Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature [1st edn. 1995] (Oxford UP 2005), pp.147-48.

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As late as the mid-1930s, Joyce Cary represented the British as a constant, unbudgeable presence in another part of the Empire, Northern Nigeria. Cary’s colonialist novels - Aissa Saved (1932), An American Visitor (1933), The African Witch (1936), and Mister Johnson (1939) - reproduce many of the predictable significations of Africa: the continent is a metaphysical space, a Conradian moral hollowness, a depraved “jungly” zone, ultimately debilitating for Europeans. Empire is the place where white purpose is honed, where character can be made. It is also the place where British power and influence are accepted as givens.

No doubt Cary’s novels suffered a cultural time-lag. They were based on observations taken as a colonial officer in the 1910s. It may also be that during the decade when the ruling-class consensus about colonization was gradually disintegrating, his reaction was defensive: an attempt to preserve the coherence of a familiar world. It is further true that his writing is often ironic. White characters’ racist remarks often reflect their own ignorance or lack of perception. Mister Johnson, for example, was intended as a satire of colonial Nigeria. Rudbeck, the Assistant District Officer, proves himself by using the error of his servant Johnson to his own advantage. And The African Witch, Cary emphasized, was not written as “a picture of contemporary conditions in West Africa”. Most importantly, on a linguistic level, he has set an example for later African writers. In a novel like Mister Johnson, he transposes the layering of languages in Nigeria (pidgin, Hausa, English, &c.) into what is a creatively heteroglot text. [1] But even taking into account his own self-confessed peripheral stance as a writer - like Lawrence’s Kate he was Irish and not an English colonial officer - the effect Cary creates is to preserve the way things are, an effect which [147] his ironies ultimately only help to reinforce. In the midst of a volatile political situation, his African novels, as retrospective accounts, uphold and also clarify the workings of a long-established colonialism.

The native characters in The African Witch are ranged on a standard-issue scale of progress according to their political, religious, or cultural affiliations - “ju-ju” or Christian, “primitive” or enlightened nationalist. Though he is elsewhere more careful about the complexity of social determination, in this novel Cary invokes the nineteenth-century belief that racial heritage was character. Aladai the nationalist protagonist is finally powerless against the resurgence in his psyche of “the lower brain - the beast blood”. The novel re-enacts the old colonial conflict between savagery and civilization, where savagery justifies occupation and the occupiers, the District Officers, retain the upper hand. Against this background, resistance is explained away as primitive savagery.

The climate of intense political polarization of the 1930s, it seems, reinforced the polarities of Cary’s own vision. Mister Johnson, his most successful novel, traces the gulf of consciousness dividing Africans from Europeans. The eponymous hero, like Aladai, is a “demi-évolué”, “sharp as a sharp child”, lacking in reason. He is also an exile from Southern Nigeria and thus appears doubly ridiculous, from the point of view of both the whites and the local Hausas. The action concerns his always already doomed attempts to Europeanize himself in the image of the ADO Rudbeck. Johnson’s utter devotion to the white man, which is expressed as dedication to his road-building project, proceeds through embezzlement, and ends in murder.

The irony of the tale is that Rudbeck himself has condoned Johnson’s actions for the sake of the road. The novel exposes the pathos of Johnson’s end, but at the same time it refuses to allow the trespassing that his imitation of the white man represents. Not only his fate but the road he helps build illustrate the social and political confusions that ensue when boundaries between native and European break down. One of Johnson’s last parties presents a rich multicultural display of Hausa mime and Yoruba girls “dancing an American fox-trot”. However, these crossings, when not ridiculous, are represented as dangerous. The road, which connects communities, also increases the crime rate. Civilization, far from improving a man like Johnson, in fact corrupts African society at large.

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