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the Complete Review
the complete review - various

Life Turns Man Up and Down

edited by
Kurt Thometz

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the editor

To purchase Life Turns Man Up and Down

Title: Life Turns Man Up and Down
Editor: Kurt Thometz
Genre: Various
Written: (2001)
Length: 390 pages
Availability: Life Turns Man Up and Down - US
Life Turns Man Up and Down - UK
Life Turns Man Up and Down - Canada
  • African Market Literature
  • Includes an introductory essay by Kurt Thometz, High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English, as well as an Afterword
  • Includes a Reader's Guide of suggested literature
  • Eighteen pamphlets are reproduced in part or in whole, including works by Okenwa Olisah, Felix N. Stephen, and Speedy Eric

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Our Assessment:

-- : amusing and often fascinating -- though parts are close to unreadable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 8/10/2001 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/12/2001 Eric P. Nash
Salon . 20/8/2001 Suzy Hansen
The Village Voice A 8/1/2002 Anderson Tepper

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) wild excursion into the collective unconscious of an emerging nation." - Eric P. Nash, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This anthology (...) displays these often funny and always fascinating artifacts" - Suzy Hansen, Salon

  • "You can read these tales for enjoyment, for the shock and thrill of the language, and the wild glimpses of a youthful literature and nation. But despite the editor's warnings, you can also glean something powerful, even sinister, at work behind the chaotic words and emotions." - Anderson Tepper, The Village Voice

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:

       Life Turns Man Up and Down is, basically, an anthology of the pamphlet literature that flourished in Western Africa -- and especially in Onitsha (Nigeria) -- in the 1960s. Kurt Thometz presents eighteen pamphlets -- or rather: parts of eighteen pamphlets (only a few are presented in their entirety) -- whose original dates of publication are given between 1960 and 1972. It is a nicely varied sampling of material that has largely been inaccessible, and the book offers a good introduction to African market literature.
       (This literature only flourished briefly, largely coming to an end with the Biafran crisis. Among the sad notes in this volume is that Thometz claims to "have made every possible and several impossible efforts to locate the legitimate copyright holders of these pamphlets" -- and couldn't locate a single one.)
       Thometz offers a decent introduction to the subject in his introductory essay, High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English. As he explains in his Preface, the writers of these pamphlets come from "the cusp of a world" beyond our ken, the written word having just begun to be adopted by large segments of the population at that time. The sudden change from "traditional orality to printed modernity" was a drastic one.
       Pamphlet literature -- short, affordable books on all imaginable topics -- was the first widespread indigenous 'literature'. But it is definitely not the type of literature you'll find at your local Barnes & Noble.
       Thometz gives a vague historic overview and goes on a number of riffs explaining (and, in part, excusing) these pamphlets. Their literary quality is ... well, different than what one generally expects in a printed work. Thometz compares the mad English and creative spelling that is employed in these texts to jazz music, for example. It must be noted, however, that a lot of the 'creative' look and content of the texts goes beyond mad English and creative spelling and can instead be attributed to carelessness and sloppiness. Much of it isn't an inventive use of language (or even an accurate presentation of pidgin) but merely indifference and incompetence. (Lack of copy-editing (or much of any editing) and the no doubt difficult process of getting anything printed at the time didn't improve matters.)
       Thometz suggests:

The marvelously misunderstood words and idioms and volatile violations of vocabulary restrictions, the unorthodox syntax, and the spin on pidgin result in felicities we might think of as creative mistakes. At its best this kind of writing is fresh, vigorous, and imaginative. At its worst it is merely incomprehensible, such as life's mysteries.
       We would suggest that incomprehensibility is pretty much the worst thing that one can find in any written text. It should also be noted that some of the "mistakes" in the texts go beyond any of the excusable slips Thometz lists here (and beyond other understandable ones -- misspelt and misprinted words, for example). Some of these texts include a fair amount of what amounts to pure gibberish. Similarly, some of the plots and descriptions are simply unacceptably muddled and unsound, by any measure.
       Thometz even offers a Warning at the beginning of the book, where he states:
These entertainments, never sold as art, were never meant to be criticized as art and should not be read as art. Neither should they be read as sociological artifacts.
       This seems another instance of the incomprehensible American fascination with labelling literature as art (or, as in this case, 'not art') -- as in the recent Oprah-Jonathan Franzen fracas (re. Franzen's novel, The Corrections (see our review)). We, for example, have no idea what it means to criticize something "as art". We have no idea how this might differ from criticizing something else that someone tells us isn't art. In fact, we have absolutely no idea how to read some things as art and other things not as art. (Maybe we are missing the switch -- labelled MADE IN AMERICA, no doubt -- which one has to turn on (or off) to accomplish this neat trick .)
       What Thometz seems to be saying is that he doesn't think one should be allowed to criticize these writings at all -- or, at best, only criticize them as "entertainments". (In fact, not all of these pamphlets and excerpts are presented as mere entertainments: some offer advice or are meant mainly to be instructive.) Certainly, one must take into account the circumstances in which these pamphlets were published, the audience they were written for, etc. But that shouldn't stop one from saying that there is, indeed, some gibberish here too, that the literary quality (by any definition) is very uneven (with some dazzling troughs), and that even for the most understanding reader parts of this book are tough to slog through.
       Still -- and with many caveats -- Life Turns Man Up and Down is a worthwhile and often fascinating volume. Part of the charm and appeal of much of the writing that is included here is that it is so brazenly bizarre, and so unlike most writing that one might encounter. Most of the pieces reproduced here almost hum with vibrancy, and there is an odd but appealing mix of enthusiasm and innocence -- particularly a sort of literary innocence -- to them. (Note, however, that these texts are not childishly simple -- and that both the subject matter and the approaches taken by the authors in presenting their material are often decidedly mature.)
       Mention must also be made of the presentation of this volume: Life Turns Man Up and Down is very attractively packaged, the pamphlets presented in facsimile on greyish paper, spelling and other mistakes faithfully preserved, with covers, advertisements, and illustrations also reproduced.

       As to the pamphlets themselves: they are an uneven but certainly varied lot. Thometz explains that he tried to "make available pieces from my collection that haven't been previously made available to the common reader". Emmanuel Obiechina offers other pamphlets in his collection of Onitsha Market Literature and in his study, An African Popular Literature (see our review), and many of Ogali Ogali's works have been collected (in Veronica My Daughter (see our review); Thometz's offerings nicely augment these collections.
       Unfortunately, Thometz only presents a few of the pamphlets in their entirety. While this presumably allows for a larger variety of works to be offered it still seems a shame that only samples of some are presented.
       Among the complete texts one of the strongest is certainly Speedy Eric's Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. A fun little work of mild erotica, it tells the story of the insatiable young Mabel. The writing isn't half bad, and Speedy Eric manages to present his story reasonably well. Mabel's story is certainly gripping -- and how can one resist a woman whose "skin would make your blood flow in the wrong direction" ?
       Miller O. Albert's rough and tumble Rosemary and the Taxi Driver (also presented in full) isn't quite as tightly focussed. Albert has a flair for language -- his English is considerably madder than most -- but the story gets away from him at times. The pieces are fine (and often fun) -- "All the sizzling stares of her beauty were rumpled into a startled look" -- but the whole is a bit hard to swallow.
       Olusola's Beware and Be Wise offers advice -- though unfortunately only two pages from it are reprinted. A bit more is offered in Okenwa Olisah's Man Has No Rest in His Life. In his Preface Olisah promises: "This pamphlet is the best pamphlet so far written". That is something of an overstatement, but the work does offer some rewards. There are 173 useful "Sayings of the Wise", for example -- a mix of well-known proverbs, variations on these, and new coinages. Among them are such nuggets of wisdom as:
18. Ambition is the last refuge of failure.

44. A man's enemy.

104. A stranger is as the dew.

108. If your friend's bread catches fire, wait yours in time.

153. In this atomic age, Lukewarm is the balance of power between the drink and the cold war.
       Another pamphlet by Olisah, No Condition is Permanent offers many examples of his philosophical proposition. It is both edifying and comforting -- most of the time. He does get carried away occasionally, however:
Enjoy your woman friend at the moment you see her and forget her the moment she leaves you because women of nowadays have no natural love for men but for private ends.
       In this pamphlet Olisah also offers "24 charges against wives", having declared "wordy war against them".
       A play by Olisah is also presented: The Statements of Hitler Before the World War. It does offer a bit of insight into African perceptions of World War II (including some anti-British sentiment), but it is a very rough little drama. Among the scenes Olisah has one in which the Germans "advance to Japan", suffering defeat there after 30 days. (Another historic play, by Wilfred Onwuka, tells The Life Story and Death of John Kennedy.)
       Only an excerpt is presented from Thomas O. Iguh's pamphlet, though its title makes it sound like it might have a great deal of useful advice to offer: How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love from Girls. Where else can one get that desperately needed advice on avoiding corner corner love ?
       Among the odder offerings is J.A.Okeye Anyichie's Adventures of the Four Stars. The author was apparently greatly taken with the sagas of the American Wild West and sought to transplant these to Nigeria. The result is ... unusual. "I am pulsating with interest" one of the characters (named "Kid") says. Readers might not be quite as enthusiastic, but it is a fairly striking tale (though also not presented in its entirety).

       Life Turns Man Up and Down is a book to enjoy largely in small doses. It is fun to sample, but can be wearing to read cover to cover. Still, there is enough variety (and certainly enough that is quirkily amusing) to entertain. It makes for a nice sampler-volume.
       Life Turns Man Up and Down is also probably the best introduction to African market literature currently available. While Obiechina's An African Popular Literature offers much more background and useful commentary, Thometz's anthology offers much more of the actual material. (Ogali Ogali's work, collected in Veronica My Daughter, is largely of higher quality, but only presents the work of a single author.)
       (Readers may have noticed that we declined to give a grade to this volume. Seen in purely literary terms the pieces are wildly uneven and some are really pretty bad. Much of the appeal of the volume is in the quirkiness of the pieces -- but not everybody is taken by quirk.)

       Beside his introductory essay, which gives some background and explanation, Thometz also offers an Afterword. It is in part a thank-you, and a more personal account -- of how Thometz came to the pamphlets, of his friendship with bookseller William French, of his experiences with his autistic son. Some of this is relevant, some of this is touching, some of this is interesting -- but mostly it seems quite out of place. It makes nice background information for, say, a magazine article accompanying the book, but in the book itself it is distracting. Maybe readers will like this human face Thometz presents, but we prefer our editors faceless and off- (as opposed to centre-)stage.

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Life Turns Man Up and Down: Reviews: Onitsha market literature: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Editor:

       Kurt Thometz is a librarian.

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© 2001-2022 the complete review

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