Peter Abrahams Essay - Abrahams, Peter

Abrahams, Peter

Abrahams, Peter 1919–

Abrahams, a "Cape Coloured" South African, has lived in Jamaica since 1957. He is an English-speaking novelist, short story writer, poet, and staff writer for Holiday Magazine.

[The] position of Abrahams in the [modern African literary] movement is not clear: perhaps it is best described as 'transitional.'… [A] summary of typical subject-matter in modern African novels, 'the rise of nationalism, the process of de-colonization, developments in new governments, the tensions before and after independence between the tribal and the national, between the traditional and the modern, throughout the whole of Africa,' is adequate as a summary of A Wreath for Udomo but has little bearing [on] works such as Wild Conquest or Mine Boy….

Part of the problem of interpretation lies in uncertainty about the use of literary tradition…. His literary tradition is closely related to the society which he describes. His novels arise from the novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from prose works by Hardy, Lawrence and Steinbeck, and from writers upon South African subjects…. But we can find a strength in his work which comes from a profoundly felt personal experience at work upon a well understood tradition.

In his first five novels Abrahams gives his rendering of the people and history of South Africa. An artist hero in one of his early sketches gives a partial insight into his method of writing: 'And with my pen and my burning heart I built canvas after canvas. The words became pictures. The pictures became stories. The stories became people'. Dark Testament [gave] pictures of South African life in a manner caught in part at least from the sketches of William Saroyan…. [This] was a new departure in writing about South Africa….

Abrahams has a freedom of movement among the social and racial groups which is without parallel in any other novelist from South Africa. Though strained, his picture is authentic, and gives a view of a tragic society, though the artists' [sic] eye is cool rather than mocking or clinical…. But Abrahams is not coldly dispassionate….

Abrahams attempted increasingly ambitious themes in his next four novels. Wild Conquest (1951) is a South African's view of the Great Trek without the conventional northwards slant. Abrahams looks southwards as well and shows the process of expansion and invasion from both sides. A Night of Their Own (1965) is a fragment, again showing both sides, from the modern politics of subversion and mass imprisonment in South Africa. A Wreath for Udomo (1956) shows the rise to power and betrayal of his aides and a South African confederate by a modern African political leader. This Island Now (1966) sketches the rise to power and the enfeebled tyranny of a black nationalist party in a Caribbean island. Despite their flaws these are works which provided a new impetus in writing about African subjects. They have a new objectivity in historical or political writing about modern relationships between the racial groups….

This impartiality of Abrahams's writing is frequently noted by reviewers…. Nevertheless [they] are not impartial studies…. [His] portrayals reveal his bias…. Abrahams urges that understanding comes first but does not conceal the current of his feelings, as in Return to Goli where the 'lump in my throat and the burning anger in my heart and mind' are never far from the surface….

In his three political novels,… A Wreath for Udomo (1956), A Night of Their Own (1965) and This Island Now (1966), the mannered aestheticism of the early work is replaced by a greater stringency and economy of expression. The characteristic inclusiveness of Abrahams, his portrayal of men from both sides of a variety of colour lines, persists. In many ways these works catch the mood of the times. A Wreath for Udomo suggests, like Golding's Lord of the Flies, that there is a depravity in the mind of men which requires a ritual sacrifice: but Abrahams directs this into the formula of melodrama and causes death to be a punishment for a political misjudgement and not a mere fact as in the witch-hunt scene of Wild Conquest. A Night of Their Own is a thriller with a purpose in the Graham Greene manner….

In Return to Goli, Abrahams notes that the problems of South Africa are his for life: he is 'a child of Goli—forever rooted in its problems'. His critical attitude to Coloured men who show 'the same mentality as most of the whites' … [re-appears] in the later novels….

The early novels offer no cures and the later ones portray dying hopes rather than solutions. Abrahams's purpose appears to be moral and artistic rather than public….

[Criticism] of Abrahams's language can be sustained. Abrahams can be factual and exact, especially in scenes based on childhood memory and recent close observation; but [there is] a … weakness…. The cause of failure [sometimes] … lies … in Abrahams's lapse from ordinary speech rather than in the failure of professed beliefs. In his description of the lovers on the beach in This Island Now, 'the tall handsome black boy and the statuesquely beautiful black girl', he … fails in precision: words such as 'handsome' and 'statuesquely beautiful' say little about the appearance of the objects being described….

Perhaps the strongest restriction in Abrahams's work is to be found in the language itself. As a member of an African people whose distinguishing mark is that 'they speak no African language' …, Abrahams had a choice between two Germanic languages: Afrikaans or English…. In [choosing English] he left behind what was for him the language of warmth, feeling and humour….

But the choice of English as a literary language, with all the pitfalls both in the language and in the act of choice, was inevitable for Abrahams. English is the language of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois and others who brought Abrahams to a new vision. On reading their works he saw his country afresh, with 'the objective eyes of a stranger', he records in Tell Freedom. His novels explore what DuBois calls 'the problem of the twentieth century … the problem of the colour line' with great fullness and detail. In this area his writing is most assured, and the language rid of vagueness…. Abrahams observes colour conflicts and the various shades of men with humour and detachment. Although a reviewer suggested that humour was lacking in Dark Testament, Abrahams's later work, and especially Jamaica, has flashes of humour: racial, or perhaps 'African' humour, crossing the numerous colour lines available only in modern societies with an African experience at their roots.

Christopher Heywood, "The Novels of Peter Abrahams," in Perspectives on African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood (copyright © 1971 by University of Ife; published in the United States in 1971 by Africana Publishing Company, a Division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc. and reprinted by permission), Africana, 1971, pp. 157-72.

A novel written by a black South African is often remarkably different from a West African or an East African one. The ties that South Africa has had with Europe go back considerably further than do those of most areas of tropical Africa, and in this century at least it has been possible for the black or Coloured South African to grow up in an urban milieu where English is his first language…. South African writing tends to be almost totally devoid of anthropological background, and the influence from oral literary materials is usually quite negligible.

The fact that South Africa is multi-racial, as well as that it has been a white-dominated society for so many years, has also had a major influence on its writers….

As a result of these and other conditions, characterization in South African fiction is more closely aligned with characterization in Western fiction than with that in writing from tropical Africa, and the novel itself is in many ways an extension of the traditional English novel because there are few African innovations….

The most prolific novelist from South Africa is Peter Abrahams; and his early novel, Mine Boy, which was published in 1940 … is representative of the South African novel as a whole. The story itself is relatively uncomplicated—an account of a young man's exposure to life in Johannesburg and his work as leader of one of the work crews in a gold mine. The concentration, however, is on life in Johannesburg itself; thus Mine Boy is a novel with urbanization as its theme….

There is little plot in Mine Boy. Rather, Abrahams' story is one of character and atmosphere, for, like Cyprian Ekwensi's Lagos, Abrahams' picture of Johannesburg's Malay Camp is in many ways the prime concern of his novel. Blacks, Coloureds, and whites are all in the novel, but it is only the sections of the story that are set in the Malay Camp among the African characters that are truly alive. The brief sojourns that Xuma makes in the segregated white areas of the city are flat and considerably less realistically drawn; Abrahams' white characters are often given to mouthing ideas of racial equality—rather than living these ideas as the African characters do….

Mine Boy differs … greatly from other African fiction where the family still plays a significant part. In Mine Boy the family has been completely destroyed, there is no sense of the communal consciousness. People band together out of a common need. There is no sense of the basic filial unit which plays such an important function in tropical African fiction. Nor are there any children to give the novel warmth and humor and the happiness we have seen in other African novels. Abrahams has created an adult world instead—in a city which eventually destroys its inhabitants. The strong characters, other than Xuma, are all women, and in spite of the optimistic and overly didactic ending, one cannot foresee much of a future for Xuma. He is still young; the city will eventually count him in its toll.

Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 160-66.

Peter Abrahams is a novelist of ideas. He writes about the machinery of politics and power, but he uses his considerable grasp of this area of activity to serve his central interest, which is the problem of individual freedom in contemporary human affairs…. [Most of] his novels … are set … in South Africa…. It is possible, and I would say likely, that without the influence of the American Negro writers of the 'twenties and 'thirties as mediated through Abrahams' work, as well as the influence of that work itself, the initial development of literature in English in Nigeria and Kenya would have taken rather a different course.

It should be stated at the outset that Abrahams' ability as a writer of fiction is in the middle range, and the grandiose claims made for his work from time to time by propagandists of African literary culture have been misguided. He is a skilful, if flawed, writer, and there is evidence that he finds the writing of fiction arduous. What is most apparent about his fiction is the complete sincerity and honesty of the author. He has not chosen an easy path; he feels every word he writes and seems incapable of writing conscious pot-boilers. The subjects he returns to again and again in his fiction are the problems which have most exercised—and come near to paralysing in the process—the liberal mind in the West since the end of the second world war. They are the problems of how to reconcile the liberal conscience to the unpleasant consequences of necessary action; how to resist inroads made into the integrity of the individual, especially where these inroads are the results of justified attempts to set others free, to put them on the road to the liberal goal of individual fulfilment. Abrahams invokes and even to some extent typifies the liberal dilemma of the twentieth century. (pp. 4-5)

Abrahams' first novel, Song of the City, was published in 1944. It is an immature work, clumsy in dialogue and almost completely lacking conviction in characterization; the language is cliché-infected and the structure disorganized. But it also initiates certain themes which develop in complexity throughout Abrahams' later work, and it is informed by a quality of youthful ardency and sincerity which augurs well for the integrity of Abrahams' later achievement. Novelists of ideas need to be sincere, even when conviction has long given way to a helpless awareness of complexity and confusion. Song of the City confronts issues head-on with the certainty of innocence, but at the same time one of Abrahams' most clear-cut convictions is that the world is not made up of black and white. This is also a good augury; this conviction, with increased maturity, becomes a genuine awareness. (p. 14)

Abrahams' decision to take up the theme of urbanization was both courageous and obvious. Though it had been extensively used by white South African authors, the only honest and sympathetic treatment of any literary merit had been William Plomer's Ula Masondo, published in 1927. But Abrahams' purpose exceeded that of Plomer: writing from a different kind of commitment to the South African scence, fresh from recent and intense political activity within the non-racial left-wing movement, he was determined to explicate the human realities of the phenomenon in political terms. And, in this, he was right, since to ignore this level would constitute a falsification, and to treat it with Plomer's subtlety would have been beyond the range of Abrahams' powers and would also have necessitated writing from a point of view—that of the articulate and urbane white liberal—that lay outside his experience. Point of view is everything in Abrahams' novels, and it is a level on which his natural and somewhat transparent honesty seldom, if ever, fails him. (p. 15)

Mine Boy must be considered Peter Abrahams' first substantial novel. (p. 26)

After the woodenness of characterization, the improbability of diction, the failure to create a convincing matrix of work experience (a serious drawback in a novel of this kind) and unevenness of plot have all been duly noted and condemned, Mine Boy remains an important novel, even in some ways a powerful one. Its power is derived from the imaginativeness of the undertaking and the originality and scope of the underlying idea, which turns the literary stereotype of the inevitable corruption of the innocent black man by the white city on its head. (p. 48)

The Path of Thunder was Abrahams' third novel…. It relies heavily on early materials and memories of the author's South African experiences, and at the same time betrays a distance growing increasingly difficult to bridge between the remembered perception of the real situation and the fictive interpretation of it. There is thus little that is fresh or vital about the book: it is impassioned and highly subjective, a fierce cry for elementary justice in a crude fictive framework. It constitutes the uneasy climax to Abrahams' first phase of development. Between it and Wild Conquest there is a world of difference, of careful thought and studied detachment.

In a way these remarks tend to undermine the novel's main virtues which are precisely those of passion, of energy, of commitment, of a direct belief in humanity and civilized values. (p. 52)

Wild Conquest marks an important development in Abrahams' work. It … represents an attempt to summarize, as it were, objectively, his South African experience. He achieves the distance necessary for impersonality by making it a historical novel, hinging on the central event in modern South African history, the great northward expansion of white power known as the Great Trek. (p. 74)

Abrahams wrote before the great stock-taking began which led to the current interpretation of South African history…. He is a victim of the authorized version, and his contribution consists in his attempt to break away from this, to be impartial, to see the African side of this stirring epic. In this it should be said without delay,… he fails: but it is an interesting, even peculiar failure which had the effect of transforming his stature as an author.

As we have seen, up to this time Abrahams' fiction has been influenced more by his relationship to political attitudes and even ideologies than by interest in human beings. Problems of personality and character have been treated with facile optimism, and his books have not abounded in living characters. He has been too involved in the need to communicate his own youthful experiences in South Africa, and in The Path of Thunder it is clear that this vein had reached exhaustion without any new inspiration presenting itself.

The artistic necessity of breaking free from this source of material must have been clear to Abrahams, and Wild Canquest is an attempt to dig beneath the exhausted vein, to examine its origins, and to interpret them. Needless to say, absolute historic accuracy has been sacrificed without qualms. (p. 75)

[He] has a further end in view which, however trite it may sound, may also be seen as his governing obsession in writing about South Africa. This is to demonstrate that underneath their skins, whatever their differences of race or colour, human beings are fundamentally alike in their make-up. This characteristic—and very basic—humanist idea caused Abrahams, more than anything else, to deviate from his early specifically Marxist convictions and general ideological orientation, and to settle for a much more vulnerable liberal outlook—which finds its first clear manifestation in Wild Conquest, and dominates the second and third phases of his literary output. It is therefore natural that in Wild Conquest he should emphasize by contrast superficial differences, in order to stress basic similarities. Unfortunately, his imaginative range was too narrow to sustain two convincing illusions side by side, which had to bear very little superficial resemblance to each other while interpenetrating completely at a deeper level of significance. (p. 78)

The novel also marks the beginning of Abrahams' alienation from those forms of African nationalism or Pan-Africanism orientated towards the traditional past in Africa. His rejection of tribal life is not as fully explicit as it becomes in A Wreath for Udomo: the conscious commitment to Western liberal humanism is also rather exclusive—a not unknown phenomenon among other Western authors who lose faith in their youthful Marxism. In Abrahams the rejection of the tribal group leads to (or is accompanied by) a total involvement with the typical liberal humanist preoccupations with the fate of the individual and his need for and prospects of personal fulfilment, in relation to himself rather than society. This has its clear beginnings in Udomo, but its foundation is in the rejection of the group, of man in the mass, implicit in Wild Conquest: and it develops in Abrahams' later work into the peculiarly aristocratic position (which includes a strong feeling of mixed fear and contempt for ordinary people) of his last two novels, A Night of Their Own and This Island Now. (p. 97)

[The] novelistic element in Tell Freedom is quite organic to the work. It is in no sense 'pure' autobiography, but a highly dramatized, one is even tempted to say experimental, version. (p. 109)

Indeed, certain qualities which inform the writing in Tell Freedom—qualities such as humour and liveliness—are precisely those most lacking in his works of fiction. (p. 117)

One may as well remark in passing that nowhere in his novels does Abrahams manage dialogue as skilfully or as naturally as in Tell Freedom. (p. 117)

A Wreath for Udomo (1956) marks the culmination of the second phase of Abrahams' creative development, and shows substantial progress towards artistic maturity. In a sense it is the result of crucial events in the author's life: a return for a visit to his family in South Africa, the self-examination produced by this, as well as the uneasy process of writing a work of autobiography. Return to Goli and Tell Freedom are Abrahams' best books: in them he achieves the fresh and honest realism he consistently falls short of in his novels. Writing them he was in a rich creative vein, something of which carries over to make Udomo his best achievement to date in the novel.

The second stage of Abrahams' development began with Wild Conquest, which was sharply distinguished from the preceding novels simply because it dealt with a major historical event, lengthily and in a fairly complex manner. Despite its other distinguishing features, which have already been discussed, it must be judged a failure, subject to many of the faults found in the early works. Udomo is similar in scope and deals with many of the same themes, but is much more advanced in technique, character presentation and the handling of moral issues.

A Wreath for Udomo is the story of a group of Africans involved in the struggle to free their continent from colonial rule. The book was highly topical when it was written, but few of its original readers who approached it sympathetically would have suspected it to be as full of prophetic insight as time has shown it to have been. (p. 132)

The characteristic themes of the second phase of Abrahams' writing are present in highly developed forms. They arise out of his political transition from naive historical materialist to committed Western Liberal, aware of individual shortcomings but retaining a superficial optimism in ultimate terms about the human condition in general…. The clearest manifestation of Abrahams' liberalism is a deeply felt commitment to the idea of the human being as an individual.

The most obvious and perhaps startling result, in thematic terms, of Abrahams' conversion to liberalism, is the passionate identification with certain mythical beliefs of Western industrialized society, which are grouped around polarities such as 'past-future!', 'primitive-civilized', 'corrupt-efficient', 'tribal-modern'. Indeed, the conflict between traditional and modern is one of the main themes of the book. The personal and political levels of action are inter-related by the operation of this theme in the lives of the major characters. Thus adherence to traditional social attitudes in politics is seen as a negation of individuality in personal life. (pp. 133-34)

Stylistically the book is occasionally subject to clichés and picture-postcard descriptive writing, as most of his work, but the really awkward moments are few, which places it in the same prose period as Wild Conquest: a glossy woman's magazine patina has been achieved, though the subject matter is rather more serious. Of course, this has unfortunate consequences for the total effect and is always one of the crucial factors which prevents Abrahams from being as important a writer as his potential might have allowed. (pp. 150-51)

Udomo, published in 1956 when the only independent states in sub-Saharan Africa were Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa, not only sketches a chillingly accurate paradigm of events to come: it also assigns causes for these events, suggests their origins with some subtlety, and is understanding of human weaknesses that had not yet come into play in a situation that was not even half created. This kind of insight amounts to prophecy. Politically Udomo is the best thing Abrahams has ever done, and as a novel the same judgment may be made with some confidence. (p. 152)

A Night of Their Own constitutes something of a special case in Abrahams' development, the direction of which follows the classical post-World War II Western pattern. This is a movement from decisive involvement with mass political deprivation and action to equally decisive withdrawal from and rejection of almost all kinds of action, and emphasis on a mystique of individuality which is a sort of decadent romantic (and essentially élitist) loneliness…. Abrahams participates fully in the historic confusion of bourgeois Western artists of our day. (p. 173)

This Island Now may be regarded as a culminative step in the latest stage of Abrahams' development. In it the author seems preoccupied with the need to define as clearly as possible the outlines of the social and political philosophy which he has been in the process of adopting since the early 'fifties. The book is, perhaps, better constructed and less hastily written than its immediate predecessor, and is not so closely tied to a specific real situation, which partly explains why its conclusions contradict those of A Night of Their Own, published only a year earlier. There is not much doubt that This Island Now constitutes the more genuine expression of Abrahams' world view. (p. 174)

Of all the writers in English in the field defined as 'African literature' none is as 'European' as Peter Abrahams, in regard to intellectual as well as artistic development. (p. 197)

Michael Wade, in his Peter Abrahams, Evans Brothers, 1972.