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the Complete Review
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Two Thousand Seasons

Ayi Kwei Armah

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Title: Two Thousand Seasons
Author: Ayi Kwei Armah
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972
Length: 206 pages
Availability: Two Thousand Seasons - US
Two Thousand Seasons - UK
Two Thousand Seasons - Canada
  • First published 1973
  • Apparently out of print -- but note numerous customer reviews at Amazon.com

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often strong but ultimately too simplistic picture of Africa -- past and future

See our review for fuller assessment.


  • "(H)is Two Thousand Seasons -- in which he is trying to re-create the history of Africa -- I find unacceptable on the basis of fact, and on the basis of art. The work is ponderous and heavy and wooden, almost embarrassing in its heaviness. It doesn't have the air of epic authenticity which Ouologuem achieves in his Bound to Violence (.....) (I)t is like a lump of concrete sitting in place." - Chinua Achebe, in an interview with J.O.J.Nwachukwu-Agbada, Massachusetts Review 28 (1987)

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The complete review's Review:

       The two thousand seasons of the title of Ayi Kwei Armah's novel represent the enormous arc of time of African history covered in it. "We are not a people of yesterday", begins the first chapter, but the book does cover the long and awful yesteryears that were traversed and endured. The book hopes to put it behind: "Soon we shall end this remembrance," Armah writes near the close of the novel, "the sound of it." And the hope is for the present and especially the future.

       Armah's novel is a pan-African epic. In many ways it is a summing up of the African experience for the past two thousand seasons. Armah reduces it effectively to "a thousand seasons wasted wandering amazed along alien roads, another thousand spent finding paths to the living way."
       Two Thousand Seasons is a novel of seeking, of loss and redemption. He warns: "Woe the race, too generous in the giving of itself, that finds a highway not of regeneration but a highway to its own extinction." He traces the paths taken: the many false ones, and the true ones.
       The place of origin, the home, is an unspecified African country, standing for all of (sub-Saharan) Africa. The story truly begins with the coming of the predators who bring ruin. First it is the the Arabs, then the Europeans -- "whites" all . And always there are the weak and complicit locals, showing from the first a "fantastic quality (...): fidelity to those who spat on them", helping to bring ruin from within.
       The first predators to appear come as beggars. Their pitiful appearance -- hardly to be taken seriously -- is misleading. They are cunning and patient. They use their religion to inspire and hold sway over the weak, turning them against their fellow Africans. The predators reduce them "to beasts" by starving their minds with their foreign religion and "indulging their crassest physical wants." These beasts -- the perfidious askaris, who will play an important role in keeping the locals subjugated throughout the thousands of seasons -- are pathetic, but though the others hold them in contempt (calling them "white desert-men's dogs") they become the willing and often very effective tools of the predators.
       Time and again Armah shows the African to have been party to his own culture's demise, willing to deal with the (white) devil and selling out (often literally) his fellow man.
       The "white man from the desert" patiently makes inroads, returning stronger and wiser each time. The locals do not know how to protect themselves:

This time again the predators came with force -- to break our bodies. This time they came with guile also -- a religion to smash the feeblest minds among us, then turn them into tools against us all. The white men from the desert had made a discovery precious to predators and destroyers: the capture of the mind and the body both is a slavery far more lasting, far more secure than the conquest of bodies alone.
       There are revolts -- of great ferocity. The gluttony of the predators is their own undoing -- yet it is never enough that is undone. Success is limited, the next wave of predators seemingly always at the ready. The locals never seem the wiser for what happened.
       The locals flee, "our hope being that new places, new circumstances, might bring us back to reciprocity, might bring us closer to our way, the way." But it is apparently only "the way" of a few.
       Leadership is a problem: the rulers are the worst of the lot. Armah has nothing but contempt for the powers that were: "The quietest king, the gentlest leader of the mystified, is criminal beyond the exercise of any comparison." This certainly holds for his prime example, the greedy fool Koranche.
       The whites who come after the Arabs are not merely predators but destroyers -- the armed colonial European powers. And Armah is certain: "There is nothing white men will not do to satisfy their greed" -- or: "Monstrous is the greed of the white destroyers, infinite their avarice." Fortunately for them then, there is little Koranche and his flatterers won't do to satisfy their greed either:
Among the white destroyers there was no respect for anything we could say. They had come determined to see nothing, to listen to no one, bent solely on the satisfaction of their greed, of which we had ample news. But the king was infatuated with the white destroyers and would not heed the people's will, as quick in its expression as it was clear: to tell the white men to go.
       Among the destroyers are missionaries, too, with a different poisonous religion. It seems too simple, too ridiculous -- and yet it too will subvert the ancient society from within.
       Wise Isanusi warns time and again of the dangers, but he is not heard or, at first, understood. Later, after they have been sold into slavery by their king and escaped "his words came back an echo to what we had lived to know.". Finally, they are determined not to look into the past, or "return to homes blasted with triumphant whiteness." They would "seek the necessary beginning to destruction's destruction."
       Isanusi sees how long the road ahead is, warning that this generation "would not outlive the white blight", that only the groundwork could be laid, the beginnings undertaken. Despite "the treachery of chiefs and leaders, of the greed of parasites that had pushed us so far into the whiteness of death" there is some hope for the future -- but not an immediate one.

       Two Thousand Seasons is a story of triumphs of the spirit and the will, despite unspeakable horrors, oppression, and betrayals. Enslaved, there is a daring escape from the ship -- and then the rescue of others. The white predators are beaten at their own games, their own arms stolen from them and then turned against them. Treachery does not stop, but there are successes, small movements along the right way.
       Much of this is dramatically related, though some of the chronicle is overly simple and overly stark. It is a very broad canvas Armah is painting: two thousand seasons, and almost all of Africa's history of that time reduced to these two hundred pages. It is a stirring, angry, often horrifying, often touching read.
       But ultimately it is too simplistic. The valiant triumphs that are recounted don't reflect the actual sad history of the continent. The white predators and destroyers are more complex creatures than Armah is here willing to acknowledge.
       Much that he relates -- the weakness of the native leaders, the perverting effect of Islam and Christianity, the greed of the whites (and blacks alike) -- is convincing. But there was more complexity at work there, and most of it Armah glosses over. Worse yet, "the way", the grand, promised way to salvation is naïve and unrealistic. Noble, yes, but not a path likely to be taken. Idealism is all well and good, but it should also convince -- and here, unfortunately, it doesn't.
       Armah's anger is well-placed, and often well (if too vigorously and subjectively) expressed. His idealism, his solution, is something that readers want to embrace, but truth and fact stand in the way. The history of the continent in the seasons since he has finished the novel sadly show the many wrong paths that continue to be taken. Armah's voice is not a lone one, but in Africa actions often speak louder than words and for the past three decades actions have only reinforced the ugly picture of the continuation of the destructive past he painted.

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Two Thousand Seasons: Reviews: Ayi Kwei Armah: Other books by Ayi Kwei Armah under review: Books about Ayi Kwei Armah under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence, to which Two Thousand Seasons is often compared
  • See Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Ayi Kwei Armah was born in what is now Ghana in 1939. He studied in the United States and is the author of several novels, including The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born.

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