Obi B. Egbuna, Emperor of the Sea

I’m housesitting for a friend who teaches African history, and he’s a bit older than me as well.  His bookshelves, as you can imagine, are a sight to see, and of particular interest have a ton of older books, like this one.  I had never heard of Obi B. Egbuna, and a quick look on the web indicates that most of his work, including Emperor of the Sea, is unfortunately out of print.

I grabbed the book partially because I have felt for some time a need to read beyond the big names in African literature, in which I still am poorly read (though to be fair, Africa as such, we know, encompasses a land mass equivalent to four continental United States).  That the book was small, too, was appealing.  I figured I could get a taste of a new author without too much time invested, which is a good motive.

I don’t approach, as I’ve said, these writings as reviews per se, but as the book is not well-known and is also out-of-print, I would describe it.  There are either three or five stories in it.  One, “A Tale of Three Souls,” comprises three tales about three different people.

All of the stories take storytelling as their form, to great effect.  Probably, a lot of critical response contextualized Egbuna’s work as an artifact of a “primitive” culture based on “oral tradition” making its first forays into printed literature and, thus, keeping much of the form of what people call “traditional storytelling” in, in this case, short story form.  Witness Walter Benjamin‘s “The Storyteller,” (in .pdf) for a better take on the transition, looking at Leskov.

There is a point to be made–and Benjamin makes it–regarding the relationship between oral storytelling and the printed word, and it is that the relationship between the two is not hierarchical.  To be certain, I share Benjamin’s, for lack of a better word, nostalgia for storytelling, even if I myself don’t participate in it.  I write songs that often take a narrative form of a sort, but and possibly this constitutes a participation in story.  That said, I would argue that story exists, as everything, as a social form, in the relationship between a person (or people) telling a story, and people listening to it.  A physical presence is necessary, I’d say, or rather, if there is not a physically shared space between storyteller and audience (and as well a reciprocal relationship between the two) then we’re talking about something else entirely.  There is a lot of talk about community on the internet, for example, and it’s very problematic.  People need to physically share space with each other for us to have community in a meaningful way.  Reading a blog on books is good, but it’s not the same as a reading group. People need to be sharing a space.  Consider how differently one feels having a chat with friends and sending emails or chatting online.  The latter clearly sucks in comparison.

I felt two things, not contradictory, as I was reading.  Most importantly, I loved reading it.  The stories were all, on their own merits, excellent, both for the simple pleasure of reading them and for the thinking about them that followed.  Egbuna among other things has all the right politics.  One of the “Tales of Three Souls” deals with the formation, at a neo-colonial Nigerian oil company, of a trade union, initated by an African-American engineer.  “Trade Unionism” can be a perjorative some Marxist circles in which I sometimes find myself, but that’s a jaded view from the United States.  We often forget in this country on the Left that trade unions aren’t the problem–the goal is to fix the unions (i.e., re-radicalize them) because labor organized is the only possible response to capital.  Also, African trade unionism was from the start the real deal, and the reader is reminded of this in the story.  Class is all over Egbuna’s work, written with real understanding.

I am aware that I have what some people might call a paranoid streak, but I’ve come by it honestly by being a Leftist in an age of unmitigated reaction.  One gets touchy after a while.  So, if I run things forward in my head, after reading Egbuna, it’s for a good reason and I’m probably right even if I have long stopped bothering to do research and check for confirmation of my suspicions.  I say this because I have a nasty feeling that Egbuna’s book is out-of-print because he’s seen–by white critical opinion–as a relic of a bygone era, that of the immediate post-colonial moment.  We are to think, some would have it, that Derrida and Foucault (the latter of more interest to me, to be sure) would do more for human freedom at this point than would Marx, or, better still, getting off one’s own ass and doing something oneself.  One can seem hip to the world by dismissing the possibility of freedom because it hasn’t happened yet, however one defines it.  What happens is that people who ought to be busting their butts to create a decent society imagine that they are somehow helping by taking an abstract, critical approach to intellectual questions.  Abstraction and critique are essential, but only if they are actually put into play.

Egbuna deals with African people who do things for themselves, though to be sure at times they need to be prodded into action as in the story mentioned above.  There is nothing out of date about that, and I’d suggest that, having recently read that C.L.R. James book about Nkrumah, the Left, particularly, the white left, needs go back and study that whole generation of radicals.

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