AS an art form, the novel has been adapting, changing, modernizing, constructing, and deconstructing itself for more than 200 years. It can be likened to a venerable bearer of culture. The novel takes its contact with readers seriously. Put another way, the novel is a double act of optimism; it expects to be read and have a social impact. Contemporary African novelists, bringing invigorating new social and cultural elements to the genre, are trandscending government hostility to carry on this tradition of optimism. No event in African literature during the past two decades has caused more excitement than the publication in 1988 of the Chinua Achebe's ``Anthills of the Savannah.'' The first novel to appear in 22 years by the celebrated dean of African novelists, the new book, like Achebe's ``Things Fall Apart'' (1958) and ``No Longer at Ease'' (1960), portrays Nigeria at a crucial moment in its history.
The earlier books showed the social disruption upon the arrival of the first British missionaries and Nigeria's moral chaos on the eve of its independence. ``Anthills of the Savannah'' sums up the contemporary social scene, where white people are increasingly irrelevant but where the populace still struggles to overcome problems inherited from the West and such indigenous African concerns as sexism and authoritarian violence in politics.
ACHEBE'S African protagonists in this book include an urbane, highly intellectual woman - a new creation in the African novel. Achebe uses this feminist sophisticate to confront the sexism and elitism that continue to impede social progress in Africa.
Despite much repression and violence, this novel concludes with an uplifting scene. Here the protagonist gives a newborn baby an African name meaning ``May-the-path-never-close,'' and Achebe ends his novel on this note of grave hope for eventual social progress.
This distinguished author's integrity, frankness, and somber optimism are shared by his main colleagues among middle-aged African authors, as well as an exciting new generation of fine writers now rising all across black Africa.
Since literature in the Western sense has developed in Africa entirely within this century, it is noteworthy that the best contemporary African authors are as good as any in the world. This is well demonstrated by Achebe's fellow Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, who in 1986 brought Africa its first Nobel Prize for Literature. Africa's most versatile writer, Soyinka has excelled in plays, novels, poetry, essays, and criticism.
Soyinka has also written two beautifully evocative biographical books portraying his father's time and his own childhood - ``Ak'e: The Years of Childhood (1981), and ```Isar`a: A Voyage Around `Essay''' (1989). In ``Mandela's Earth and Other Poems'' (1988), he exhibited the continuing literary dialogue between Africans of differing cultures:
Your bounty threatens me, Mandela, that taut
Drumskin of your heart on which our millions
Dance. I fear we latch, fat leeches
On your veins. Our daily imprecisions
Dull keen edges of your will.
Compromises deplete your act's repletion -
Feeding will-voided stomachs of a continent,
What will be left of you, Mandela?
The third towering figure among middle-aged African authors is an East African now in exile, as Soyinka was in the 1970s. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan author of plays, essays, stories, and six novels, is a humanitarian Marxist best known for ``Petals of Blood'' (1977), his flawed but grand epic of post-colonial Kenyan politics. Since moving to England in 1982, he has published a major novel, ``Matigari'' (1988), and ``Decolonizing the Mind'' (1986), a book of essays with some softening of political rhetoric that may help him return safely to Kenya if the current popular unrest there results in political liberalization.
THE many younger writers now active in Africa exhibit constructive attitudes and impressive early achievements that forecast a coming era of greatness in African literature.
Strewn across the center of Africa are excellent young poets, from Ghana's Kofi Anyidoho and Nigeria's Niyi Osundari in the west to Malawi's Frank Chipasula, Jack Mapanje, and Felix Mnthali in the east. A poem by Mnthali expresses the sense of vocation and spirit of commitment among these poets:
And a voice said unto me,
Write that they may also rejoice
who suffer the void
of a prison without walls
and groan at the tread
of idols without a face;
write that they may also
Two fine young novelists have recently emerged from French-speaking Africa - Sony Labou Tansi, from the People's Republic of the Congo, and the Ivory Coast's Ahmadou Kourouma.
The linguistic experimenter Kourouma, in ``The Suns of Independence'' (``Les soliels des independances,'' 1968) and ``Monn`e, outrage et defi'' (``Monn`e, Outrage, and Defiance,'' 1988, not yet translated), makes a stimulating fictional examination of 19th-century Africa with implicit lessons for contemporary politics. He and Tansi, in his absurdist ``La vie et demie'' (``Life and a Half,'' 1979) and ``L'Etat honteux'' (``The Shameful State,'' 1981), neither yet translated, share a concern for how language can shape experience for good or ill. Tansi has also written several excellent experimental plays.
The Nigerians Festus Iyayi and Kole Omotoso represent the new literary and political hope in younger English-language African writers. In ``Heroes'' (1986), the social realist Iyayi portrays the loyal common soldiers as the real heroes of the bloody Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s.
Omotoso has more obvious hope for the future, as expressed in the title of his socially critical novel ``Just Before the Dawn'' (1988), where he imagines wryly humorous dialogues between Nigerian historical figures.
NO one should underestimate the difficulties ahead before African literature can become a pervasive, humane influence in its society. For example, in 13 African countries today important writers languish in prison.
Nevertheless, Africa's authors have continued with their admirable, socially constructive work in worse times. And especially after recent events in Eastern Europe, one can share these literary Africans' cautious, hard-won optimism.