupt, exploitative African elites.

Nothing in Mortimer's book is more interesting and heartening than her demonstration of how writers are establishing ``bonds across the Sahara,'' bringing together peoples of different races, histories, and languages and connecting literary traditions. Northwest African affinities among Arab and Negroid authors include the Islamic religious and social tradition, the experience of European colonialism, and the French language and international culture themselves.

In fact, Mortimer's book provides English speakers with a salutary opportunity to recall the importance of the other pervasive European culture in the modern world - that of France. For as her book demonstrates, nowhere outside Europe is French culture more vital and influential today than in Africa.

For the most part, Mortimer writes lucidly and unpretentiously, but her book is essentially academic, presenting thoroughgoing examinations of minor as well as major novels and carrying on arguments with earlier critics. Some readers will question her interpretations of individual works, but her essential conclusions have persuasive general import.

Through analyzing the journey experience in the literary art of a broad, varied segment of one continent's humanity, Mortimer draws valuable lessons for us all.

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