Add to bookbag
Author: Timothy Burke
Title: The African quest
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: The African quest
Timothy Burke

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 4, pp. 14, 1992
Author Biography: Timothy Burke is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rutgers University Center for Historical Analysis and has just completed a Ph.D at Johns Hopkins University. He was a 1991-92 fellow of the Institute.

REVIEW The African Quest


Richard Bjornson, The African Quest for Freedom and Identity: Cameroonian Writing and the National Experience, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1991, xvii + 507 pp.

Situating a "national literature" amid historical trends and along weaving threads of cultural discourse and activity, with considerable attention to the rich and complex details of a particular setting, hardly seems a particularly revolutionary or startling project, and yet Richard Bjornson's study of Cameroonian writing and its historical and political circumstances has a fresh and innovative air to it. This is partially a testament to the established limitations of much Africanist literary criticism. Such analyses remain hobbled by ingrown tendencies, noted by Bjornson in his introduction, that continue to channel contemporary assessments of "African" literature away from the rich and multiple contexts which sustain such writing into sweeping generalizations about the essential character of an entire continent. Still, Bjornson's own considerable analytic skills and careful attention to detail help mark his study in its own right as a high point in conventional Africanist literary criticism. The work's primary and ultimately serious weakness is that, having reached this apex, it does not muster the will to leap off altogether.

Bjornson's comprehensive study gives us a narrative of the development of Cameroonian literature from works created by the first generation of mission pupils up to the popular theater of the 1980s. Along the way, he carefully profiles successive key cultural and political moments in the twentieth century history of Cameroonian society, contextualizes episodic clusters of literary production within these moments, and periodically pursues a close analysis of the texts of authors like Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono and Francis Bebey.

Attention to detail and a respect for the accumulative weight of text and experience on the production of literature in Cameroon make Bjornson's study a fruitful one. For example, the much of the richness of Mongo Beti's work is revealed through tracing expanding concentric circles of intellectual and cultural labor over time: Bjornson proceeds from a close reading of Beti's novels, nestled in between the "ambiguous blessing" of Western knowledge and culture from colonial mission schooling and the struggle against colonial rule and domination, to Thomas Melone's postcolonial adoption of Beti's work into the bosom of negritude, to Beti's own "reemergence" and reinvention of his literary objectives in Cameroon during the early 1970s.

Bjornson also captures something of the internal and narrative dynamism of debates among and within the Cameroonian intelligentsia, and helps to situate those debates in larger contexts—his useful treatment of Cameroonian clashes over negritude in the sixties and early seventies, set against the backdrop of larger disputes in francophone Africa and the French-speaking diaspora, is only one example among many. Bjornson also consistently follows relationships among intellectuals, and between them and other Cameroonian institutions and sites of power, usually allowing for interweaving and complex social transformations.

Yet, it is with regard to just these kinds of relationships that the work is marked by a frustrating set of formalisms which depressingly constrain and constrict even its most sensitive attempts to read an evolving set of literary works in the context of historical permutations of identity and community in Cameroon.

These conceptual problems are first suggested by the study's general though not invariable separation of historical background material, literary or intellectual debates and close readings of the content, themes and plots of individual texts. As in other historicist literary criticism, Bjornson's intent seems to be have each of these types of analysis inform and elucidate each other, which they in fact do to a laudable degree. But because these three objectives are often pursued apart from one another, in separate chunks of exposition, the subtle but pervasive distinction between history, literary production and individual written and performed texts common to much literary analysis begins to accumulate as Bjornson's chronological narrative moves forward.

This is in and of itself not a serious problem, but only a flaw of a disciplinary genre (and debatedly so). However, it signposts Bjornson's larger failure to fully take apart some of the key figurative linchpins of his own discourse. To begin with, he doggedly returns throughout the book to the role of Cameroonian literature in the making of "national identity". Bjornson's approach to the problem of "nation" is justifiably cautious, and he primarily defines the engagement of Cameroonian writers with national consciousness as a project of "imagining a community", a la Benedict Anderson. However, the account Bjornson gives also is resolutely unidirectional: virtually every chapter concludes with a dully mechanical argument that all cultural episodes, individual writers, or examined texts somehow "become reference points that contribute to a sense of shared identity in nations such as Cameroon" (p.324). Bjornson's reading of these texts and episodes becomes formally and ritualistically bounded by this painfully repetitious return to "national consciousness", which could only have worked if Bjornson was writing a wholly different book about the meaning of "nation" in political and social life.

The texts, writers and debates covered by this book implicitly explode this attempt to confine their meaning and agency to a single important problematic. Bjornson becomes a "witness in spite of himself" who records a world which he himself doesn't seem to fully notice. The constant recurrence of figurations like "authenticity", "the popular", "the public sphere", "freedom", or "identity" in the debates and works covered by Bjornson all point to a much more complicated cohabitation and articulation between multiple discourses, communities and purposes.

This becomes especially clear in Bjornson's framing of the relationship between literature and culture. While avoiding the old colonially-rooted valuations of "literacy" as a superior and advanced mode of social communication, Bjornson nevertheless chooses from the beginning to argue that the "universes" of literate discourse in Cameroon have played a uniquely privileged role in the making of consciousness. At several moments, for example, Bjornson argues that "the spread of literacy encourages reflection on the self". (p.212) It is hard to know why essential or ontological claims about literacy remained embedded in so much of Africanist discourse.

Bjornson at least situates "literature" within a larger world of printed texts and literate institutions: hagiographic comic books, government polemics, political essays, university writings and strictures, films, magazines, newspapers and others. This effort could have gone still further. Government records, statistics, trial transcripts, monuments, and other diverse textual inscriptions vomited forth by the colonial and post-colonial state and civil society and their relationship to various Cameroonian "literatures" could and should pervade every corner of Bjornson's work. For example, more than one of the literary works examined in this book charts the progression of a criminal trial—Yodi Karone's Le Bal des Caimans, for example—and an interwoven account of trials and commissions as a form of "theater", as in Adam Ashforth's analysis of state discourse in South Africa, [1] would immeasurably enrich Bjornson's analysis.

But still more important is the larger sea of unofficial, informal and momentary discourses, most of them oral or conversational, swirling within Cameroonian civil society and in and between local communities and identities in Cameroon. We should be past the moment in Africanist scholarship in which a study as rich in detail and as comprehensive in design as Bjornson's can beg off situating texts against admittedly slippery, unrecorded and multiple oral literatures, knowledges and narratives—all of which are as central to the making of meaning and identity as novels, plays, films or essays. The reception of novels or plays, their sources and engagements with everyday life, and the social networks which generate, comment upon and struggle against or alongside authors and intellectuals in Cameroon cannot safely be said to belong outside the realm of literary criticism any more than an anthropologist or historian studying Cameroon could justify ignoring the richness of its literature.

Bjornson's concluding remarks illustrate the potential of such an integrated approach and highlight the impoverishment of what has gone before: he notes, for example, the "word of mouth" circulation of newspaper columns, and the network of common "reference points" impelled by literary texts into the public sphere (which is not the same necessarily as the national sphere, though Bjornson regards it as such). If Bjornson had fully situated Cameroonian novels and plays in a sea of cultural production and multiple identities—national, local, domestic and transnational—rather than pursuing his Procustrian agenda of cutting Cameroonian literature to fit the bed of "national consciousness", this comprehensive and intelligent book would be much more richly satisfying.

1. Adam Ashforth, "Reckoning Schemes of Legitimation: On Commissions of Inquiry as Power/Knowledge Forms", Journal of Historical Sociology, 3:1, March 1990, pp. 1-22.

passages |