12.27.2012

The Novel as Dictator

Why socialist realism loses out to avant-garde aesthetics.

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

I first read Pepetela’s Mayombe in a literature course taught by the Kenyan writer-in-exile Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Unlike the other texts we trooped over to Revolution Books on Fourteenth Street to buy, this one came in a shadowy photocopy, Ngugi’s own smudged handwriting littering the sides. The radicalism of the novel began before I opened it by conjuring all those other texts, out-of-print, market-dismissed, that lay in other languages, only to be recovered by activist-scholars. Published in Portuguese in 1979 and translated into English three years later, the novel Mayombe has since been difficult to obtain, with large gaps in its publication and circulation history.

Named for a forest in the province of Cabinda, Angola and written by a former guerrilla, Mayombe has all the hallmarks of literary forgettability. It was a novel of decolonization, tightly wound to the moment of 1961 and the launch of the MPLA, the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola against colonial rule. Anchored in the forest with occasional trips to the base, the novel stages the battle between the Portuguese “tuga,” the settlers, and the fragile and hypermasculine ethos of a new revolutionary organization. It is organized by a series of astute guerrilla narrators, with names like Theory, and New World, and Struggle, each with his own ideological objective. Lush descriptions of the forest, the beauty and stature of trees soon to become timber, the shimmer of undiscovered streams, all compete with the harsh realities of sustaining troops during a time of brutal warfare.

Why do certain fictions become part of literary history, and others fall by the wayside? This is, in essence, the politics of cultural selection. You haven’t read Mayombe like you read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in school, or Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. You didn’t study it in your World Cultures courses alongside Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai. In fact, even those who know non-Anglophone African writers like Ousmane Sembene and Ferdinand Oyono have mostly never heard of it. Why?

There are many reasons, of course. In the discourse of world literature, Africa is more marginal than India, just as Portuguese is second (or third or fourth) to English, and Angola is sidelined for Kenya. But I would suggest that more than anything else, this is a subterranean debate about aesthetics.

Mayombe is a typically nationalist novel, patriotic even; ours is a moment of post-national cynicism, tribalism, civil war and migration. It is prototypically realist in a literary sphere that privileges formalist play and conscientious style. And it is fiction with a formula — a clear, recognizable message — in a time of disdain for didacticism. Tribalism, the novel proclaimed, alongside the privileges of the intelligentsia and the indulgences of the private sphere, was the death of the economic and ideological unity necessary for independence. Mayombe’s publication was prodded along by Angola’s first president, Agostinho Neto, and it is influenced by the thinking of Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary leftist from Guinea-Bissau who founded the MPLA alongside Neto and was instrumental in the broader eviction of the Portuguese. In addition to the material problems involved in the staging of guerrilla war, the novel takes up the problem of the creation of a national consensus, as well as the larger issues of love, fidelity, and betrayal in a time of historical crisis. The book is a kind of classic founding fiction, weaving tightly the conventions of its genre with a sense of nationalist responsibility.

It is precisely this link between nation, novel, and realism, that countries eventually outgrow as they enter the world stage. Recent criticism by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova has theorized the political and cultural economy via which the literary sphere transcends the local in favor of the universal. Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (2005) dismisses the notion of the national literature as “provincial,” where the provinces are a “disinherited territory” and a historical anachronism. For these literatures, nationalism becomes destiny, but also a tragic horizon, which is closed to other forms of community and worldliness. In Casanova’s formulation, derived in part from world systems theory, the national is actually a new petty localism, preventing participation in the politically consequential “world republic of letters”, where, predictably, European powers determine cultural futures and a global cosmopolitanism rules. Mayombe’s preoccupations are thus old — but also old world — values, without much literary currency now. Literary forgettability comes in many forms.

For books like Mayombe, literary forgettability is produced by the trap of didacticism, a most common charge made against novels with very sharp axes to grind. Mayombe, so named for the largest forest in Angola, is the “story” of a group of revolutionaries, and their time of guerrilla struggle during the late sixties. One of the most compelling is named Theory, for his revolutionary Marxism/Maoism but who also expounds beautifully on egotism, tactics, sex, and love. The time in the forest reveals the struggle over strategy, the problem of an incipient revolutionary justice, as well as hunger, deprivation, petty grievance, and the constant specter of tribalism. It is a compelling narrative, but is clearly caught up in its own anticolonial fervor to educate.

Early in the novel, when the guerillas come upon a Portuguese logging operation, they set the bulldozer on fire, and take the laborers in custody for a bit of old-fashioned political education. This is the note that Fearless, the Cuban cap-wearing commander, leaves behind:

Bastard colonialists, go to hell, go home.
While you are here,
in someone else’s land
the boss is enjoying your wife
or sister, there in the greens!

The commissar objects, albeit with a small laugh. “Not very political!” he says. “What do you expect?” Fearless responds. “Copying out a chunk of Marx? This is the only politics these tuga understand.”

Mayombe might thus be read as an example of what Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson refers to as an “agitational didacticism.” In his commentary on the Bertold Brecht–Gyorgy Lukacs debates of the 1940s, Jameson echoes the by now routine dismissal of such governed artistic practices, fiction on a particular mission. The putative bad art of socialist realism has almost always lost out to the more spectacular avant-garde aesthetics of a generally understood Marxism. Despite courting Gorky and Yashpal, the deliberate “artlessness” of social realism couldn’t survive the anachronistic critiques of literary history, which has deemed it pedestrian, overtly pedagogical, stylistically unprovocative — and therefore politically unchallenging. Critiques have ranged from charges of hack art and bad style (social realism produces ugly work) to the mandate of the state (intellectual freedom can’t be governed by the government), to the more sophisticated claim that art must do more than “reflect” reality. Terry Eagleton describes the heyday of socialist realism under Stalin as “one of the most devastating assaults on culture ever witnessed in modern history — an assault conducted in the name of a theory and practice of social liberation.” (According to Eagleton, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the theater producer who was crucial to Brecht’s “agitprop” once said, “This pitiable and sterile thing called socialist realism has nothing to do with art.”)

What is so wrong with “agitational didacticism”, or — as Alok Rai calls others forms of literary protest hampered by the same kind of pedagogic dictatorialism — “prescribed militancy”? The social realist text was too digestible, says Adorno, too mimetic, says Lukacs, too smooth, too digestible, too naïve in its belief in culture as a kind of modeling clay.

The anticolonial moment in Africa produces a different politico-literary debate. Pepetela’s work is rooted in the revolutionary thought of Amilcar Cabral, for whom, with Frantz Fanon, national culture had a certain prescriptive value. “Culture,” writes Cabral, “is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history . . . In culture there lies the capacity (or the responsibility) for forming and fertilizing the seedling which will assure the continuity of history, at the same time assuring the prospects for evolution and progress of the society in question.” But in Africa too pedagogical art can be seen as an aesthetic stepbrother. In the Nigeria of the 1960s, Wole Soyinka responded to the charge of aesthetic indulgence in his work with: “The tiger does not go about announcing his tigritude, it pounces.” Soyinka’s critique was directed towards negritude, and what he felt was an excessive and degrading politics of blackness, which reified the black-white binary. Responding to the charge leveled against his own work — that he was emulating the aesthetics of a European literary modernism — Soyinka derided the simplistic and largely realist canon of his critics as an unsubtle proclamation of a “revolutionary” imperative.

Do Mayombe’s tigers proclaim their tigritude? Do they state, in other words, too loudly their claims? The novel does read to some extent like an intellectual exercise. Each section of the text is flagged by a subheading, “I, the Narrator, am Theory” only to be superseded twenty or so odd pages later by, “I, the narrator, am New World.” Wrenching the tale firmly from any fiction of omniscience, the novel uses this formal device of juxtaposition to individualize the guerrillas, revealing their quirks as well as their ethnic affiliations. Mutianvua, we learn, is “post-tribal” — his time as a sailor as well as his sexual conquests (he will sleep with women of all stripes) has decoupled him from region and family. He is the modern Angolan. Other moments advance the plot of guerrilla struggle, base encroachment and tactical failure, while differentiating the fighters along class lines. Here is one such moment: the musings of the Operations Chief, son of a peasant.

Fearless is an intellectual, an intellectual cannot bear his child to die. We are used to it. Our children died from the bombs, from the machine guns, from the foreman’s whip. We are used to seeing our children die. [ . . . ] The bad thing is that he is an intellectual, that’s the bad thing: he will never be able to understand the people.

This is didacticism in what might be considered the worst way. The reverie of a minor character is transmuted into naked sentiment and marked by narrative repetition. The Operations Chief displays his function as character — to delineate the fracture of class war in the anticolonial struggle; his Fanonian critique of the intelligentsia is lodged within biography. “We could never discuss,” he says of Fearless the commander, “He is an intellectual, and I, a peasant’s son.” In the novel, the narrative of the Operations Chief serves a frank utilitarian purpose. Fearless, wearing the Cuban cap that signifies his worldliness, is drawn from a cosmopolitan global Marxism; the Operations Chief signals the rural, but also the provincial. On the one hand, this imaginary conversation, this literary conversation, in fact, is the only form the dialogue between the peasant and the intellectual will take. On the other, the fractured structure of the novel, the conflicting narrative voices that mimic superficially the tropes of postmodernism, work in the service of producing a rhetorical harmony between the Kimbundu man from Quibaxe, the Kikongo intellectual, and the biracial anti-tribalist, at least on the page. This is how didacticism makes meaning.

And yet, within the reverie of the peasant’s son, there is a tangible pathos, far beyond its use-value. As I read it, I see that the peasant’s son is right. The didactic moment is “the bad thing” — both literally and literarily — the directive appears in this last line. But the first section of this passage is powerfully evocative. It conjures the affect of subaltern worlds, where “we are used to seeing our children die.”


Pepetela was a descendant of Portuguese settlers, one of the many radicalized by the Cuban revolution. Born in 1941, he lived a comfortable life in Benguela, Angola. He went on to study engineering in Lisbon, but when war broke out at home, he was called on by the Portuguese state to serve, and left instead for Paris. There he became involved with the MPLA. When the headquarters of the organization was established in Brazzaville, Congo, he joined the armed struggle and eventually became the Vice Minister of Education in independent Angola. He has continued to write fiction since.

By the time I heard him speak at Berkeley in 2003, his lyrical Portuguese translated live into English, he was sixty-two years old. Even then, thirty years after Mayombe, he was concerned with the project of writing the nation and the construction of national identity. What had the novel to do with negotiating, on behalf of the people, the postwar, neocolonial, class-fractured landscape? Everything.

This is an unpopular genre of question for today’s culture workers. There is a deep resistance among the intelligentsia to the notion that culture should be pedagogical, prescriptive, and proscriptive especially. The generalized postmodernism that Fredric Jameson theorizes — late capitalism, pastiche, irony, and collage — makes it difficult for the novel, both theoretically and politically to advocate, instruct and agitate in the old-fashioned way. But this is precisely what Peptela’s Mayombe did. Like an entire generation of third world intellectuals before him, Gandhi included, Pepetela thought of the novel as a kind of democratizing instrument, the project of the organic intellectual, particularly in societies of low literacy. For Pepetela, the cause was an independent Angola, and the crisis was tribalism. This was a period of intense and passionate belief in the role of the novel.

Should we revindicate didacticism as a value? Should novels tell us what and how to think? Literary critic Kenneth Burke, channeling Marx and Freud, said reading was “equipment for living.” It seems to me that “didacticism” in art was and is underwritten by a democratic impulse, which could be paternalistic, most certainly, but is often driven by accessibility. In its envisioning of alternative visions of the future, art has always taught us how to think, particularly when the political status quo only makes certain possibilities visible. The problem is that this kind of realist literature — realist art, in fact — doesn’t survive well the tides of history. Its life cycle is intimately tied to the life cycle of the passing social movements that it crystallizes, and its reappearance in moments of sociohistorical crisis is often left out of the ledgers of history. The postmodern moment, riven by identarian fracture and deeply suspicious of the social as a concept, has abandoned this project, relegating its traces to the margins.

The tragic fallout of Heinemann’s African Writers series, which originally published the translation of Mayombe, is a crinkle in the global publishing apparatus but is particularly devastating in the context of the modern African novel, constraining an already slender market to only the most “modern” and “worldly” texts, i.e. those that fit into paradigms and pathways carved out by global cosmopolitans like Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. In these new grids, there is no room for modern day Mayombes, even on the chance that the new social movements produce a need for them. The value of these novels, “equipment” only for a particular place in a particular time, tends to lose out to a more spectacular aesthetics built for a global consumer. Ngugi’s novels — Petals of Blood, A Grain of Wheat — are a perfect example of this. Sometimes heralded as “the conscience of the nation,” sometimes dismissed as provincial and simplistic. One critic says, “Ngugi is building an alliance with the people- a common voice, a common vision, not only in Kenya, but in the world.” No small thing for a writer who currently writes in Gikuyu, and might be accused of his own kind of tribalism.

There are all kinds of worldliness: that of a new global elite that shares spaces and goods and, of course, culture; and Ngugi’s kind, more reminiscent of a period of third world socialisms, the politics of the Bandung conference and the nonaligned movement in 1955. Indeed, when I first sat down with him in an office piled with paper on University Place to go line by line through The Communist Manifesto, the context was a discussion of labor and caste in India for my research. And maybe a subtle appreciation of the didactic novel requires just such a retraction of the self, the same brief renunciation of our own intellectual sovereignty demanded by student life. Perhaps rather than the novel-as-dictator, we should think of didactic fiction as the novel-as-mentor, less novel-as-police and more novelas-tutor. ′