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This review is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January - February 1983.

ELUSIVE EPICS Isidore Okpewho, The Epic in Africa: Towards a Poetics of the Oral Performance (Columbia University Press) S26.00
Mazisi Kunene, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (Heine-mann)£7.50, £1.90-pb

In our age of paperback erudition, the great literature of other cultures can seem easily accessible: translations and commentaries proliferate. So it is salutary, in a sense, to find that these two books hold out promises of access to great African literature which they do not fulfil; it reminds us of the distance between African culture and our own. It is clear, however, that the writers of both books aimed to lessen that distance; in this respect, their success has been limited.

In The Epic in Africa, Isidore Okpewho wants, on the one hand, to establish that the epic as a distinctive genre does exist in Africa, despite the denial of scholars such as Maurice Bowra; he wants to make the African epic academically respectable. On the other hand, he is keen to demonstrate that the African epic can only be fully understood if it is considered, not only in textual form, but also in the moment of oral performance; he wants, that is, to free the African epic from academic fossiliza-tion. These aims militate against each other.

The academic aim wins out. In his attempt to establish the credentials of the African epic, Okpewho compares some major examples-the Ozidi Saga, the Mwindo Epic-to European and other epics, primarily the Homeric corpus. He draws analogies between all these works in terms of the image of the hero, the use of techniques such as the formula and the motif, and the deployment of horror and humour. ...


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