Abish’s Alphabetical Africa is pondered here, in a critifiction by Louis Bury. Bury’s text is written - like the novel itself - under constraint: each critical query begins with a new letter of the alphabet. Culminating in “Zeugma,” the essay explores the poetics of Abish’s linguistic experiment from somewhere close to the inside. (Doug Nufer’s Negativeland gets a similar - though more subtle - treatment in another Bury piece.)
A: An authorial assertion, an A-list (another’s) at Alphabetical Africa’s (author: Abish) adjournment: “Another abbreviation another abdomen another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another abnormal act another aboriginal another approach another absence…” (Abish 151). And another “another.” And another. And another. Advances ahead. Accumulates. An alphabetical assonantal archive? An alternative apologue arrangement?
B: Bombings by American airforce begin. An alliterative analogue: big, breakneck ‘B’ bursts, as, “Bach’s brother, Bach’s blackguard brother Butoni, bemused by Bach, by Boccherini, Beethoven and Brahms, blunders a bit by baldly boasting about backing Beatles” (4, 3, 3). Are A’s and B’s, bound big-time, best book bits?
C: Consonance continues - clack clackety clack - coaxes cackles and claps. “Author” as character appears at book’s beginning, contrives circumstances, characters, and anecdotes aplenty. Colonialist connotations come about. Consider: “Arriving at Chad, Alex and Allen coldly consider childlike Chad attitudes, and calculate, can Chadians afford American cosmetics” (6). Alphabet as authoritarian? As colonial and cultural apparatus?
D: Don’t disremember ants, crucial dramatic actors. Ants denote chores, diligence, drudgery. Donkeywork, basically. Activities colonists don’t deign do. Ants absorb attacks, also, as Author alerts book browsers: “defiant Dogon divisions advance against anthills, capturing Dogon bush and dust, creating dangerous canals, designing Africa again and again” (9). Antward assault compels asking: does design, customarily constructive, always come at a considerable cost?
E: Electric coital episode commences between Emperor and Edna. Awkward, constrained descriptions add considerable excitement. An example: “Elatedly Emperor enters Edna believing Edna could be Alva, as Edna, a bit deferentially, a bit dishonestly admits coming eight consecutive colossal and definitely contagious climaxes” (11). Electricity arises because climaxes aren’t conventionally consecutive, colossal - contagious. But climaxes are authentically contagious. As are eccentric expressions, conspicuous communication chains, abnormal discourses. Are constraints a deliberate botch?In “Absences, Negations, Voids”, Louis Bury ponders another constrained text, Doug Nufer’s Negativeland, in which “no sentence can be included without possessing some form of negation.”
F: First chapter evidencing constraint curtailment: everything a bit easier, a bit freer, for Author. Entire dictionary chapters emancipated. First character erased by Author: Ferdinand, an autochthonous African. For? For francophilia, apparently: “Ferdinand flies back, discovers France, embraces flag, father and aunts. Ahhh, Flaubert, Céline, Balzac. Disgusted author eliminates Ferdinand” (13). Are all foreigners “actors for an African continent” (132)? Are all characters and events auxiliary compared against Author’s constraint dance?
G: Goodbye constant consonance. Goodbye around-the-clock assonance and alliteration. Each extra graphic character allowed diminishes chances for frontal alphabetical echoes. Disappointing, certainly, but agreeable circumlocutions abide. For example: “gastronomical gladness” (14). Are circuitous expressions always amusing? Can amusement ever become arid, bromidic, calculable?
H: Here, chapter H, Author admits deliberate absences, admits eliminating “a few emotions” from his book (19). A cogitation: constraint could be a contrivance for coping, for hiding - for evasion. Calamity, cataclysm, catastrophe, death, deficiency, depletion, deprivation, disappearance, disaster, dispossession, failure, fatality: all afflictions constraint can circumvent. Even - especially - aphasia. A final counter-consideration: constraint a compulsion?
I: “In” and “is” allowed in, finally. An important development: Author becomes an “I,” begins current chapter “I haven’t been here before” (21). “Eventually,” Author declares, “I’m convinced every ‘I’ imparts its intense experience before it is erased and immobilized in a book” (131). “I” as a character has immense implications for all-important act of appellation. Ed Dorn, in his anti-epic Gunslinger (also has “I” as a character), calls an appellation a “handle” - ie, a convenient carrying case for an identity (9). I (critic Bury) crave additional analysis here, but an arbitrary dictionary edict forbids imperative idioms. An interrogative instead: does Author’s inclusion as character foreground, even allegorize, constraint?
J: Jump ahead: just a brief, irrelevant excerpt here, followed by a compulsory inquiry. “Alex justifies himself by jotting down in his journals everything he does” (25). Concise, indifferent entry an avoidance, a feeble dodge?
K: Keen distinction between book-knowledge and blood-knowledge: “Knowledge derived from books hardly ever improves killing efficiency because even illustrated books containing diagrams aren’t as instructive, as deadly, as calculating, as desperate as an actual experience in bush, in jungle, deep in any African interior, aren’t as capable as a human hand as it grips a knife in its five fingers” (123). Above distinction avoids any easy equation between knowledge and killing, both key colonialist concepts in K chapters, in book. A koan: can a knife carve apart an alphabet?
L: “Letters,” a longed for locution, available at last. Alphabetical Africa can be considered a book about letters, a book about loss and gain in language. “In losing letter after letter,” asseverates Author, “I had lost an entire African legacy including invaluable diagrams and cuneiform code books” (121). A German logician called Ludwig claims, approximately: linguistic limits demarcate an I’s entire available extra-linguistic domain, an I’s imaginative and earthly habitat. Do arbitrary, astringent linguistic boundaries also limn a distinct atmosphere? A cosmos?
M: Maps. Alphabetical Africa frequently mentions maps, but does not contain many maps for inexperienced adventurers. Geographical hot-spots are mentioned, as are African continent’s disappearing landmass. Blueprints and drawings, however, are entirely absent. A book-incident map - charting characters, actions, events, etc. - could be infinitely helpful. Maybe I can draft it in another entry. Meantime, a citation: “Making memory more meaningful in darkest Africa, a certain Chief Auwik measures all meaning in his former life. By measuring his life he is clarifying his Europeanized morbidity” (118). Connection between mapping and measurement? Between mapping and memory?
N: Neglected mentioning concerning chapter M: Author now becomes a “My,” also. Not a nugatory development: chapter after chapter, Author continues inhabiting newer and newer grammatical ground, becomes a full-fledged character, a full-fledged écrivain. Lounging in his bedroom, Author composes a curious line: “Africa doesn’t need invention, doesn’t even need new interpretation” (34). Bit about interpretation I comprehend, but bit about invention is confusing. Isn’t Author’s austere alphabetical constraint an invention for apprehending and inhabiting Africa?
O: Onward motion of my alphabetic catalogue makes meticulous lingering onerous: only enough elbowroom for one motif in each entry. I’d love expatiating on Author’s notion of his occupation being “essentially and necessarily a hazardous one,” a notion of no minor import, but, on other hand, “objectification” just now enters my lexicon and I can finally delve into implications of “I” as character (37). Of course, Hamletizing on my either-or conundrum obviates need for engaging any issue in-depth. Are cursory glances inherently more fun? More inviting?
P: Perhaps, but here is a chapter I cannot gloss or ignore. Author professes: “I have an interest in books and in paper. An overwhelming interest, an interest exceeding my interest in Alva and Alex and Allen” (39). Above passage indicates Author is much more interested in generative act of composition than he is in its products. An implication: complete devaluation of plot. He continues: “Paper is essential for me. But Africa has existed for centuries independent of paper. It makes one ponder” (39). Here Author expresses an awareness of fiction’s coercive nature: an imagined Africa, conjured out of ink, can only ever be a construct, perhaps ersatz, perhaps credible. Colonial implications abound. Author explains further: “In general authors are provided a certain liberty. I’m no exception, as everyone happily gives me a certain freedom, and anticipates fabulous distortions. But Africa is not my invention by any means” (40). A distinction arises: invent, as Author employs it, means make new, make fabricated. It does not invoke notions of constraint, does not invoke colonial methods and principles imposed on an exotic, putatively backwards, African continent. Freedom, as Author figures it, is actually a negative attribute: it indicates a dangerous absence of guidelines, of moral and artistic precepts. A possible ethic of constraint here?
Q: Questions. “Everything I did evoked a great many questions” (42). A questionable quest?
R: Reading, naturally. “Reading is a most rewarding exercise. One can learn a lot from books” (103). Agreed, but does reading pose any risks, any dangers?
S: Self-referentiality: “Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I’ll reach my destination. Soon I’ll also complete my documentation and my book” (47). For all Author’s new-found freedom, a certain stiltedness remains. A sample: “Added comments: nothing is concealed” (49). Or: “He also showed me his house, quite splendid, cars, expensive Italian racer and a German limousine, his mistress, sexy, slim, black dress, kept crossing her legs, kept licking her lips, kept smiling, also his family, standing at my arrival, standing obediently as if for an inspection” (47). At current book juncture, said sentences could certainly be stated more smoothly. Instead: excision, silence, stumbling, asyndenton. Solecism really necessary here? A syntactic and grammatical relic of a stiffer rhetorical state?
T: Tracking back, briefly. Regarding Queen Quat, author admits: “Occasionally I make a mistake and change his gender” (44). Tracking elsewhere: a massive list, spoken by Quat, at the end of chapter S, beginning: “Same shit same scenery same suffering saints same soup same spiel same safaris same safeguards…” (100). Same cycling through the dictionary as in chapter A. Tracking towards T, a list of Swahili terminology, the second of three in the book:
Tamba is to creep, crawl, or move slowly.
Tambavu is something hung over the chest, a charm or an amulet to protect one
Tangaza is to make known or publish.
Toshea is to be amazed, astounded or staggered.
Toma is to fuck. (96)
And it immediately continues, “On the island Alfred is compiling a list of his recent errors, his gaffes, his blunders” (96-97). Elsewhere, chapter R, Alfred keeps comprehensive inventories. Relationship twixt constraint and the list? Are lists merely effective mediums for maneuvering around constraints? Or is there something else to it?
U: Unreliable narrators. Aren’t they ordinarily mad? A bit unhinged? Poe’s narrators immediately come to mind as archetypes. Author claims to be “an unreliable reporter,” one who “can’t be depended upon for exact descriptions and details” (56). An unspoken premise, however: he is unreliable by design, not by deficiency or psychological disease. Constraint imposes omission and contortion as an ontological given of communication, foregrounds the processes of distortion latent in all textual transmission, unearths unadulterated undulating undercurrents of ecstasy. Unfair? Unnecessary? Or merely a bit unwieldy?
V: Vocabulary. “I also hoped to enrich my vocabulary, and there’s no better place for that than Africa” (57). Vocabulary: an exotic invitation. Vocabulary: an assonantal account. Vocabulary: an arbitrary agenda. Vocabulary: an aleatory archive. Vocabulary: an alternative arrangement. Vocabulary: a bulleted ballot. Vocabulary: a creative calendar. Vocabulary: a cogent catalogue. Vocabulary: a censorious census. Vocabulary: a chocolate checklist. Vocabulary: a dramatized dictionary. Vocabulary: a dire directory. Vocabulary: a docile docket. Vocabulary: an elongated enumeration. Vocabulary: a fickle file. Vocabulary: an indefinite index. Vocabulary: an inveterate inventory. Vocabulary: an inviolate invoice. Vocabulary: a lovable lexicon. Vocabulary: a monumental memorandum. Vocabulary: a mixed menu. Vocabulary: a political poll. Vocabulary: a punctilious program. Vocabulary: a reliable register. Vocabulary: a rollicking roll call. Vocabulary: a rawboned row. Vocabulary: a slippery schedule. Vocabulary: a sentimental screed. Vocabulary: a scrupulous scroll. Vocabulary: a stubborn series. Vocabulary: a slant slate. Vocabulary: a static statistic Vocabulary: a sly syllabus. Vocabulary: a timorous table. Vocabulary: a totalizing tabulation. Vocabulary: a tall tally. Vocabulary: a thick thesaurus. Vocabulary: a trim timetable. Vocabulary: a viable viaduct?
W: Whiteness. Author set to climb Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peaks with companions. Says: “We are all white, and although our skins are not the same shade of white, had we been here a hundred years ago, we would most likely have been trading in guns or slaves” (59). Do they now trade in words instead?
X: Xenophon. Initial X chapter in its entirety: “Xenophon showed a misplaced courage. Instead of founding a new city, or settling down, or simply heading for Africa, he and his cast of ten thousand headed back home, as if there existed no other alternative. Xenophon’s hold on history is clearly slipping. His tomb is cracking” (61). Why is Xenophon’s courage “misplaced”? Wouldn’t settling down somewhere entail some sort of colonization? What, exactly, are Alphabetical Africa’s politics? And what are the politics of constraint?
Y: You. Reader implicated as character, as Author encounters “You” in a bookstore, leafing through his book: “The book you are holding in your hand happens to be one I wrote” (62). A final shift in grammar, in perspective. A necessary query: what longings does the vocative conceal?
Z: Zeugma: “Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back” (64). “Extrawide screens” another vestige of the constraint. If “languages form attitudes,” what desires, what Africas, do our alphabets articulate (72)?
Abish, Walter. Alphabetical Africa. New York: New Directions, 1974.