Reflections on the Problem of Writing on “African Irony”


From the cover of Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, 1959 edition  

by Gloria Nne Onyeoziri

Some Igbo people say that the millipede that is stepped on keeps quiet while its aggressor is the one to complain. They are not only leveling the playing field of the power to oppress others, they are also showing how they can make fun of themselves and enjoy the power of language by suggesting more than what they at first seemed to be saying. Who knows what is fundamentally African or fundamentally ironic? On the other hand, the three authors discussed in Shaken Wisdom –the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, the Ivorian author Ahmadou Kourouma and the Cameroonian Calixthe Beyala – are divergent enough to help our understanding of the spaces of ironic meaning that reside in many African communities in postcolonial times.

There are three traps that we can fall into when we try to talk about irony in African literature. One of these traps is to go off on a search for the pristine and purely African, some mode of discourse that would be claimed to be characteristic of African culture. Experience or necessity would draw us into the realm of a specific African linguistic and ethnic “universe,” turning specificities into doubtful totalities and preconceived notions into self-fulfilling prophesies. Another trap is to equate African irony with mimicry, as if all African authors had nothing better to do than to parody old colonial masters and master narratives, or to inscribe secret messages of subversion into a seemingly docile celebration of the new and improved life of European civilization. But the third trap, and perhaps the most insidious of them all, is the trap of paralysis, believing ourselves to be so bereft of consciousness, history and community that we can no longer think for ourselves, that we have nothing left but to join an endless stream of globalized non-entities that still seem to be dancing to entertain someone somewhere who still looks and sounds suspiciously like that old colonialist who used to tell us we were nothing without his redeeming grace. As the Commandant said to his African prisoner in J.-M. Adiaffi’s Carte d’identité: “What did you have before us? Nothing! Nothing! What were you before us? Nothing! Nothing! What did you know before us? Nothing! Nothing! You had nothing, you were nothing, you knew nothing!… A huge vacuum” (my translation).

While most of the major theorists of literary irony, such as D. C. Mueke, Wayne Booth, Philippe Hamon and Linda Hutcheon, have taken European texts and works of art as their principal paradigm, any assumptions about the relevance of African literary discourse as a source of theoretical insight or of any rethinking of previous models are likely to be met with polite scepticism at best. Yet a turn to African texts as a paradigm in its own right can be seen as a return to cultural essentialism only if we assume that all is said and done once and for all and that Africans only entered world history at some later date. As Adiaffi’s prisoner asks the Commandant in response to his claim to colonial superiority: “Have you ever seen in history an example of a people that exploits another, of a people that oppresses another, and yet recognizes the moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities of the people it exploits?”

In developing my approach to the problem of thinking about how to interpret ironic utterances in various examples of postcolonial African fiction, I suggested the image of a dancer who keeps moving towards us, pretending to draw our attention to her. Somewhere behind her we see a fire burning that should cause us some concern if not alarm. As she distances herself from the fire, she mocks us and teaches us by pretending not to notice what she is in fact showing us. In a similar way, a character in Chinua Achebe’s classic Arrow of God explains to his fellow citizens the problem of colonial power by citing a proverb: “When Suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat left for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” Irony is embedded in the proverb itself, since Suffering’s “reassuring” response is in fact an affirmation of his or her unwilling host’s powerlessness. But the speaker’s use of this embedded irony to convince others of the need to submit to colonial authority draws our attention, like the dancer coming toward us, to the writer’s own sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction with this character’s self-destructive call to submission. The proverb seems to draw us into its traditional wisdom at the same time as that wisdom is shaken by its implicit misuse.

In his book On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe insists that “the postcolony is characterized by distinctive ways that identities are multiplied, transformed, and put into circulation.” Since these multiplied identities imply a need for control through violent means, Mbembe compares the postcolony to a “stage on which are played out the wider problems of subjection and its corollary, discipline”. Achebe, Kourouma and Beyala, as with many other African authors, fictionally display multiple voices that ridicule and mimic both colonial and postcolonial oppressors. But mimicry is not always the ideal path to agency and emancipation. The Tunisian writer and critic Albert Memmi for example has suggested that the colonized person’s attempt to mimic the colonizer always results in an even more profound rejection, as the shibboleth of difference was inevitably detected and turned to derision as “simiesque” by the colonizer. While Mbembe’s multiple identities and the idea of mimicry suggest possible relationships between the underlying problems of postcolonial societies and the potential for ironic intention in discourse, neither can explain why writers such as Achebe, Kourouma, and Beyala would want or need to use irony and how they would need to use it. None of these writers offer a single semantic model for interpreting expressions of resistance to tyranny, injustice, and the scoffing gaze. But to suggest that they can only disrupt dominant discourse with a partial and ambivalent expression which can “conceal no presence or identity behind its mask” would amount to what Mbembe calls “assigning Africa to a special unreality such that the continent becomes the very expression of that nothing whose special feature is to be nothing at all”. On the other hand, the works of political satire such as Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote that Mbembe mentions as examples of texts of multiple identities are also stories of a postcolonial regime of violence that makes any easy reliance on so-called traditional values subject to an equally urgent need for irony.

If irony is to help us understand the predicament and discursive power of postcolonial African writers while still suggesting why they might be considered African writers in the first place, that is, in some way connected to traditions and communities, it cannot be limited to the irony of the empty mimic. Nor can it be only the mask of an imaginary traditional culture whose double voice encodes its opposition to forms of authority in which it has no kind of investment. At the same time, an overly rigid definition of irony could lead us to assume that any author considered to be African would tend to use irony in accordance with an underlying master plan. In Shaken Wisdom, I looked at a number of positions on ways of being ironical related to what one is trying to say and do, from structuralist models of semantic analysis to more rhetorically based theories of ironic intention. I suggested a number of ways in which such positions may help us understand irony as it accompanies, generates or uses meaning in African literary discourse. The French semanticist Alain Berrondonner believed that irony does not simply mean the opposite of what is said, but means further by constructing a context where something unsaid can be addressed. He also believed that irony as an argumentative form was fundamentally defensive. By presenting his position ironically, the speaker leaves himself an escape route, so that he can claim, if later attacked for dangerous or aggressive “veiled” intentions, that the hearer has misinterpreted his intended meaning, reading irony into an innocent statement. The rhetorical and implicitly argumentative manoeuvring of colonized societies determined to speak about identity after identity was assumed to have been either erased or left behind by a higher civilization could certainly find a place for Berrondonner’s model. Too many historical and existential dimensions risk being left out however. From the many possible ways of challenging the superior wisdom of the conqueror, to one’s occasional apology for that challenge which may also be ironical, to the memory of ironies echoing through time and thought to perhaps be of “African origin”, like the creole words in some dictionaries marked by the lexicographer as having “unknown origins,” to the internal struggles of societies taught to join in the simulacra of funny but deadly dictators (as Mbembe so adroitly shows us), African ironies, strangely enough like many of the African societies we see changing, surprising and sometimes shocking us in the present age, are always moving around us, even when they seem to be going only forward into universal anonymity or backwards into nostalgia and obscurity. 

The voices that convey shifting perspectives on what is masking the truth in order to deceive, and what is masking the truth in order to reveal another truth, cannot be named with a fixed identity in time, place, age and gender, but are constantly identifying themselves through predicaments, tyrannies and liberations as ironically African. A pragmatic view of irony allows us to interpret what we believe to be ironic utterances in the pages of postcolonial African fiction without ignoring or espousing existing semantic and rhetorical theories of irony. Authors such as Achebe, Kourouma and Beyala are voices that identify themselves as African, yet ironically. Are they more African if so doing or are they less African? Or, are they simply voices of a civilization that is certainly not frozen in some pre-colonial past, nor disappearing into disease and despair, but rather thinking for itself as it presumably always has? The meaning of irony is always like a door accidentally left ajar.  

About the Author:

Gloria Onyeoziri is an Associate Professor of French and African and Caribbean Literatures at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of La parole poétique d’Aimé Césaire: essai de sémantique littéraire (L’Harmattan, 1992) and Shaken Wisdom: Irony and Meaning in Postcolonial African Fiction (University of Virginia Press, 2011).