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B : tries to do a bit much, but consistently interesting
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Osiris Rising is largely set in an unnamed fictional post-colonial African nation. The early high hopes that came with a transition to independence have largely been dashed, the country mired in crony-capitalist corruption that merely benefits a new but still small elite. If there are superficial appearances of change -- black faces instead of white ones in positions of power -- fundamental structures remain the same, including that of economic exploitation by outside powers; as the novel's central figure notes, despite nominal independence: "There's plenty of evidence that the independence game only stabilized European and American control". The country struggles economically, with widespread shortages (right down to basics such as toilet paper) with government-figures embezzling the vital foreign exchange. Higher levels of government don't figure prominently in the story (beyond one character), but when the megaloman President is described he is all too typical for a generation of post-colonial African leaders, down to those official portraits where he is always depicted as: "astonishingly youthful"; among the few distinctive characteristics Armah ascribes to him is that he is:
so pious that he belonged to the two revealed religions that had pierced the blackness of pagan Africa with the white light of God: Christianity and Islam.The novel's main figure is Ast, born and raised in the United States, but taught about her African heritage by her grandmother, Nwt. Among the things that Nwt teaches Ast is how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Ast goes on to study Egyptology, getting degrees in that as well as World History and then teaching history at Emerson. Still in her twenties, she then comes to the realization that she needs to be in Africa; shortly after her arrival there she explains:
"I want to work in a society I belong to, with friends moving in directions I can live with. [...] It would have to be in Africa, because of who we are, who I am," Ast said. "In America I felt like a passenger earnestly walking homeward at five kilometers an hour, in a plane rushing away at a thousand kilometers an hour. It didn't make sense."What draws her to this particular country, however, is also a person, Asar, who had studied in America for a while. As she explains her reasons for being there to him:
"Let's say I'm looking for the way home. I know where I've come from isn't it. I'd like to think I've come to the right place. But ..." she wished she didn't have to continue. In the silence she heard ripples hit the side of the boat nearer the island. "I know I need a companion," she said.After returning from studying abroad, Asar had not compromised and taken a government sinecure or gone to work for one of the prestigious international organizations that would have welcomed a well-(American-)educated African. Instead, he fought in some of the southern African conflicts of the times, and even after returning to his homeland settled for a position: "at the lowest of our tertiary institutions", a teacher training college in the village of Manda. The government remains suspicious of him, and he a thorn in their sides, working for change in a country where the establishment is interested only in a maintaining the stability that ensures it remains entrenched and able to continuing feeding at the trough.
Asar's adversary here is Seth Spencer Soja, a Deputy Director (and generally referred to simply as 'SSS' or 'DD') that runs the country's security forces. The two have history -- they were classmates, with Asar always the better student -- and even though SSS has ostensibly been more successful, he is still very wary and jealous of Asar.
Upon her arrival in Africa, Ast is immediately detained and brought to SSS -- whom she also knows from when they had been undergraduates together -- because of an ostensibly subversive document found on her; it had been mailed to her anonymously. SSS immediately offers her everything she could want: a fancy place to live -- housing is hard to come by in the city, and expensive -- and a well-subsidized research-position. She can have: "a cook, a car, a chauffeur and a servant, plus a gardener if you choose a villa". But she doesn't let herself be bought, insisting on striking out on her own.
She spends a bit of time in the capital, living in a hostel run by a former teacher who also knows Asar, Netta. She also encounters another American who had come here a few years earlier, whose compound is near the hostel; he now styles himself as 'Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano', his game now: "Religion. Raasta, Islam, Christianity, laced with Negritude". Ast knows him too -- as Sheldon Tubman, whose life and civil rights activism she had studied while an undergraduate. His American efforts had ended in ignominious failure -- and Armah makes clear that his African ones won't fare any better, saddling him with this worst of all possible choices of assumed names:
(H)ere was Sheldon Tubman strutting his slow stuff along this African beach, breathing heavy life into names better left to rot in peace: Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano. Ras the oblivious little emperor, Jomo the tribalist dictator serving Africa's enemies, Equiano the blind victim, medium of European stereotypes, Cinque the freed slave turned slaver.If Tubman is the most extreme example -- verging on the farcical -- of foreigner-seekers who compromise their former ideals and adapt to the realities of the corrupt state they find themselves in, he is far from the only one. All enjoy privilege and protection of some sort -- not least those in university positions who, as Asar notes, might agree with the necessity of change but are held back from fully supporting it because of the obvious impact it would have on them:
Intellectually, they see the justice of change. But expatriates here still have privileges because they're expatriates. Even honest Europeans don't want to lose their colonial privileges, no matter how unjust. Liberal expatriates talk beautifully about justice as long as it's kept theoretical.[Yeah, he probably didn't mean 'psychic' .....]
Ast comes to Africa as an idealist -- and manages to maintain her idealism. She joins Asar in Manda -- and their love certainly is an important factor in their being whole, in a country where so few are. The contrast to the other significant male figures couldn't be more blatant: SSS seeks to impose himself and prove his primacy by attempting rape, while Tubman/Cinque tries to take a teen as his fourth wife. (Tellingly, too, both men fail in their attempts.)
Asar is focused on desperately needed educational reform. As Netta explains in why she abandoned teaching:
The students were okay. Yet every year I could see the structure turning the best of them into self-protective cynics. I grew convinced that my work wasn't merely useless; it was self-destructive.Similarly, Ast realizes when she starts teaching, confronted by the textbooks and world-views the students still relied on, that:
Students spewed back the prevailing orthodoxy in order to pass exams and move on in the system. The process was designed to turn them into europhile teachers by default, actively ignorant of world history.Asar, Ast, and others get together to change the institutional structures and the curriculum -- working cleverly within the system to introduce the changes. Osiris Rising takes a bit of an odd pedagogical and didactic turn here, as Armah spells out the steps that are taken -- still quite quickly and well woven into the story -- and then re-prints the whole thirteen-page proposal for the new curriculum, a manifesto of sorts suggesting what the appropriate changes would be to shift the academic program -- specifically in three departments (African Studies, History, and Literature) -- from its Eurocentric current state to one that instead puts the local and the African at its heart. This manifesto is interesting (and sensible), but something of an odd fit with the novel as a whole; it's difficult to integrate this kind of thing in a work of fiction, and Armah's approach does feel somewhat awkward -- though the point he wants to make with it arguably deserves to be spelled out and presented this clearly.
(Indeed, it's worth reading even (or especially) apart from the novel for the arguments and suggestions it makes, right down to well-put observations about, for example, the historical background of the study of literature here: "Literature came to mean Western literature. In the transition from colonialism to neocolonialism, that attitude was not abandoned; it was laundered".)
One unusual feature of the proposal -- which also features elsewhere in the novel -- is Armah's focus on ancient Egyptian history as not only central but the fundamental one to the African experience; indeed, the manifesto goes so far as to: "advocate the reinstatement of ancient Egypt at the center of African history and culture". For Armah, it is ancient Egyptian history and culture that is foundational for all of Africa -- with other ancient African cultures surprisingly not being taken into account. Ast's familiarity with hieroglyphics proves useful -- the Egyptian as a key to unlocking this vital past -- while the ankh-symbol is a totem figuring prominently throughout the novel, with both Ast and Tubman/Cinque having one whose meaning they seek to learn (the latter's, significantly, a broken one). (Armah's publishing house -- the publishers of this book, among others -- is, of course, 'Per Ankh', suggesting also how central it is to his thinking.)
The centrality of Egypt isn't adequately justified, which is unfortunate, given how emphatically Armah insists on it; the complexity of pre-colonial African history and culture extends far beyond it and, regrettably, very little sense of that is given here.
More interesting are the qualms some of the characters have with reckoning with their own family history, with both Asar and Tubman/Cinque concerned about learning the truth about their forefathers, including the possibility that these collaborated with the slave-trading foreigners, back in the day.
Armah's arguments on how change can (and must) be achieved are quite well handled -- if arguably too simplistically in the presentation of the forces that want to preserve the obviously flawed status quo. Obviously, SSS argues: "The constructive thing is to work within the system, eliminating specific abuses" -- and Armah has an easy game of showing, through SSS's own abuses, why that isn't a plan. Meanwhile, Asar speaks from the heart to Ast, echoing Netta's complaint:
"I don't like the way this society is organized," he said. "I don't want to put a child in it, alone. It's brutal."An interesting aspect of Osiris Rising is this personal one, of the significance Armah gives to (happy, healthy) relationships. Ast and Asar work constructively together because they have also found personal happiness with each other. (Tellingly, characters such as SSS and Tubman/Cinque can manage only the most flawed of relationships, based on nothing more than dominance and devoid of any feeling.) Osiris Rising is, in no small part, a love story, with Ast coming to this country as much because she knows Asar is the one person who truly complements her -- who can make her whole -- as she does because Africa is what she considers her true homeland; the two reasons are equally (and complementarily) important.
The regime sees threats everywhere -- as Netta complains early on: "Instead of solving real problems, the government specializes in hunting and jailing opponents". The curriculum-revision Asar helps pave the way for would seem a rather benign threat, but of course to the regime it threatens the entire creaky structure that supports the present-day elite. Asar is a target, and while the college community can protect him from SSS's first attempt to disappear him, a second, far more elaborate plan meets with greater success -- as Osiris Rising comes complete with something of a thriller-ending.
Osiris Rising does not have a happy ending, a striking turn in a novel where, despite the endemic corruption all around, Ast leads the way with a determined and optimistic outlook. It leaves open-ended where hope might be found, and how change can be accomplished -- rounding off the novel in perhaps the only possible way. It's a wise choice on Armah's part, as Osiris Rising elsewhere can seem just a bit didactic and programmatic. But, of course, it's also heartbreaking, in that those seeking positive change are crushed. Still, one can at least imagine that some of the changes -- in the curriculum, for one -- take root, and that down the line more meaningful change might be possible. A next generation is, after all, coming .....
The mix in Osiris Rising doesn't always work, but forceful, determined Ast is a solid lead-protagonist, and many of the secondary characters -- especially the compromised ones -- are well-drawn. There's some decent action, too, with good confrontation scenes into which Armah weaves his arguments well -- but he does try to squeeze rather a lot in, in some cases (specifically: the revised curriculum) too directly. But Osiris Rising is interesting in a number of ways, from how it engages with African history (and how that should be studied) to its portraits of (Black-)American(-seeker)s-in-Africa.
An uneven and at times awkward novel, it is still certainly worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 June 2020
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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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