Various Nigerian Narratives, Part Three: Memory, Music, Tradition

March 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

Finished a while ago: GraceLand.

A quick catch-up post before moving on.  GraceLand is a complicated book in a lot of ways, not least in form and audience.  Its author is a Nigerian exile living in the U.S., and as such the book was first published in the U.S.  (though there may be — probably was — a simultaneous U.K. edition).  I’ve already given some examples of how the book acts as a kind of Baedeker to the Nigerian cultural and societal landscape of the author’s formative years.  It does this in well-integrated, well-written ways.  It does not in the least partake in the sort of anthropological objectification that Elvis would surely despise.

One example to add to the print and film cultural practices already described: near the book’s end, when Elvis hits the road with the King of Beggars and his band, we get a glimpse of how Nigerian concerts worked, and their parallels with past Western practices:

The evening’s show always started with a dance during which the band played all the popular tunes of the day.  The play followed, and then there was another dance afterwards.  For a big audience in a big town, the total number of songs played in one night came to about forty, not counting those played as part of the play.  Most evenings began at nine p.m. and finished at four in the morning.

It’s quite like Vaudeville, in other words.  The band members consider themselves primarily musicians, but must also act and canvass the town “displaying their instruments” to drum up interest.  The plays are mostly “didactic,” somewhat like morality plays or after-school specials.

Totally fascinating.  However, all of this is potentially fraught postcolonial ground — especially in a book that was featured as a selection of the “book club” on Today.  Who is Abani writing to/for: himself, a la Proust, as an act of memory?  The interested folk of his adopted country, who also happen to be the cultural and (in ways) economical hegemons of his homeland, and those of his homeland’s former colonizer, Great Britain?  His fellow expatriates, or those he left behind in Nigeria?

The form of the novel is interesting in light of these questions.  GraceLand is a synthetic novel, by which I mean it is made of different sorts of texts.  The vast bulk is the narrative of Elvis, a tale with incident, dialogue, and language deeply informed by Nigeria but with a form out of the Western canon (as mentioned before, it can be read as a Bildungsroman, with an interesting parallel plot with an Igbo twist in the tale of Sunday’s own possible spiritual maturation and transformation at the novel’s end).  I speculate that it is especially influenced by Invisible Man and Things Fall Apart: one American, one Nigerian.

But there are also interstitial bits of text, loosely connected to the narrative.  Between chapters we get recipes, descriptions and definitions of Nigerian herbs and plants, and pieces of different texts like the Bible and the aforementioned Onitsha Market pamphlets.  Many of these are (or at least could be) extracts from Elvis’s mother’s journal, we are led to infer from the description Elvis provides of the journal.  With this narrative connection, we, the Americans-ignorant-of-Nigeria, can read them as the cultural primer they clearly are, but can also read them through Elvis’s eyes, and/or Abani’s.  They can be read as expressions of  Elvis’s longing for and estrangement from the homelands of his mother and his country, added after the events of the novel.  The formal heterodoxy is a powerful tool to convey information to the ignorant, but also to reveal the novel’s meaning — its soul.

In addition, each chapter begins with two brief passages about the Igbo ritual of the kola nut, a powerful ceremony important in divination rites but also in hospitality customs and religion more generally.  The first of each of these passages, in regular type, is from the Igbo point of view and often contains a kind of mystical or oracular language.  The second, in italics, is rather more anthropological, talking about the Igbo rituals as objects of study and anthropological data.  Again, we see the dual consciousness of the expatriate.  But more than that, these passages are epigrammatic, and often indicative of the content of the chapter to follow.   This could suggest to the reader either that Abani wants to convey that the form of the narrative follows a persistent path in Igbo mythology, or that Abani has deliberately structured the events of the novel to do so.  The dual epigrams, perhaps, allow for both interpretations at once.  Joycean.  Ingenious.

The Theatre of the Closed Book

May 10, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

Frances Yates had this theory, okay? And it seems to have been a bee in her bonnet. I can imagine her attempting to explain it, in the necessary deep detail, to acquaintances at cocktail parties, who’ve shown a polite interest in her esoteric project. It involves Shakespeare in a tangential way, so of course it’s interesting. But like so many other attempted reconstructions of his life and times, it is wildly circumstantial, a theory built on great stretches of the imagination and wild postulations of four-hundred-years dead peoples’ associations, readings, motivations. It’s cool, but kind of unbelievable.

As Yates herself says, to take this theory out of the context of her book on the development of the art of memory from classical rhetorical skill to occult Renaissance ritual for approaching divinity is to make it seem… kind of incomprehensible. But here are the basics. The English philosopher and mystic Robert Fludd developed a memory system, building on the systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo. Actually, Fludd describes two arts of memory: the “round art,” similar to Bruno’s occult use of astrology and images symbolizing the zodiac, and the “square art,” more like the medieval system of using images of “corporeal things” like men and animals placed in memory rooms.

Like much of the discussion in this book on the Hermetic Renaissance philosophers, Yates’s discussion of Fludd is based somewhat on conjecture, because so much of what they wrote seems (to us, at least) willfully obscure, as if withholding a secret or writing only for the initiated, a secret cabal. But she seems right in saying that Fludd proposes to combine these two arts, and to do so in rooms which Fludd calls “theatres.” Engravings of such theatres are included in the second volume of his gigantic work Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris… (1619). Fludd does seem to say, at one point, that he intends his art to be done using “real” places, not imaginary ones (like the grand imagined cathedrals of medieval memory I speculated on in an earlier post).

Therefore, Yates believes Fludd’s theatre engravings are based on actual theatres — or, to be more specific, the stages of actual theatres. Through a torturous series of associations, she convinces herself that Fludd has given us an image of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I don’t really buy it, although it’s a really cool theory and you can tell how excited she was by the idea. At least the theatre-rooms Fludd included in his work do seem to give us some sense of how an Elizabethan and Jacobean stage might have looked (assuming the engraver, probably a German, was given adequate instructions).

But the really fascinating part of Yates’s argument is what she extrapolates from the physical layout of Fludd’s book. On two facing pages there are engravings of the zodiac symbols and spheres of the planets (a round image), and Fludd’s main theatre-room (thought by Yates to be an image of the Globe). (See both images here, figs. 25 and 26, a little over halfway down the page. Sorry, I struck out looking for a better image of the full pages.) If you know your Elizabethan stage history, you know that the ceiling covering the rear part of the stage is thought to have been painted with an image of the night sky, or other representations of the stars, and was called “the heavens.” Drawing on this tradition, Yates speculates that the position of the two engravings is meaningful: when the book is closed, the round image of the heavens will cover or be on top of the square image of the stage, just as the heavens of the stage cover the lower realm where most of the action took place. The round and square arts of memory are thereby combined, just as the position at which some scenes took place in Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful and symbolic — think of Prospero in the Tempest, appearing ‘above’ in one scene: the magus, his superior knowledge keeping him above the fray of human foibles.

I can’t remember seeing the position of text and image in a work used in this way before. That the position of the text when unread could be important! Great idea, and I love the symbolism, and it is certainly tempting to think about the influences the Hermetic ideas going around in England at the time might have had on Shakespeare and the Kings’ Men and James I himself (to whom Fludd dedicated the first part of his book). Speculation, but fun speculation.

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