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Whose Hero? Reinventing Epic in French West African Literature

  • Repinecz, Jonathon
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2013
eScholarship - University of California
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This dissertation explores the relationship between oral and written literature through the lens of epic. Springing from an engagement with scholarship that has defined and defended the notion of an African epic, it seeks to reevaluate the relevance of this category in the case of West African literature in French. While some critics have argued that the concept of epic is too Eurocentric to be relevant to African narrative traditions, most believe that to renounce the idea of an "African epic" is to stifle comparative literature, and possibly even to reproduce the trope of a Dark Continent too primitive to produce anything great. At the same time, scholars of francophone literature regularly rely on the notion of an "epic" dimension in some contemporary texts. However, such studies too frequently conform to Mikhail Bakhtin's vision of this dimension as a grandiose but flat world of ancient heroes, utterly removed from the evolving concerns of the present--which belong to the realm of the novel. This study both draws on and challenges scholarship within these conversations in order to propose a more innovative reading of West African oral traditional narratives that we call epic, as well as their place in francophone writing. The inherently oral and performance-specific element of West African heroic narrative is a crucial motivating factor for its contemporary reincarnations in French-language literature. Rather than "flattening" the genre of epic, as Bakhtin and other critics have done, by framing it in terms of European points of reference, conservative group identities, or a navitist return to authenticity, African literature in French channels the critical reflexivity of oral heroic narrative: traditional material constantly reinvents itself in ways that are self-reflexive, adaptable to "modern" concerns, and indeed capable of offering social criticism in the present. For this reason, major African writers--specifically Amadou Hampâté Bâ of Mali, Ahmadou Kourouma of Ivory Coast, and Boubacar Boris Diop of Senegal--weave these traditions into their writing as a way of reimagining the relevance of precolonial discourse genres in the postcolonial world. A recurring goal of their novels is, for example, to challenge received interpretations of oral heroic narrative and to draw new inspiration from them regarding issues like contemporary politics, gender roles, and intergenerational relations. They also open up important theoretical questions, such as what it means to criticize the very category of "tradition" from within a "traditional" space. This strategy of rewriting allows us to think the epic-novel paradigm as depending not just on rupture, as much literary theory has emphasized, but also on continuity.The first two chapters of this study explore the category of West African epic from the point of view of colonial and postcolonial literary history and anthropology, while the final two as well as the conclusion examine how this category is mobilized in the literary work of the individual writers mentioned above: Amadou Hampâté Bâ's L'Etrange destin de Wangrin (1973) and posthumous memoirs Amkoullel, l'enfant peul (1991) and Oui mon commandant! (1994) in Chapter Three; Ahmadou Kourouma's political-historical novelistic trilogy, consisting of Les Soleils des Indépendances (1968), Monnè, outrages et défis (1990), and En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages (1998) in Chapter Four; and Boubacar Boris Diop's Wolof-language novel Doomi Goolo (2003), adapted into French as Les Petits de la Guenon (2009), in the conclusion. In general, the discursive shift that is traced over time leads away from epic as "usable past"--that is, as an interpretation of history that serves political ends--to a critical consciousness of this usability. The authors in question specifically try to reorient heroic narrative away from its generally understood function of legitimating existing power structures and transmitting dominant ideology, using it instead to articulate critiques and alternatives to these. They also draw attention to the often dangerous mobilizations of epic discourse, which involve notions of authenticity and heroism, made by political elites.

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