Thus Spake Roundsquare ....

...and every of his written literary thought!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review of Mariama Bâ’s "Un Chant 'Ecarlate" ("Scarlet Song")

The status of women in Muslim religion revealed by cultural die-hards, and the mother-in-law!

Mariama  Bâ towers in French Literature; she could have borrowed some salt from (LSS) Leopold Sedar Senghor, when her father worked for his government as a minister for health. While LSS glorified Mother Africa’s past through his Negritude literary movement, Bâ highlighted on the disparity the woman felt in general and as a mother in particular because of patriarchy and religion—Islam for her case—in this self-same society. Her work portrays women of Africa as resilient and proves that this grandmother, this mother, this sister, this daughter, this cousin and this friend is the “mother of Africa” and that she is essential to the very society that is busy alienating her.

In childhood, she was raised by her extended family, and had to struggle to get an education, like most girl children in Africa. Later in her life, her first hand brush with this traditional inequality is seen through her disastrous marriage to an MP and ended in a divorce and the experience found a vent in her ‘So Long a Letter’, what Abiola Irele referred to as ‘the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction’. But even then, that was a poor transposition of the length the society has misplaced the woman.
And this is the scenario that gave birth to ‘Scarlet Song’, which depicts the hurdles a woman meets first as a result of a youthful lust, and later after her marriage to a man who leaves her for a younger ‘traditional and beautiful’ woman.  Mireille, daughter of a French diplomat, secretly marries Ousmane, a son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family. He goes through a transformation, in Dakar to Paris, and back Dakar to embrace his roots, traditions and customs of his ‘elders’. As an Occidental, his White wife is unable to adjust and fit in easily with this lifestyle, and it gets worse when his ‘Liberal’ husband takes another wife, a veritable killer in her marriage.

It’s an ingredient of conflict and this is what , ‘a modern Muslim woman’, ridicules—despotism, chauvinism and ‘dying’ tradition, at the same time develops the anguish brought by cross-cultural marriages.
It’s a work that not only explores incompatible culture clash but also with the woman on the losing end.  Their initial idyll liaison to survive against odds is shattered by the realities on the ground and climaxes with a marriage that distresses and depresses both sets of parents. And sooner than later, it’s apparent that their Romeo and Juliet escapades and romance is ‘a poor defense against the pressures of society’. Ousmane is enticed back to his roots, while Mireille is left disgraced, lonely ‘with her exquisite bathroom and expensive toiletries’.

She’s a resilient tigress and bent on saving her marriage against all odds and family and cultural bigotry. This is where the book delves deep into the significantly pressing need for women to create empowerment to dispel titles that define them and disprove the clichés of being referred to as ‘weaker sex’, and societal scapegoats but like tigresses, should pounce as Soyinka said. But Bâ’s misanthropy swings in action when things must nose-dive and plunge into an abysmal moral decay and previously deeply held beliefs confronted after we tread the road to the other side of society where  absurdity lurks and enables us to consider critically sensitive issues of race, intolerance, matrimony, loyalty, and tradition into the bargain.

Their story-book romance is unable to survive ‘ruthless’ traditions and expectations of her in-laws and the general relations of the extended family. The mother- in-law, true to her Mrs. Grundy prudery, mocks her and calls her a jinni that has bewitched her son. Ousmane, now a former self, after being hen-pecked by his mother, slowly reverts into his cultural cocoon, deserting  his wife for his childhood secret crush, Ouleymatou, who had despised his advances when they were young, for the young Ousmane, ‘smelled fish’ and was a ‘mama’s boy’. This is where tradition kicks in and turns a blind eye, even with his religious father and blesses the illicit union because they couldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Mireille hopes to have a moment of ‘reculer pour sauter mieux’ in her bid to avenge herself, but only suffers a mental breakdown. 

Hell hath no Fury... Song of Lawino by Okot P’Bitek

                                                                     'One does not uproot the pumpkin of the homestead' 

Sharing one man—legally or illegally—is a source of conflict in many cultures, religions and societies all over the world. Many books filled with such interesting stories are all over—from the Desperate Housewives to the Mexican Soaps and real life dramas having sexual intrigues and marital discord as their selling point. The setting in the poetic narrative, Song of Lawino, is no different. Set in the dim pre-colonial Acholi community from the Northern Uganda, a village woman, Lawino, laments the loss of her husband Ocol, to her ‘rival’ Clementina.  

Lawino fights to keep her man in her bosom, and keep at bay her rival, Tina, ‘the beautiful one’ who has a head start for she’s educated, westernised and a modern woman. Lawino uses the weapon of tradition. She’s not against sharing her man, for polygamy is endorsed in her traditional community—whereas Tina who has seen the light, is single—but for the fact that her rival is having an affair with a married man by laying her ‘boob traps’ that ensnare any rich man through her wiles.
Polygamy is prestigious and admirable in Acholi culture, and there are well-defined rights and duties of a husband and wife. But a modern woman, her rival, her problem, is taking short cuts instead of coming out in the open and consummating her illicit affair. Lawino has no problem with polygamy—it’s not a big deal to share a man—but has a bone to pick with the character of her rival who is destroying the traditional marriage institution. 

Her husband gives her unfair demands—she has to learn how to read, become a Christian and modernize herself—a poor criteria of a good woman, if her own definition and qualification of an African woman is to go by. She finds it odd, for example, that the modern man, through Ocol, is preoccupied with time. He seems to be possessed and controlled by time, and not the other way round. In her traditional setting, she doesn’t even have a fixed time for breastfeeding. Time seem to control Ocol. He is left at the mercy of its elements and her time-conscious rival takes this into her stride. 

She admits her ignorance with anything modern but still needs a man she’s lost. In his rejoinder the husband, through his wry song (Song of Ocol), dismisses her and her tradition and confirms her assessment of negative character and experiences of the ordered western lifestyle. Ocol is incapable of responding to Lawino’s song and he is genuine in his lamenting song for the dying tradition. He confirms what Lawino suspects, that culture is unable to resist the glamour of civilisation. He celebrates the dying of culture—and its minions like Lawino—and embraces the new world without apologies. He agrees with Tina that not only must the old culture be destroyed but is also an inevitable necessity. 


Celebrating womanhood the modern way

Most books on gender debate revolve around the axle of imbalance in the way men and women relate to one another, in their division of labour, including sharing the products of that labour, such as property, and these books further declare that whereas women are part of division of labour, there’s discrimination in distributing the fruits. This is what Margaret Ogola tackles in her works, especially the novel The River and the Source but adds a few tinges of the impacts of colonialism along these gender lines.

She bases her characters on theoretical framework and what we as a society have upheld from time immemorial. She delves deep into the mind concept of a woman (based on ideas) against the societal definition. And therefore, while the image of a woman is celebrated, that of man is trounced in the text, defeating the balance equation she set to address, because the typical men presented suffer greatly—as head of the family, commander, or dictator. This is the shortfall reflected in the text, against the perspective of gender equality (awareness) and mocks such a ‘lovely book on gender equality, just waiting to be read’ as one publisher poured it praises.

Ogola’s premise is the ageing tradition that most—if not all—societies in the world are patriarchal in nature, and culturally excludes women in important matters. Her Luo community is not different because in the private sphere, it not only restricts the woman to the family domain, where she devotes herself to family cooking and taking care of basic needs, but also in the public sphere, as demonstrated in Achebe’s things fall apart, the Ibo woman was not considered a decision maker. For example, when Mama Nwonna asks, ‘is he (the visitor) staying with us long?’ Her husband’s rhetoric reply, ‘when did you become an elder of Umuofia?’ says it all. This discrimination is present in all areas of her life—be it economic activities or in the politics. Patriarchy in Ogola’s Luo community is exemplified in the extreme Otieno’s bigotry, and it’s nothing short of chauvinism.

The text intends to address this imbalance by extolling Wandia, Becky, and Vera (her heroines) to the public sphere, against the basic idea that a woman belongs only at home. The three break this patriarchical tradition by multi-tasking—combining both domestic chores and scaling high in public affairs, all at the same time, a change due to the new circumstances, Becky as a flight attendant and Wandia as professor.

Uta Do? By Agatha Verdadero

‘So…, What Do You Do?’ ‘Aaah…, I Hassle!’

If you are young like Mr. Roundsquare playing hide and seek with job interviews, then don’t let a badge of disappointment mar your brow at the realization that you didn’t land in your dream job, or put your talents where they matter most—and often in one of those a white or other lighter coloured jobs. There might just be a hope and a glimmering smile for you in form of a book. An enterprising business genius—she insists she’s no Branson or Trump in this field, but still gives inspiring and accomplished rags-to-riches stories—has come up with a Young Entrepreneur Series on how to get started and support for you business idea. To offer you ‘solid tips and practical info on what you need to know, do and say as you hustle your way into the business world.’

The book’s title Uta Do?, Sheng’s (a youth’s version of Kiswahili is a cocktail of English and Kiswahili spoken lingo spoken widely by Kenya’s youth) means what and how you would do what you have to do’, is narrated by an all-knowing omniscient, Mjuaji, whom the author utilizes to blend in with the intended young readers—in whose language she speaks—so that they can to stop dreaming and start doing what a man must do. 

In the words of Doreen Baingana, its editor, ‘you may have cleared college, or high school, but now what? Or may have worn out your pairs of shoes, and hired suits better than our Mr. Roundsquare in a bid to land into that dream job.’ But things never work out the way you wish them to, and it hits you that this was neither in the pages that you missed after reading all those books nor wasn’t taught in your bright college years.  Basically, how do you make things happen? How do get your bling-bling job kick? 

Imagine this. You wake up one morning, and BAM! It hits you! You have a novel idea for a new start up of your talents or the current passion that you could turn it into a money minting project. But before you can go to the bank, it occurs to you have no idea about the finer workings of the bank. This book offers to guide you through these rigorous processes.

It promises too, to guide you through its three-part presentations that you don’t need to be a straight-A student or an MBA graduate to grasp the concepts of entrepreneurship. You just have to be persistent and committed to your goals. You too can make it if you try if you follow the numerous success-story real life examples of all those who have made it—against insurmountable odds—to the dream of swimming in a pool filled with thousand shilling notes after someone bought into their business idea, but be prepared to sweat, bleed for its fulfillment.

One such remarkable example is Kenya’s leading chain of supermarkets’, the proprietors of Nakumatt that nothing came easy — the first principle of the school of hard knocks for you. But don’t despair, don’t give up!’ one of the proprietors advises. ‘Don’t think you’ll forever remain a non-starter. There are ways of overcoming those difficulties. And reading the book is definitely one of them.

A Study of Parody and Pruddery in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

First impressions 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Austen’s second novel, Pride and Prejudice, which she started writing before she was twenty-one, was originally titled First Impression because the plot was created by characters’ first impressions and appearances. As with most first impressions we all have, the author’s talented character took a long time to be noticed until its publication in January 28, 1813, when she was almost 36. Frustrating as it was, the Austenites inform us she went on working on the story, making it popular with the close circle of friends, relations, and acquaintances she took into her confidence. 

The Nineteenth Century satirical love story still attracts the modern reader, topping several lists of 'most read books’ and gets a five star rating in English literature novels, besides being a subject of volumes of varied critical reactions, including a reproving remark from Mark Twain. It boasts, too, of extensive evaluations from literary scholars, huge interest from film makers and great sales—almost 20 million copies have been sold—from booksellers. Not to mention the several dramatic adaptations and fan fiction inspired by some powerful Austen’s characters, many even emphasizing  the overcooked romantic side of the text (to fit the standards of Hollywood) but downplay the powerful satire intended.

The cynical opening lines "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”, are just the prejudices of the 18th Century value of love in the words of Mrs. Bennet to her husband on the news that a gentleman of fortune has just relocated to Netherfield Park, a nearby estate.  The eccentric mother must marry off her daughters to wealthy men—and their money—and does everything in her power to complete this objective. What else could a scrupulous mother, with five unmarried daughters and no son, do—especially if her husband, upon his death, has entailed the estate to Mr. Collins, a cousin, and leave his daughters without home or money?

But let’s focus on the prejudices of Elizabeth Bennet in her relationship with an aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy, and we read a lot of the rituals of courtship of the English gentry. The stubborn and witty Lizzy thinks she has the arrogant and despicable Mr. Darcy's character in her whims, but does she really know all there is to know about him? Pre-conceived 'prides' and 'prejudices' is the stumbling block in the pair’s view of their different social classes. Lizzy rises above her mother's objections to the pomposity and loathing of her erstwhile antagonist, Mr Darcy, and finds true love. Appearances, looks and first impressions bring conflicts which, through a subtle satire, Austen makes Lizzy learn that ‘’a man can change his manners, and a woman her mind.’’

Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth's romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine's struggle to find a place within the conservative social institution of marriage. The precise nature of this balance is not necessarily clear, and despite what seems to be a happy marriage, it may not be entirely possible to reconcile Elizabeth's independence and naturalness with Mr. Darcy's conservatism and conventionality. Nevertheless, the novel seems to work toward an ideological balance and an alteration in the fundamental aspects of these characters that will lead to a reconciliation of the themes that they represent.

Through the novel, Austen harshly exposes hypocrisy in certain aspects of Regency society. She expertly uses various shades of satire through comical characters such as Mr Bennet and Lady Catherine, to examine the corruption of the marriage market, the pride and ineptitude of the ruling classes, and the mercenary of the clergy. Possibly two of the most celebrated satirised comical characters in English literature, Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet will always be remembered for exposing key negative aspects of the Regency Society.  In Pride and Prejudice, Austen satirises gender inequality to prove that marriages based on money only torture women who submit to this kind of union and may have to live in tormenting silence as Charlotte does.

She also denounces the marriage elements distasteful to her while still enjoying life in the middle of that society, with or without their faults. With her satiric eye and a ready wit, personified in Lizzy, she accepted the social order of her day, even when she could recognize its absurdities. Modern critics often see Lizzie as a pre-feminist heroine, a liberated woman ahead of her time. But she is not. She lives happily within the social constraints of Regency England, and she doesn't fight them. She doesn't burn her corset. She doesn't want a career. She accepts the unfair laws of entail that would rob her and her sisters of their father's estate, because it had to pass to a MALE relative. And she figures out how to have a happy, fulfilling life WITHIN those constraints, not by challenging them. Just like Jane Austen.
Is the work about matrimonial upheavals? The opening line may suggest so: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," and it’s not surprisingly obvious that Pride and Prejudice, along with most Austen novels, is consistently regarded as a marriage plot novel, a romance for female readers. However by categorizing it as such, the revolutionary literary aspects of Austen's writing are sometimes marginalized.

Pride and Prejudice are the major themes if the text's title is used as a basis for analysis, but could mislead, as Robert Fox cautioned against reading too much into the title since commercial factors may have played a role in its selection. "After the success of Sense and Sensibility, nothing would have seemed more natural than to bring out another novel of the same author using again the formula of antithesis and alliteration for the title. It should be pointed out that the qualities of the title are not exclusively assigned to one or the other of the protagonists; both Elizabeth and Darcy display pride and prejudice."

A major theme in most of Austen’s work is the importance of environment and upbringing on the development of young people's character and morality. Social standing and wealth are not necessarily advantages in her world, and a further theme common to Jane Austen's work is ineffectual parents. In Pride and Prejudice, the failure of Mr and Mrs Bennet (particularly the latter) as parents is blamed for Lydia's lack of moral judgment; Darcy, on the other hand, has been taught to be principled and scrupulously honourable, but is also proud and overbearing. Kitty, rescued from Lydia's bad influence and spending more time with her older sisters after they marry, is said to improve greatly in their superior society. 

Austen was one of the first writers to use free indirect discourse in her novels; her narration is often complicated by its expressing of the thoughts of her main characters. Sometimes in Pride and Prejudice it is difficult to tell whose views the reader is receiving: Elizabeth Bennett's or Jane Austen’s. Or are they one and the same? This method allows Austen to show ironic perspectives that are not necessarily to be attributed to her.

Austen's keen awareness of the world she lives in and its inhabitants is also remarkably clear in Pride and Prejudice. She mocks the pompous attitude of the upper class with Mr. Darcy's character, the life of clergymen with Mr. Collins', the idea of the dashing young officer with Mr. Wickham's, meddling mothers with Mrs. Bennett, along with other clear mimicking of different social characters.

With so many intricate lives and plot lines interwoven within this text, it is an easy novel to get completely engrossed in, and one that you will want to keep reading until you know the fate of each and every character. 

Pride and Prejudice should be read alongside other Austen’s great novels. Their movie adaptations would not be enough in themselves, or may even distort your view of the story and rob you of your reading satisfaction. Though there are some fairly accurate film adaptations, none can capture the essence of Austen's quick, clever lines that never cease to amaze and evoke the sense of having a familiar or similar human experience spread across the ages. Even when read in the next century, Pride and Prejudice would still be a work that not only captures the times and manners of a society in which it was written, but also human natures and personalities that are eternal. It is a truly a novel for everyone of every time and place. Austen, exhibiting great genius, makes you laugh, cry, question, and understand with her beautiful and complicated tale of 18th century courtship and daily life.

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