Out of Africa
The African Witch
By Joyce Cary
Lions stalking through the scrub, leopards and witchdoctors comple-menting each other in the savage depths of rainforests. Strange tribes and hidden treasure. Since time immemorial Africa has been the ultimate testing ground – at least as far as novels are concerned. The British began the trend, more or less, since they were among the first to explore the continent.
You have examples like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko:or, the Royal Slave ( 1688), which is concerned with slavery and its effects. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Madagascar; or, Robert Drury's Journal ( 1729) which covers both slavery as well as the conflict between nature and human beings on a sometimes cruel continent. And there is Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) which anticipates the lost cities that we find later in the novels of Rider Haggard and Burroughs. What is even more striking is the fact that Behn, Defoe, and Johnson depict Africans as cultured, civilized beings, which sets them apart from the condescending attitudes of colonial superiority that we find in literature in the 18th and 19th centuries and up to World War II
Rider Haggard, while being colonial, used Africa’s vastness, hidden wealth and cultural diversity to good effect in books like King Solomon’s Mines, She and the lesser known Nada the Lily, and his works lauded the nobility of the Zulu tribesmen whom even the British were forced to admit were disciplined warriors. Even The Maneaters of Tsavo, while being a true account of the man-eating lions that preyed on Indian workers building the railway line, underlined the fact that Africa was hard on those who did not belong to it.
Hemingway followed where the British colonisers had trod with his tales of brave white hunters who found in Africa’s big game a challenge that lived up to the bulls in Spain, in books like The Snows of Kilimanjaro, down to his last True at First Light. Karen Blixen used the same harsh canvas to depict her own understanding of the Africans when she was writing about her trials on the coffee farm in the Ngong Hills.
For the most part, novels written about Africa before the second world war were stereotypical in their attitude towards the country and its native inhabitants. Africa was the white man’s burden and had to be civilised. It is only recently those attitudes have started being challenged in the works of both African and American writers. Joyce Cary seems something of an anomaly if you consider the history of African fiction as written by non-Africans. While his viewpoint of the African community is an outsider’s, he does make an attempt to get inside the African’s skin and is one of the few non-African writers to try to do so sympathetically, albeit self-consciously.
His third novel, The African Witch, states its ground very clearly – Africa and, in his case, Nigeria – is a trial of strength, both for the Africans who stake their claim as rulers on a state plagued by a confusion of religions and cults and on the colonial inhabitants of the state who act as onlookers and occasionally, without meaning to, get caught up in the maelstrom. Cary had the advantage of both having Irish blood, which gave him the outsider’s perspective, and of being in the civil service, which allowed him a privileged insight into government policies. Despite being generally considered a failed artist, he used these factors to his advantage in his books. He was once quoted as having said, ‘A novel points out that the world consists entirely of exceptions’ - The African Witch, revels in the exploration of these exceptions.
The character Louis Aladai is possibly a first for literature of this kind and in a strange way--strange because the book is written by a white man--anticipates characters like the father in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s The Purple Hibiscus. Or perhaps not so strange, since Cary was sensitive to Nigeria and its vicissitudes. Louis Aladai straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between ritualistic African traditions and exposure to English schools and religion. Aladai, in fact, superciliously describes Rimi civilisation as ‘crude and stupid.’
Aladai is just one of several pretenders to the title of Emir of Rimi, a dominion which lies on the banks of the Niger. However, despite what that implies about his background, he is just out of Oxford and seems to be both contemporary and a man of greater sense and sensibility than the Europeans who surround him. Set against him is his sister Elizabeth, a powerful juju woman who will have nothing to do with the West barring sneering at the superstitious white folk who stray into the environs of her house of evil. Through this deliberate contrast, The African Witch raises issues of tradition versus mod-ernity, man set against woman, and the use and abuse of power both through politics and sorcery.
Cary was one of the first non-African writers to note the clash between the three religions that form the core of Africa: Islam, Christianity and animism. The fact that this was a remarkable achievement at the time often goes unnoticed, though it is becoming more and more familiar to us now through the works of modern African writers like Adichie. Also remarkable is that Cary anticipates a time when African royalty would be sent up to England for education. Unlike the Indian princes, Africans were more conserv-ative in their points of view; the first scion of African royalty appeared in Oxford in 1945, 15 years after The African Witch was published, when undoubtedly quite a few critics of Cary’s work were struck by a sense of deja vu.
Cary later wrote that Aladai seemed to him to be ‘rich material’. So rich in fact that one of Chinua Achebe’s protagonists, Odili, in A Man of the People, was later compared to Aladai. To counterpoint this richness Cary created an Africa as was a place where the good intentions of the West was halted by a barrier of African distrust and disbelief. The Africans find Westerners foolish, extravagant and possibly dangerous, so that someone like Judy, a wide-eyed ingénue determined to bridge the cultural gap by supporting Aladai, finds herself at a loss. And her good intentions alarmingly throw her into the path of physical violence, a situation very similar to the one Adela Quested encounters somewhat more mysteriously in Passage To India. India confuses Quested into imagined violation. Judy is confused but very certain of what has happened. Uncertainty in Africa leads to certain death for those involved, both for Africans and those foolish enough to meddle in their affairs.
Cary specialises in ambushing his readers when they think the situation is normal and even absurd. The violence he describes is accurately observed and a blow to the gut. Judy, whisked off to visit Aladai’s sister the witch Elizabeth and confronted with an explosive situation, is at a loss. Her training has not prepared her for any of this.
‘Judy knelt down to stanch the blood with her handkerchief. She knew nothing about first aid, except that it was good to loosen the collars of fainters. But this old black man, whose face was fixed in a look of sleepy amazement, his mouth wide open, his eyes half closed, was bare to the waist.’
In the end, of course, Cary is still a white man trying to write about Africa. There is a perceptible difference between the way he describes his white characters, who are sketched from a psychological point of view, and his black characters who come to us from the outside in. The aged, shrunken Emir of Rimi, for example, who is shown to us as a dwarf who walks like a cat with little pouncing steps, or Louis Aladai himself, a black lout, who is viewed with disapproval at the very English races by the colonial powers-that-be and their memsahibs. This approach of Cary’s is what first strikes the reader after sorting out the hurlypburly of African-white encounters.
In the muddy waters of a politically correct age, racism is the immediate accusation that springs to mind, but no writer who tries to understand his subject can be accused of that. Perhaps Carey’s focus on surface appearance is his way of understanding the subtle combination of mind and body that characterises the Nigerians he describes.
Elizabeth the witch, while undoubtedly a powerful woman, seems to be a little beyond Cary’s grasp, which is why he always projects her through the Anglicised eyes of Aladai. Witches and juju magic are familiar territory for readers of Frank Yerby who, unlike Cary, had the advantage of straddling two disparate worlds through blood and wrote about witchcraft and African slaves with a more cynical understanding.
The African Witch takes its time building and then, having reached a violent climax, suddenly ends like a deflated balloon. More certainly needed to be said in a book like this, which both treads hard in Conrad’s footsteps and breaks new ground. Cary, sadly, seems not to have understood the strength of his own contribution, which is why he only wrote one other book set in Africa.
Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by
HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel,
Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli, and a third, Rhythms of Darkness, by Gyaana Books.