1998 David Lucking. All rights reserved.
Myth and Identity
Essays on Canadian Literature
Dancing to a New Song
of Community in
In the penultimate scene of Margaret Laurence's African novel This Side Jordan, one of the European characters finds himself listening to what are described as the "ancient untranslatable voices" of tradition contending with "another voice on the wind", that of the "new song" which is sweeping inexorably over the land. This "new song" of progress and cultural transformation supplies the background music to Laurence's short story collection The Tomorrow-Tamer as well, the opening tale of which concludes with the prophecy that one day Africa "will dance again, this time to a new song". While the apparent allusion contained in the phrase "a new song" to the Book of Psalms — where it refers both to the spiritual metamorphosis wrought within the Psalmist and to the hymn of thanksgiving with which he celebrates his good fortune — suggests that this transformation is to be regarded in a generally positive light, the ironic reverberations that relentlessly accumulate as the short stories unfold point in a rather less encouraging direction. In the Book of Revelation the psalmic image appears for the final time in potentially problematic form when it is said that only the "hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth" are able to sing, or even to learn, the "new song" sung before the throne of the Lamb. Although the redemption envisaged in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume is of a very different kind, an analogous issue arises in the form of the question of what proportion of Africans will in the end be able to participate in the new social dispensation of which material progress seems to hold out the promise.
At first glance, the stories collected in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume appear to be most immediately concerned with problems arising from cultural conflict, and in particular those varieties of conflict which emerge in consequence of the encroachments of modernizing influences upon a traditional way of life. The stories are set in Ghana in the period immediately prior to its constitution as an independent nation in 1957, and so depict a society in transition, in which the old and the new come into violent collision at every turn. Notwithstanding the specifically African context in which they are elaborated, however, the themes are essentially those that appear elsewhere in the Laurentian canon, those having to do with the nature and foundation of identity, the constraints upon human communication, the true essence of freedom, the complex interplay between change and tradition. As in Laurence's other books, these themes are typically articulated through the central metaphor of exile, reinforced in many instances by biblical imagery of the fall, of exodus, and of the quest for a Promised Land. What we are witnessing in other words are the preoccupations that haunt the entire corpus of Laurence's fiction, worked out on this occasion within the framework of a specific political situation which invests them with a local habitation and a name, a particularized content and a set of appropriate metaphors. And as in Laurence's other works, the unvoiced question hovering over nearly all of these stories is that of the basis that can be established for relationship with the Other, the "Other" conceived in both a personal and a cultural sense. It is this question that the "new song" of progress raises in particularly acute form, and which it will be my concern in the following discussion to examine with reference to the stories contained in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume.
Laurence herself declared that one of the most significant influences upon her thinking about the dynamics of interpersonal and intercultural relationships in the context of a colonial society was the work of the French ethnographer O. Mannoni, who analysed the psychological dimension of such relationships in his study Prospero and Caliban. Laurence records that she read this book "with the shock of recognition one sometimes feels when another's words have a specific significance in terms of one's own experiences", and at least one story included in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume — "The Voices of Adamo" — seems to have owed its genesis to Mannoni's analysis. While one might fundamentally agree with the critic who asserts of Prospero and Caliban that "only the Bible has had so obviously a continuing influence on Margaret Laurence's work", however, the nature and extent of this intellectual debt should not be misconceived. It must not be overlooked that other stories set in Africa, and written before Laurence read Mannoni's book in 1960, already contain at least the germ of those central intuitions that were to repeat themselves not only in the author's later African tales but in her Manawaka cycle as well. This is the case for instance with "The Drummer of All the World" (1956), "The Merchant of Heaven" (1959), and This Side Jordan (1960), all of which dramatize the idea that recourse to the exotic might be a compensatory strategy adopted to offset deficiencies within the self, and that as such it can constitute an act of violence against the integrity of the Other. The importance of Mannoni's influence probably lies chiefly in the fact that his analysis of the psychological mechanisms underlying the colonial phenomenon supplied a conceptual framework within which Laurence could organize those insights that she had already gleaned directly from her experience in Africa.
Mannoni's thesis is that the colonial mentality is typically characterized by feelings of inadequacy and inferiority which the individual attempts to palliate by situating himself within a context in which he can domineer with impunity. The exotic world discharges the psychological function of an infantile wish-fulfilment fantasy, supplying a pseudo-reality into which the colonial can project his idealized conception of himself without serious risk of being challenged. The reverse side of the coin is that the subject peoples develop a crippling psychological dependency upon their European superiors, although at the same time they also harbour a submerged Oedipal resentment against their paternalistic masters which under certain circumstances can erupt in outright violence. In The Prophet's Camel Bell Laurence approvingly cites the following passage from Prospero and Caliban:
The typical colonial is compelled to live out Prospero's drama, for Prospero is in his unconscious as he was in Shakespeare's ... What the colonial in common with Prospero lacks, is awareness of the world of Others, a world in which Others have to be respected. This is the world from which the colonial has fled because he cannot accept men as they are. Rejection of that world is combined with an urge to dominate, an urge which is infantile in origin and which social adaptation has failed to discipline. The reason the colonial himself gives for his flight ... is of no consequence ... It is always a question of compromising with the desire for a world without men.Mannoni thus diagnoses as pathological that phenomenon which, in its literary manifestations, has recently been referred to as the "exoticist project" of invoking "that Other world in which the exotic subject would seek refuge from the degraded realm of the Same, thereby realizing himself as an individual". Inasmuch as the strategy of seeking self-affirmation in a world alien to one's own entails treating that world merely as a function of one's private necessity, as the passive mirror of one's personal dreams or ideals or fantasies, it contains an implicit negation of the Other, a denial of its independent reality. Mannoni enlarges upon this idea in another passage which Laurence quotes at length in The Prophet's Camel Bell:
We waver between the desire for a society, quite different from our own, in which the attachments will be preserved with the maximum of emotional comfort and stability, and the desire for complete individuation where the individual is radically independent and relies wholly on his courage, technical skill and inventive powers. When the child suffers because he feels that the ties between himself and his parents are threatened and at the same time feels guilty because after all it is he who wants to break them, he reacts to the situation by dreaming of a world where there are no real bonds, a world which is entirely his and into which he can project the images of his unconscious, to which he is attached in the way which is to him the most satisfying. Now, it is this imaginary world which is, strictly speaking, the only "primitive world" and it serves ... as the model of all other worlds. ... It is this "primitive" image of the world which we have in mind when we become explorers, ethnographers, or colonials and go amongst societies which seem to us to be less real than our own.Mannoni's inclusion of ethnographers among those who regard other societies as "less real" than their own is an engagingly candid admission which finds a close echo in Laurence's own acknowledgement that, for all her very genuine sympathy with things African, she herself is not entirely guiltless of the mental attitude she attributes to "imperialists", that "we had all been imperialists, in a sense, but the empire we unknowingly sought was that of Prester John, a mythical kingdom and a private world". The fundamental insight implicit in this, that those who approach the Other in the spirit of sentimental veneration are as much a part of the colonial phenomenon as are outright imperialists, is one that appears repeatedly in Laurence's works, including those I shall now be examining.
The first story of The Tomorrow-Tamer, "The Drummer of all the World" sketches in broad but firmly delineated outline the painful growth to maturity of Matthew, the son of a white missionary in Ghana. The Western consciousness seeking to impose its harsh, rectilinear logic upon lands and mentalities foreign to its own — a ubiquitous presence in Laurence's fiction — is exemplified here in the person of the missionary, an "idol-breaker of the old school" (4) who in order to win souls for Christ wages a tireless campaign against superstition and magic. Matthew seems to have inherited nothing of this mentality, but grows up in intimate communion with the country in which he lives, participating imaginatively in those same cults and ceremonial practices which excite his father's militant indignation. As he arrives at the threshold of adulthood, however, Matthew is saddened to observe profound divergences developing between himself and the people who were once his closest companions. The friend who aspired to the prestige of the fetish priest now angrily repudiates the superstitions of the past, while the girl who once symbolized "all earth" (12) becomes a common fisherman's wife, worn out by drudgery and child-bearing. When Matthew returns to Ghana on the eve of Independence his sensation is that "the old Africa was dying, and I felt suddenly rootless, a stranger in the only land I could call home" (13). He recognizes not only that his mind has become fixated upon a memory that bears no correspondence to current realities, but that his position as a foreigner has excluded him from genuine participation in the plight of the country: "It was only I who could afford to love the old Africa. Its enchantment had touched me, its suffering — never" (18). This insight sparks off a chain of bitter reflections concerning his own attitude and motivations:
We were conquerors in Africa, we Europeans. Some despised her, that bedraggled queen we had unthroned, and some loved her for her still-raging magnificence, her old wisdom. But all of us sought to force our will upon her. (18)These meditations are similar in tenor to those which Laurence formulates in The Prophet's Camel Bell, when she suggests that those who approach Africa in the spirit of sentimental enthusiasm are little more admirable in the final analysis than the rankest imperialist. What Matthew has discovered in effect is that what he has assumed to be his disinterested love for Africa has only been a sublimated form of aesthetic self-indulgence, that "I had always been the dreamer who knew he could waken at will" (18) while his friends were painfully immersed in the dilemmas of their historical epoch. He, no less than his father, has been projecting his purely personal expectations upon a continent and a people, treating them as functions of his private myth, and thus implicitly denying their autonomy and even their separate identity. The final statement of "The Drummer of All the World", like that of This Side Jordan, is one of irremediable and necessary isolation, as it is acknowledged that nations no less than individuals should be left at liberty to work out their own destinies without interference from materially exploitative oppressors or emotionally exploitative well-wishers. "I do not any longer know what salvation is", remarks Matthew at the conclusion of the story: "I only know that one man cannot find it for another man, and one land cannot bring it to another" (18).
This rueful acknowledgement of the necessary autonomy of the Other is qualified, though only to a very slight degree, in "The Perfume Sea", which takes its title from the name — "eau d'exile" — that one of the characters suggests might be applied to the scent blowing in from the ocean (49). The exile to which this character alludes appears at first to be absolute, unmitigable, and charged with pathos. Archipelago and Doree belong neither to the European nor to the African communities in Ghana, and even the house in which they live "was not close either to the white cantonment or to the African houses. It was off by itself, on a jut of land overlooking a small bay." (31). They are deemed "socially non-existent" by the Europeans, while for the Africans "they were standard Europeans and therefore apart" (33). It gradually emerges, however, that this isolation is more a matter of choice on their own part than the consequence of social ostracism. It is their relationship with each other that confers meaning upon their existences, and it transpires at the end of the story that it is really this bond, and not any mysterious crime or irreparable personal misfortune, which prevents them from returning to their respective homelands even when their business is imperilled by the prospect of Independence.
What distinguishes this curious association, investing it with its paradigmatic significance as a model of companionship, is the fact that it is founded not upon the fiction of perfect mutual comprehension but, on the contrary, upon the profound respect that each of the characters evinces with regard to the essential privacy of the other. An appropriate emblem of the incommunicable inwardness of the individual, and of the attitude of deference that it inspires in the sympathetic observer, is the sensitive plant which Archipelago reverently cultivates in his walled garden:
The favourite of his domain ... was the sensitive plant, an earth vine which, if its leaves were touched even lightly, would softly and stubbornly close. Mr. Archipelago liked to watch the sensitive plant's closing. Nothing in this world could stop its self-containment; it was not to be bribed or cajoled; it had integrity. But he seldom touched it, for the silent and seemingly conscious inturning of each leaf made him feel clumsy and lacking in manners. (31-2)The story thus strikes a fine but determined balance between the opposed principles of isolation and community, positing a mode of being and of relating which is neither indifferent on the one hand nor intrusive on the other. It is Archipelago's name which supplies the key to this stance, suggesting that while it is manifestly untrue that no man is an island, neither in the final analysis is any human being absolutely alone.
Matthew's father in "The Drummer of all the World" has sought to impose his version of Christianity upon a people whose religious traditions are entirely different to his own. Another manifestation of the same impulse is to be found in the proselytizing zeal of Brother Lemon in "The Merchant of Heaven", a modern apostle who, while labouring strenuously to win converts to his antiseptic faith, fastidiously averts his attention from the distracting spectacle of physical suffering. His relation with those whom he professes he is trying to save, far from being based on their common humanity, is mediated exclusively through the mechanisms of the technological society from which he derives, of which the stainless steel water-purifier he proudly displays for the benefit of the narrator is eloquently symbolic (51-2). The methods of this professional "soul-purifier" (53) are aggressively contemporary, based on market forecasts ("I estimate I'll have a thousand souls within six months", 52), an energetic advertising campaign, glittering spectacle, and the shrewd deployment of such subsidiary inducements as free refreshments for those who attend his sermons. It becomes increasingly clear however that Brother Lemon's dynamism and efficiency mask a deep inner insecurity, that rather than lending himself disinterestedly as an instrument of his belief he is using his faith to buttress up his sense of self. "Without my religion", he acknowledges to the narrator at one point, "I'd be nothing" (64). Like the colonialists of the past he is also, in his own way, exploiting the country for its moral and spiritual resources, aggrandizing himself at the expense of the Other, saving African souls only for the sake of his own.
Danso, an African painter whose dying mother has fallen under Brother Lemon's spell, regards the missionary as no more than a charlatan, a North American equivalent of the fetish priests that are an expression of the dangerous atavism of his people. The climax of the story comes when Danso produces a painting of Christ as he feels he should be perceived, as a physically powerful man, full of life and vigour, whose eyes, far from being meek and otherworldly, are "capable of laughter" (76). That the Christ depicted is also an African lends an additional note of ambiguity to the missionary's dismayed response to the painting, for it is not clear whether he is chiefly disturbed by the triumphant health of the figure, by the life-affirming attitude implicit in his posture, by the fact that he is surrounded by beggars, or by his unexpected blackness. What is certain is that the painting has exposed Brother Lemon's own vulnerabilities by turning the tables on the condescension that he has concealed even from himself. The final twist to the story occurs when even the missionary, justly discomfited as he is, is accorded in the end a measure of the compassion that he has hoped in his spiritual complacency only to dispense. The narrator's concluding observations, which suggest that the humanity of the individual should be perceived without regard to such categorical distinctions as are metaphorically codified in the polarity of black and white, encapsulate the process of moral readjustment in which Laurence's characters often find themselves engaged:
Sometimes, when I am able to see through black and white, until they merge and cease to be separate or apart, I look at those damaged creatures clustering so despairingly hopeful around the Son of Man, and it seems to me that Brother Lemon, after all, is one of them. (77)The story for which the Tomorrow-Tamer volume is named is an effective account of the devastating effects wrought in the life of an African village by the construction of a bridge. On a superficial level the bridge would seem to be a self-evident metaphor for the unification of opposites, a visible token of the "new song" to which Africa must dance if she wishes to progress, symbolizing the overcoming of all the existential and cultural barriers represented — as in This Side Jordan — by the river. The protagonist of the story, a young villager named Kofi, dimly recognizes the mediatory significance of the bridge from the beginning, realizing that when the project gets underway "strangers would come here to live" (80). This is exactly what happens, although at first there is no significant interaction between the two worlds that have been brought into proximity by the construction project:
The white men rarely showed their faces in the village, and the villagers rarely ventured into the strangers' camp, half a mile upriver. The two settlements were as separate as the river fish from the forest birds. They existed beside one another, but there was no communication between them. (90)The absence of drastic disruptions induces the villagers to believe that they can continue undisturbed in their old way of life, even as they bask in the new climate of prosperity that the bridge project makes possible. Even Kofi's existence continues for a while to adhere to the pattern defined by tradition:
When the hut was built ... his life would move in the known way. He would plant his crops and his children. Some of his crops would be spoiled by worm or weather; some of his children would die. He would grow old, and the young men would respect him. That was the way close to him as his own veins. (91)As the months pass, however, Kofi finds himself becoming increasingly estranged from his wife and family. Spending his leisure hours at a drinking establishment which has become the nexus between the two worlds, he is drawn more and more into the company of the members of the construction team, who owe no allegiance to place or person, and are ready to shift somewhere else when this project is completed. Sensing his growing alienation from his own people, Kofi attempts to anchor his identity even more firmly in the new reality, wanting more than anything else to be considered a "bridgeman" (97). At this point the paradox latent in the symbol of the bridge comes to the fore, as it becomes ironically manifest that the convergence of peoples and cultures that progress makes possible can only be achieved at the expense of that sense of community that knits the separate members of a tribe into a corporate whole. Identification with a group is superseded by identification with a function, as human relationships and the individual's sense of self are more and more exclusively mediated through the rationalized formulas of a technological civilization. For a while Kofi tries to reconcile the contending loyalties within himself by interpreting the power of the bridge in the animistic terms of his people, reasoning that it is possessed by a spirit and will require a priest of its own (99). "Shunned at home" for this blasphemy (100), and therefore cut even more adrift from the security of his own community, he commits himself wholeheartedly to the bridge and the more abstract order of unification that it represents. Catching a distant glimpse of the road that "would emerge soon here and would string both village and bridge as a single bead on its giant thread" (102), he makes the decision to become like the other workers, at home in all places and tethered to none. Ironically, however, just as he envisages the day when "in the far places, men would recognize him as a bridgeman" (102) he loses his footing on the bridge and plunges to his death in the river.
The bridge that should symbolize the passage from the past to the present, from the old to the new, from one mentality to another, thus becomes the ironic emblem of failure. It is, in the end, the tenacious forces of tradition that reaffirm themselves through this confrontation with modernizing influences, for it is the ancient tribal mythology that is invoked to make sense of Kofi's tragedy. The villagers conclude that "the bridge, clearly, had sacrificed its priest in order to appease the river" (103), and even the white man superintending the project is visited by the unsettling suspicion that "the damn thing almost was alive" (103). Kofi's final apotheosis is achieved in his tribal capacity as priest rather than in his adopted profession as a bridgeman. The man who had tried to identify himself with the future achieves a paradoxical immortality by becoming assimilated to the most ancient of myths — "a man consumed by the gods lives forever" (104) — while the old gods quietly take up residence in the most arrogant monuments of modern technology.
"The Rain Child" weaves into an elaborate counterpoint the many different forms of exile, enlarging on the implications of the fact that everyone is a stranger somewhere, and not necessarily in the place he expects to be. The narrator is Miss Nedden, a school teacher who, though English in origin, regards Ghana as her home. Like Brother Lemon and other white characters in Laurence's African works, Miss Nedden has come to Africa "mainly for myself, after all, hoping to find a place where my light could shine forth" (121), although she at least possesses the insight and the candour to acknowledge her own most basic motivations. Among her new pupils is Ruth, the English-born daughter of an African doctor who has recently returned to Ghana from London. Unlike her biblical namesake, the girl appears totally unwilling to assimilate the language and customs of the country in which she finds herself, but succumbs instead to the throes of culture shock. For his own part, her father confesses to Miss Nedden that "I still find most Europeans here as difficult to deal with as I ever did. And yet — I seem to have lost touch with my own people, too" (125). Completing the gallery of exiles is the garden boy Yindo, a Dagomba who is forced to communicate in pidgin English because his own language is not understood, and Ayesha, a young girl who has been kidnapped by slave-dealers and callously exploited as a child prostitute in Nigeria.
At one point Miss Nedden, recalling a Bible lesson for the benefit of a pupil, quotes the lines from Exodus which assume the status almost of a personal motto in Laurence's work: "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (114). As the injunction contained in this verse suggests, the shared fact of being alien can itself constitute a paradoxical basis for reciprocal comprehension, although this is not necessarily a comprehension which will release the individual from his solitude. Miss Nedden and Ruth's father are drawn into a relation of mutual empathy in spite of the fact that they have very little in common other than their shared concern for Ruth and their intimately personal knowledge of the exile's plight. Similarly, Yindo manages to communicate with Ayesha even in the absence of a shared language: "His speech lack never bothered him with Ayesha. The two communicated in some fashion without words" (118). There are hopeful indications that this expansion of sympathies will proceed even further, for Ruth strikes up a friendship with an English boy living in the vicinity of the school and, inspired with fresh confidence, begins tentatively to participate in the life of the local girls as well.
The climax of the story occurs when Ruth, deeply affronted in her European sensibilities by a display of nudity during a local festival, seeks refuge at the house of her English friend. The young man not very tactfully informs her that he has been admonished by his mother to avoid her company, notwithstanding the fact that "you're almost ... like us" (129). In despair at the denial of her English identity implicit in these words, she makes a desperate effort to reassert her African nature by seducing the garden boy, only to fail pathetically in this endeavour as well. The story concludes with a bleak reconfirmation of the condition of exile as an existential as well as physical condition. Ruth's father withdraws the girl from the school, and Miss Nedden, who appears very briefly to have contemplated the possibility of marrying the doctor and taking upon herself the role of mother to Ruth (132), is condemned instead to continue to impart her "alien speech" (133), thinking all the while of "that island of grey rain where I must go as a stranger, when the time comes, while others must remain as strangers here" (133).
"Godman's Master" is an allegorically cast meditation on the nature of freedom, which dramatizes Mannoni's insight that the "dependence syndrome" is not a simple phenomenon based on crude oppression but a complex emotional circuit involving the complementary weaknesses of both dominators and dominated. The ironically-named protagonist Moses rescues a dwarf from captivity and grants him temporary refuge in his own home, but finds himself assuming effective authority over the former slave as Godman obstinately refuses to strike out for himself. The turning point in their relationship comes when Godman informs Moses that he looks upon him as his priest, and Moses begins to reflect despondently upon the equivocal character of the situation in which he has become imprisoned:
Godman's priest, the soul-master, he who owned a man. Had Godman only moved from the simple bondage of the amber-eyed Faru to another bondage? And as for Moses himself — what became of a deliverer who had led with such assurance out of the old and obvious night, only to falter into a subtler darkness, where new-carved idols bore the known face, his own? (155)What is even more paradoxical is that Moses' role as protector has also degenerated by degrees into a kind of covert servitude for himself, until he finds himself wondering "how much he had come to depend on Godman's praise" (155). As the punning title of the story suggests, it is Godman, in a sense, who has established his moral ascendancy in the household by nourishing the ego of his benefactor. Moses can only repossess himself by releasing the Other, something that he does in the end through the simple expedient of evicting the dwarf from his home. In this case as well, then, the point of the story is that solicitude for another can amount to a subtle form of emotional despotism to which the unwitting tyrant becomes as much a thrall as his victim. Although the tale is clearly an allegory of colonialism and its aftermath, it is equally clear that its implications are not confined to any particular sociopolitical context, but that the lessons Laurence derived from her observations of the colonial situation were fully applicable to the relation between individuals at large.
With the exception of "The Voices of Adamo", the remaining stories in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume are only incidentally relevant to the principal concerns of this discussion, and need only be mentioned in passing. "A Fetish for Love" describes the well-intentioned but misdirected efforts on the part of an English woman to help a barren African couple to produce a child by introducing them to the benefits of European medical science. She fails in her project, but not before she has learned that "she was no longer sure of her own reasons" for interfering in the lives of others (178), that she might have been actuated more by the desire to gratify her own ego than by a genuinely altruistic concern for the well-being of another. In "The Pure Diamond Man" the positions are in a sense reversed, for in this case it is a young African who penetrates cultural boundaries when he tries to exploit the anthropological propensities of a wealthy young Englishman by treating him to an elaborately contrived ceremony in his home village. He is frustrated in this enterprise by an African minister, who then proceeds to regale the Englishman with equally theatrical ceremonies designed to extract from him the money needed for a church bell. "A Gourdful of Glory" is another meditation on the nature of liberty which brings the Tomorrow-Tamer volume to a buoyant and even visionary close, suggesting that true freedom consists in an attitude of mind rather than in transient alterations in the political status quo. These stories play off white against black, progress against tradition, the Self against the Other, and culminate in each case both in the reconfirmation of cultural difference and in the more or less explicit revelation that the evils or fallibilities attributed to the Other are also intrinsic to the Self.
The penultimate story in the Tomorrow-Tamer volume, "The Voices of Adamo", is a particularly sombre variation on the theme that Laurence develops in various keys elsewhere in her fiction, that of the insidious psychological mechanisms binding colonizer and colonized into spiritually confining and potentially explosive relationships of mutual dependency. Like Kofi in "The Tomorrow-Tamer" and Nathaniel in This Side Jordan, Adamo has been raised in accordance with the traditional pattern of Forest life, in which the successive generations are bound to one another in a vital continuum that affords each individual his designated place in the cosmic scheme of things. The conception of life that is inculcated into Adamo is an essentially ceremonial one, the inspiring principle of which is that all acts should be performed according to rigidly prescribed formulas in order not to offend the spirit animating the world. The authority of this tradition, and the security it offers those who believe in it, is represented in terms of the metaphor of voices that is encountered also in This Side Jordan. Adamo's father believes that his parents are with him even though they have been dead for many years, that "he heard their guiding voices in the night wind" (206). The expectation is that his own voice will join those of his ancestors, and continue to counsel his son in future years.
Adamo's eviction from the Eden of a known and settled way of life occurs when a smallpox epidemic strikes his village. The boy is sent away for his own protection, and when he at last returns home finds that his village now stands derelict, that "the chain that linked endlessly into the past had been broken" (210). Destitute of the family and tribe that provided him with an existential foundation and a cultural focus, he is bereft of identity as well. After a period of distracted wanderings he finds his way to a city, where he encounters a group of regimental musicians. He is immediately attracted by their drum, which "uttered to him the voice he now heard only in dreams, the sorrowing of someone inexpressibly dear to him" (211), and on the urging of a white officer named Captain Fossey enlists as a drummer in the regiment. In time he develops into model soldier, applying to this new reality the ritualistic attitude to life instilled into him as a child, and performing everything according to regulation "so all things will go well" (217). He becomes the special protégé of Captain Fossey, the authority of whom in Adamo's mind is equated with his voice: "He spoke, and many listened ... and then I was a drummer among the drummers. His word has power" (218). By degrees, Fossey's voice comes to supplant in Adamo's imagination the voices of his childhood:
Now when Adamo heard, as he still occasionally did in sleep, the muttering river, the soft slow woman voice, the voices of gods and grandsires, he would be frightened by their questioning and mourning, until they faded and a new voice, high and metallic, alien but not unknown, gained command. (218)The irony of the situation is of course is that Adamo falls under the spell of the voice without having the slightest comprehension of the words it pronounces, that the relationship between the two men is an illusion founded on mutual ignorance. Adamo attributes a magical potency to Fossey, and Fossey, for his own part, interprets the young man's devotion and anxiety to please as tokens of a special esteem for himself. It is this failure on the part of each to understand the other except as the projection of his own desire for respect or belonging that leads in the end to tragedy. Adamo's newfound peace of mind is shattered when his term of service expires and he receives the discharge he unwittingly applied for through Fossey's intervention. Once again he is expelled from the Eden of familiar voices, deprived suddenly of security and direction:
There were no voices to be heard, neither around him nor inside his head. There were no people in this place, no known voices. None to tell or guide, none even to mourn. Only his own voice which had strangely lost the power of sound, his silent voice splitting his lungs with its cry. (222)His response to this intolerable situation is to kill Fossey, whom he feels has betrayed him. The story ends with the imprisoned Adamo awaiting a court-marshal that will inevitably issue in a death sentence. Ironically, however, he has succeeded in obtaining what he has craved more than anything else, and when he asks an African officer whether he will now be allowed to remain is told: "You can stay, Adamo. You can stay as long as you live" (224).
In an article
published in 1969, Laurence stated that her African works were produced
by "an outsider who experienced a seven years' love affair with a continent
but who in the end had to remain in precisely that relationship, for it
could never become the close involvement of family". Although this rather
rueful declaration refers specifically to the author's ambivalent position
with respect to African society, it also seems to convey something concerning
her view of human relationships in general. The stories collected in the
volume fluctuate, uneasily and often disconcertingly, between radically
opposed conceptions of human commitment, conceptions that we find straining
against one another in Laurence's later Canadian fiction as well. While
on the one hand communication between individuals and cultures is acknowledged
to be indispensable to authentic human existence, on the other it is exposed
as being all too often an illusion or, even worse, an insidious form of
spiritual colonialism of which even the aggressor remains unaware until
it is too late. Throughout her subsequent writing Laurence continued to
dramatize the intuition first formulated in terms of the African situation,
that the effort to establish bonds with others solely in order to satisfy
one's personal imperatives is in the final analysis as destructive of the
Self as it is of the Other, and that genuine freedom can be achieved only
by severing these debilitating ties of mutual dependency. The final story
of the Tomorrow-Tamer volume concludes when an old
market woman, in the aftermath of an Independence that has conspicuously
failed to bring the millennium in its train, nonetheless exorcizes within
herself the last vestige of European moral dominion and celebrates her
triumph in a jubilant song in which she "added to her old chant a verse
no one had ever heard her sing before" (244). While this may represent
no more than a partial fulfilment of the prophecy that Africa will one
day dance to a new song, it would be perhaps be unrealistic, given Laurence's
premises concerning the human condition, to hope for very much more.