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This article is taken from PN Review 63, Volume 15 Number 1, September - October 1988.

Forty Years of African Prose Bruce King

L.S. Senghor, co-founder of Negritude and first president of Senegal, said that cultural independence precedes political independence: cultural assertion has a political purpose in a colony where display of a usable past undermines the claims to dominance of the foreign power. Significantly, African prose from 1930 to 1950 mostly consists of collections of folk tales, histories and modern versions of such material. One of the best examples of a successful transformation of the old into new packages is Birago Diop's Tales of Amadou Koumba (translated by Dorothy S. Blair, Longman, £2.95). Diop, one of the original Negritude poets, published fifty stories between the early 1940s and mid-1960s, from which these twenty tales have been translated. The setting is the complex Islamic society of Senegal, with its strong animistic survivals; the stories themselves are varied with animal and human characters, a mixture of moral and worldly wisdom, and often assume that cunning is a virtue. Diop claims to be preserving the folklore of the Wolofs, saying that he has merely translated into French stories traditionally told by griots (a griot is a singer-musician-poet-narrator-historian, but not a writer), but as so many of these stories are cynical about the rewards of virtue either Wolofs have the rational scepticism of Parisians or Diop's writing is tinged by more modern French attitudes than he admits. Characterized by economy and craft of narration, the tales often use a complex narrative frame and interesting shifts in time. The narration is manipulated so skilfully that it ...

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