Monday, August 20, 2018

D.O. Fagunwa, Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga (1939)

I didn't read this today after writing about Bartleby (although I could have; it's short). I usually do a write-up for a book a few days after finishing it, having in the meantime started a new one, so...there you go.

Hey. Did you know that I had--as best I can recall--never read a novel by an African author until now? No, not even Things Fall Apart, which many do in high school. Boy, that's a thing, innit? Of course, it's really not entirely inexcusable; it's obviously true that, for various reasons, Africa did not develop with a literary tradition in the way that other places did (obviously, nothing Saul Bellow ever made jackass remarks about). Still, it's a pretty large area of ignorance. So, I read this book. It's the first novel to be written in Yoruba, and per the back cover, it's "one of [Nigeria's] most revered and widely read works." Of course, I have to wonder: if you mentioned it to the average Nigerian on the street, would this person actually be familiar with it? To be clear, this is something I'd apply to any country's "revered" works of literature: most Americans probably know the name of Moby-Dick, but I would bet that the number who can name the author is much lower, and the number who've actually read it? Forget about it.

WELL, be that as it may. This is a book. And I read it. As anticipated, there's little resemblance to what we generally think of as the novelistic tradition. The narrator--there's actually a little frame narrative--is told a story by the titular hunter, Akara-ogun, who ventures several times into the forest in question and has adventures with "daemons" and other things. That's it, but it's pretty fascinating stuff. It reads more like myth than our conception of fiction. It's at the intersection of two literary traditions. Fagunwa was a Christian, and there's a really interesting synthesis between Christianity and other traditions. On that note, it's also perhaps surprisingly pluralistic; several times, it mentions different people believing in Christianity, Islam, and local religions without putting any sort of value judgment on them. And, of course, there's the effacement of barriers between humans, animals, and spirits. Yes!

Still, it must be said, it is pretty alien to my sensibilities, and with alien comes occasional alienation. I will give three examples:

-At one point, Akara-ogun becomes super-close friends with a king. Several times, the king's subjects plot to kill him, but he foils them. Then, to get rid of him, they kidnap the king's beloved dog and try to put the blame on him. So he gets pissed off and kills a bunch of them, including the town's elders: "I went in their midst and stabbed them also and killed them, sparing only the king." And seriously, that is all: he gets captured by unrelated people, escapes, and leaves, and the king? Who knows? He's just not mentioned again (okay, he is mentioned in passing once, much later, but that's all of him for this story). It's very hard for me not to just think of this as defective storytelling.

-Akara-ogun is gathering people together to go on a quest with him, and he visits a guy who's getting married that day. And the guy's like, well, gotta go on this mission. Bye forever, wife! Understandably, she is not happy with this and insists that he not go, so, uh, he murders her. And that's that; people make fun of him a few times for this, but no more (later he comes to a bad end, but that's entirely unrelated). How am I meant to accept this?

-On the aforementioned quest, they meet a gross guy. The following is only part of the description of him: "Egbin never cleaned his anus when he excreted and crusts of excrement from some three years back could be found at the entrance to his anus; when he rested, worms and piles emerged from his anus and sauntered all over his body, and he would pull them off with his hands." Uh...great. But the thing is, there is no point to this grossness. This guy isn't any sort of obstacle; he just appears and then wanders off, never to be seen again. Nor is he the subject of any kind of instructive parable. Why any of this?

I don't know. So these are issues, and I would very much like an expert on this tradition to explain them to me. It's still worth reading, I thought. It's always interesting to see how novelistic tropes that you would assume you understood go in completely different directions than you anticipated. And, contrariwise, when you don't: there's a little fable that--it is extremely obvious right from the start--is going to have the moral of "don't count your chickens before they hatch," to the extent that I wonder whether there was some kind of influence here, in one direction or the other.

A word about the translation: it's by no less a personage than Wole Soyinka, the first black African Nobel laureate in literature (and, thirty-plus years later...still the only one). In his brief introduction, he explains that he made probably more changes than you would expect a translator to make. The original title only has four hundred daemons, for one. His idea is that he wants the book to resonate for a Western audience in a similar way that it would for Yoruba readers, and four hundred--I guess--has the colloquial meaning of "a whole bunch" that a thousand does in English. Which...makes sense, I guess. But I'm not sure I'm totally sold; a book from a radically different cultural tradition is going to seem strange to readers anyway; introducing them to this "strangeness" and helping them to navigate it on its own terms seems like a good idea. And really, if the issue is avoiding Orientalization, he probably doesn't help (in additon to "daemons") by inventing a special word--"ghommids"--for his non-human people. I dunno. It's fine, I guess, but you might want something that would keep the original's idiosyncrasies more intact. Though for that matter, you also might want more of Faguwa's books to be translated, period. The only other one is this wildly out-of-print thing in a "free translation," whatever that may entail.

Let's be honest: didn't love this book, or find it a life-changing experience (does finding a book life-changing necessarily go along with loving it? Probably not). Still, you might read it. Or not. I don't know. Well...bye.


Post a Comment

<< Home