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African Writers Series, Founding Editor: Chinua Achebe

Messing around in a secondhand bookshop some time ago I came across a series of thin paperbacks with orange and black covers. Opening one of them I saw this heading:

African Writers Series

Below that:

Founding Editor: Chinua Achebe

The heading was followed by a list of writers in alphabetical order, starting with a book called Mine Boy by someone named Peter Abrams and ending with Robben Island by D. M. Zwelonke. D.M. Zwelonke was followed by anthologies of play scripts, poetry, and short stories: Onitsha Market Literature, Igbo Traditional Verse, Short East African Plays, and so on.

The books were numbered from one to 210, with 210 being Elechi Amad's The Slave, and number one being Achebe's own Things Fall Apart. I recognised some of the authors. Here was Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North at number 69, here was Wole Soyinka with The Interpreters at 78, here was The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing at 131. Others were strangers. I'd never heard of Okot p'Bitek, author of Hare and Hornbill, or Nkem Nkwanko, who had written something called My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours. Social commentary, I thought, probably satirical. I guessed that J.L. Vieira, whoever he was, must have come from one of the Portuguese colonies, just looking at his name, and that Tom Mboya must have lived in an area that had been colonised by the British. When I looked up Mboya later he turned out to be a politician from Kenya who was shot dead in 1969, possibly at the request of a political rival. "Why don't you go after the big man?" asked the gunman when they caught him, refusing to tell anyone who the big man was. Mboya's fellow Kenyans assumed it was the president, Jomo Kenyatta, who set off a riot when he decided to attend the funeral.

Book number 81 is an anthology of the dead man's speeches. Vieira, who appears to be still alive, was raised in Angola and spent years in prison after pushing for the cause of Angolan independence.

I took home three of the books. They're not so ancient that they're falling apart, but old enough that Williams Sassine's Wirriyamu made a cracking noise along the spine when I propped it open with a hairbrush. Amadi's The Concubine has grown a faded L-shaped stripe on the front cover after years of exposure to sunlight on someone's bookshelf. Amadi's prose has the clear matter-of-factness of Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird and his book sits next to Achebe's more famous work like an echo in a different key. Doom descends on the Nigerian characters, as it did in Achebe, but this time colonialism has no place in the story, and fate comes from the spirit world. The concubine of the title is a respectable woman who has to cope when the men in her life fall under a serial curse. The primary character, though, is the village where the story takes place. Easily and swiftly, the author introduces us to the village clown, the village bully, showing us the rules governing marriage, farming, religion, and the casual use of aphorisms in everyday conversation:

It was a pace-making marriage. The normal pace of negotiations was a year, but Wigwe had rushed things. Each time Wagbara pointed out that that a hen cannot lay eggs and hatch them on the same day, Wigwe had countered by saying that the slow-footed always fail in battle. And so Ahurole was home in six months.

Everything connects in this society, everything has repercussions. The narrative is slender, but it's still strong enough to bear the weight of Amadi's realist observations.

Wirriyamu is a very different book. Writing about the massacre of Mozambique villagers by Portuguese colonists, Sassine lets his story stop and start under the weight of its polemics and an overabundance of characters, some cute and good, some villainous. He sets up one idea and then rushes off to the next, leaving the first idea to fend for itself. (I thought of Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, which felt, to me, twitchy like this too.) Two of the characters notice that they are both Bantu, but the significance of this is not taken much further, and a guerilla leader is brought into the story to deliver a long lecture about his communist followers and how their murders are nicer than other people's murders. These observations could have built toward the climax that is the massacre, but instead of piling on top of one another they lie side by side, not always communicating as Sassine would probably have liked them to. Wirrimiyu could have been twice as long and still not explored everything it raised. There is an excellent book out there somewhere, forever lost with Sassine's death in 1997, and this is the sketch of it.

My third book was The Thirteenth Sun, the only English-language novel by the Ethiopian writer Daniachew Worku who died a decade before Sassine. He modelled the bones of his story on As I Lay Dying, very obviously, and yet this didn't seem to me like stealing. The purpose was too different. The bones were Faulkner's, but the meat belonged to Worku. It was as if one person had laid down an instrument and the other had picked it up and used it to play a fresh tune.

Thirteenth Sun is a meditation on Ethiopian society as it was in the 1960s, a little while before the book was first published. The parent -- and there is only one, a father, the mothers existing offstage somewhere -- stands in for the Emperor Haile Selassie, about whom Worku had mixed feelings. "I liked him, you know, despite his drawbacks," he said in an interview after Thirteenth Sun came out. "I liked the Emperor, but then, I felt I didn't understand him. There came a time when I considered him a rotting corpse somehow that each of us is carrying […] Even then, I couldn’t be so harsh as all that."

Most of his characters are superstitious in one way or another, and he takes that idea of multiple worlds and possibilities, and exploits it so that everything in his Ethiopia seems unstable, as if disruptive magic is pushing at the visible world from behind. The Faulknerian monologues feed into this, reminding the reader that there really is an unknown out there -- we can't read other people's minds and we don't know what they're thinking, or how they see us. People in this book are not what they seem to be the first time we meet them. The vehement priest may or may not be actually religious, and the most loyal and loving member of the father's family is a young woman who might be some other man's daughter. Elevated matters, like spirit, magic, god, are brought close to earthy ideas, like dirt, mud, goats, bowels. "This priest!" the sick father grumbles to himself at one point. "He had shown me some black matter, a small worm, and some larvae that came out of my bowels in proof of what the Abbo holy water is doing for me. But still, I can't go on taking bottles after bottles of water only to vomit it …"

Worku's people are petty like this, human-sized, but the ideas that radiate from them make them huge. The father represents all authoritarian old Ethiopian men, his son stands for all the educated Ethiopian youth of his time, the ones who were too young to have fought against the Italians years earlier, and a peasant embodies the peasantry as a whole. They are huge in other ways as well: the domineering father hulks over the resentful son's interior landscape. And they are huge to themselves, as Worku demonstrates when he shows us their thoughts. The father is huge in the mind of the father, the son is huge in the mind of the son, and the peasant is the primary concern of the peasant.

This kind of layering means that the reader never stands on solid ground, and neither, we're allowed to assume, did 1960s Ethiopia. Worku tries to sort out the state of his country, searching through the characters' brains for an answer and finally allowing himself not to find it. By the end of the book he is a scientist who has roughly isolated a disease without discovering a cure. The mud he leaves his characters staggering through at the end of the final chapter is both actual and symbolic, the scene reaching a moment of deceptive calm that falls apart within the space of a paragraph break when the quiet is interrupted by the sound of a train

"Rumbling and roaring and emitting vigorous chuffs of steam. Attaining pitch and tone. Wending its way down following the telegraph poles. Following the bill-boards: 'Smoke Nyala', 'Smoke Elleni', 'Smoke Axum -- Filter American Blend', 'Fly Ethiopian Airlines -- thirteen months of sunshine …'"

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