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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Alphabetical Africa

Walter Abish

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To purchase Alphabetical Africa

Title: Alphabetical Africa
Author: Walter Abish
Genre: Novel
Written: 1974
Length: 152 pages
Availability: Alphabetical Africa - US
Alphabetical Africa - UK
Alphabetical Africa - Canada
Alphabetisches Afrika - Deutschland
  • Alphabetical Africa is arranged according to an alphabetical constraint -- but Abish made a few slips. See the ones we found.

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Our Assessment:

A- : an unlikely but surprisingly riveting good read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A- 8/10/2002 Jürgen Brôcan
The New Yorker B+ 24/3/1975 John Updike
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/12/1974 Richard Howard
Die Zeit A (47/2002) Jochen Jung

  From the Reviews:
  • "(M)an hätte sich gewünscht, dass die deutsche Fassung noch deutlicher als kreative Fortschreibung gekennzeichnet ist. Wer den deutschen und den englischen Text nebeneinander liest, wird vielleicht so manches Mal irritiert sein, aber sehr viel öfter sein Vergnügen haben an dem Spannungsfeld, das dieses wichtige (und vom Verlag vorbildlich gestaltete) Buch der amerikanischen Postmoderne und seine eigenwillige deutsche Version erzeugen." - Jürgen Brôcan, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Walter Abish's remarkable, ludicrously programmatic novel Alphabetical Africa. (...) Fortunately, Mr. Abish's style, even when unhampered by artificial constraints, is rather chastened and elliptic, so his fettered progress is steadier than you might imagine. (...) Though the tale is murky as well as absurd, one is tempted to concede that Mr. Abish has performed as well as anyone could, given such extravagant handicaps." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "He has written, I believe, a novel of erotic obsession, in which language itself has received the transferred charge of feeling." - Richard Howard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Und immer, hier aber besonders, ist es ihm gelungen, Intelligenz und Inspiration, Wissen und Witz zu bündeln und daraus ein einzigartiges Abenteuerbuch zu machen, das in jede Bibliothek gehört, die ein wenig auf sich hält." - Jochen Jung, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Alphabetical Africa, Walter Abish's first novel, is famous for the tight constraint under which it is written. Though not a member of the Oulipo, Abish has almost literally taken a page out of their book.
       The novel has 52 chapters, headed, alphabetically, A through Z, and then Z through A. The first chapter ("A") contains only words beginning with the letter A, the second ("B") only words beginning with the letters A or B, all the way up to the 26th and 27th chapters (both "Z"), which can include words beginning with all letters of the alphabet. Then the letters disappear again: Z-Y-X-W-V, etc. The 31st chapter (the second "V"-chapter) again no longer has any words beginning with the letters W, X, Y, or Z, for example. This continues all the way down to the last chapter (the second "A"-chapter), which again consists only of words beginning with the letter A. (Each chapter also begins with a word beginning with the letter-heading -- so the 26th and 27th chapters both begin with words starting with the letter Z, for example.)
       As it turns out, Abish didn't quite live up to his self-imposed constraint -- see our list of Alphabetical Errata. This makes it bit more difficult to take the endeavour entirely seriously (maybe it should be An Almost Alphabetical Africa ?), as well as posing the perplexing question of whether or not the slips were slipped in on purpose (and if so, why ?).

       The constraint is an integral part of the text. There is no way around it. The limitations are tremendous: no I or he for more than a third of the book, no she or you for nearly all of it. No the (and then and why and who and what) for most of the novel. A central figure is Queen Quat, but predictably -- indeed inevitably -- her presence is carefully circumscribed.
       Abish manages surprisingly well. Even the most constrained chapters make at least some sort of sense. So, for example, early in the first chapter:

Ages ago an archaeologist, Albert, alias Arthur, ably attended an archaic African armchair affair at Antibes, attracting attention as an archaeologist and atheist.
       There is a flow to novel, a definite build up as more and more becomes possible and expressible until the apex (or rather: the zenith) is reached. Then comes the reversal, with its inexorable decline, leading to the desperate final chapter, a list of "another"s ending in: "another Africa another alphabet" -- a brief gaze forwards as these ones are done with, withered away into silence and nothingness.
       Like the alphabet, Africa too shifts shape in this novel. "Bit by bit I have assembled Africa" the narrator admits when he can finally intrude on the scene (in the first I-chapter). Throughout -- even as the book grows -- there is always the awareness that Africa is shrinking, vanishing. "The Africa I know is getting smaller, said the Consul morosely." (Though note that, apparently: "It is also, quite inexplicably, turning orange.")
       The novel is not a post-colonial commentary on the state of the continent -- or at least that is not its primary focus. Among other things, it is also about recording events -- where again the African experience -- history without a record -- is central. "All history in Africa is hearsay", Abish writes. This complicates matters, but it does not make African history less useful than other forms and approaches -- indeed, as Abish knows: "history can conceal assumptions. It can confound historians, authors, booksellers, and also doom armies."
       Alphabetical Africa is also about finding language and being able to express oneself. How sad, early on, when Abish notes:
How does a German express himself. He has a dictionary. Consequently he has a certain hope
       But, Abish also notes: "Alas, a German dictionary hampers African contemplation." It is not merely German dictionaries he is speaking of, of course, or African contemplation. Words alone don't suffice for any and all contemplation, words are a barrier to any and all expression. Words are both tool and hindrance. And Abish makes this very clear by presenting his novel with these odd constraints, finding that the words from an arbitrary section of the dictionary are no more or less capable of expressing what needs be expressed than all the words in the world.
       Abish's Africans also have clicking languages that can't be reduced to the written word and thus remain outside his fiction. He also takes words from African dictionaries, listing them -- but this too provides little additional insight. Even the threats the narrator receives are "veiled" and "muffled" (while actions speak a bit more clearly than words, as his enemies then blow up his car and garage).
       "I am an unreliable reporter", the narrator eventually acknowledges (though the reader will have long suspected it). "I measure my deliberate advance into Africa", he says -- forced by his limited vocabulary to advance very deliberately. As the book progresses and the number of permissible words grows, he finds: "I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments." But he is just fooling himself: it is an illusion of less impediments. There are more words available with each chapter, but all the words in the world aren't enough. Stoically he faces their loss then too, realizing that they offered less than he had originally hoped.

       There are also other plots to the novel. There is ant-warfare (of a very colourful sort). There are all sorts of shady characters, and above all there is the elusive Alva. The book is about her, in many ways. At least it is meant to be, but all sorts of other things come up as well (while Alva proves particularly difficult to pin down). There are conflicts galore in this Africa. Chases. Sex.
       Queen Quat figures prominently for a while -- though the narrator finds, looking back over newspaper clippings, that "her name has been omitted" -- a common fate for characters in this novel, one suspects.

       Form, in Alphabetical Africa, is inseparable from content. The content alone, rewritten in everyday prose, would probably not make for a great read. The storyline is too haphazard, the events occasionally forced, the progress illogical. But the form -- the constraint that holds Abish back -- is actually a huge advance.
       Part of the fun is in watching to see whether and how he can sustain it. (The fact that he fails a few times is particularly worrisome -- how could that happen ? or did it happen for a reason ?) But it also gives a lot to the story. One literally breathes easier as the chapters progress and the language is progressively less constrained. Then the tightness returns, near the end.
       And Abish writes well within the constraints. The taut early (and late chapters) are particularly good.
       One can see where Abish is going, and it is entertaining to go with him. Part of the pleasure is like that of reading a rhymed poem, of knowing what must come at the end of the next line, but there is more to it here, since it is a larger constraint.
       Alphabetical Africa is, quite surprisingly, a riveting read. It is certainly something completely different. It is also an unexpected success. Recommended.

Alphabetical Errata:

       Alphabetical Africa has 52 chapters, going A through Z, and then Z through A. Each chapter is meant to only contain words beginning with the letters of the alphabet up to whatever the chapter-heading-letter is -- so the fifth (and the forty-eighth) chapter (both "E") only contain words beginning with A, B, C, D, and E, while the 25th (and 28th) chapter ("Y") can contain words beginning with any letter except Z.
       Mr. Abish does an admirable job of staying within this constraint -- but not a perfect one. Which is actually pretty embarrassing, given that the constraint is the main point of the book. (Blame the editor and copy-editor -- always blame the editor !)
       The complete review came across the following slips:

  • Page 38. The first O-chapter features a premature P in the penultimate paragraph: "As fast as I finish it, I promise her."
  • Page 138. The second F-chapter includes an impermissible I in the first paragraph: "ants devised and boosted an innovative design".
  • Page 146. The second C-chapter contains an impermissible I near the end of the first paragraph : "After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles."
  • Page 147. The same second C-chapter repeats the mistake two paragraphs later: : "After I cross a close-by creek".
       Note that the two last mistakes are marginal one -- in the sense that the I's hug the margin and maybe don't stand out. Still -- someone should have caught them. Not good copy-editing ! Not good proof-reading ! Donate money ! Buy them an editor !

       [Updated] See now also Stephen Saperstein Frug's more thorough list of errata at his Attempts weblog.

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Alphabetical Africa: Reviews: Other books by Walter Abish under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Inger Christensen's slightly different alphabet-game
  • Contemporary American fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Abish was born in 1931. He has written several works of fiction, and taught at Columbia, Yale, Brown, and Cooper Union, among others. He has received many prestigious fellowships, including an NEA fellowship, a Guggenheim, a MacArthur, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fellowship.

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