A Review of the Novel,
Fragments by Ayi Kwei Armah
Obi. O. Akwani
Literature, at its best, goes beyond ordinary story-telling. It may grapple with small or big issues, but always good literature should give insight and provide enlightenment. Beyond its entertainment value, literature can also be a liberator of the mind and thus create pathways for progress.
The liberation of Africa, from poverty and blight and political bondage, has formed part of the theme of the continent’s literature since the beginning of modern literature in sub-Saharan Africa. And there has been no shortage of subject matter. What may be in short supply are outputs that explore these liberational themes in useful ways. The first challenge for literature in African, from this critical point of view, is coming to terms with the continent’s heritage in slavery and colonialism. Only a few writers have dealt adequately with that subject matter. Among them are Chinua Achebe of Nigeria and Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya.
Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah emerged as a member of this group in the late 1960s with his first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). In Armah’s second novel, Fragments (first published 1971), he continues with the same liberational theme with a story woven around a family and society caught in a trap of declining values and loss of meaning.
Fragments is an inward looking novel in the sense that it is critical of family and societal values. The chief protagonist is constantly self-examining, searching for meaning in himself and in the world around him. Such questionings can be down right depressing rather than uplifting. Thus the novel comes across as too sensitive and highly pessimistic. The book seems like a grand celebration of pessimism – a certain desire to see every situation from the downside; to see life as without remedy. It is a defeatism that does not want to acknowledge anything meaningful in the small daily steps people take in attempts to transcend the odds. The normal risks of daily life become reasons for unusual sadness and moaning. For instance, in the second chapter ofFragments, a boy running after a ball across the highway and nearly getting run-over becomes a highly tragic event through which a social life fraught with danger is bemoaned. One of the author’s aims with such devices is to point out the fleeting nature of life and the easy pointlessness of the striving within it. There are many instances where the author finds a chance to make this point. In chapter 4, a young man walks into a bar, begins to drink heavily and soon crashes into broken glass. He is mourning the premature death of his mother for whom he had been working and saving to buy nice things.
While Armah comes down very hard on his fellow Ghanaians in Fragments (the ordinary folk or “fluid” black masses are referred to often as ghosts or zombies wallowing in the defeat of their situation; the elite are portrayed as imitative “perennial colonial school boys, self-gratulating” in their emptiness), the white ex-colonists are not spared. The British Council representatives at a literary event are referred to as the “Cultural Empire Loyalists.”
The root cause of the problem – the reason for all the mourning and pessimism – is located with white imperialists who are portrayed as hard white shafts, strong, irresistible agents of violence that thrust repeatedly into a black mass “vague fluid forms… circular, yielding, soft.”
The story in Fragments revolves around Baako Onipa, the chief protagonist in the novel and a new graduate just returned from five years of study in the United State of America, which qualifies him to be referred to as a “been-to.” He is an increasingly alienated man who finds himself getting lonely even after returning to the fold of his family. He prematurely flees Paris, panicked by a rising resentment which was making him sick. On the plane home, he meets Brempong, another Ghanaian “been-to” who embodies many of the qualities – empty posturing of importance and wanton materialism – which Baako deplores in the Ghanaian elite.
To assuage is loneliness Baako finds friendship and understanding in Juana, a young black woman, transplanted psychiatrist from Puerto Rico, who is running from her own demons. Coincidentally, hers are not so different from Baako’s own demons. Baako’s only other friend is Ocran, his old art teacher. These are people that understand him. He has another likely soul mate in Naana, his grandmother. She represents the old ways of integrity and authenticity, as opposed to the new modern ways represented by Efua, Baako’s mother and Araba, his sister as well as his uncle, Foli and others who embrace the new order uncritically. Unfortunately, Baako, perhaps due to the great age-gap between them and differences in approach, can not truly connect to his grandmother. Both have acute perceptive abilities, but while the grandmother chooses silence, Baako is determined to voice and express his unusual views.
Baako comes from a maternally oriented family. Nothing is said of his father. The sire is not just silent; he simply does not exist in the novel. Even Araba’s husband plays second fiddle to his wife. Uncles (maternal uncles, we presume) are important. They play important roles, like Foli, Baako’s uncle, who though corrupt, was allowed to play in the ceremony before Baako’s departure for America. But fathers and husbands are something else entirely as Naana tells Baako:
“A father is only a husband, and husbands come and go; they are passing winds bearing seed. They change, they disappear entirely, and they are replaced. An uncle remains.” (P. 98)
Baako’s nonconformity and rebellion against the existing order eventually bring him to a feverish climactic moment of reckoning which sees him first declared mad by his family who tie him up and take him to the mental hospital where the professionals confirm the diagnosis and put him on medication. His friend Juana visits him in the hospital and tells him what the doctor had told her: He would be released after he responds to treatment. She interprets that to mean that the doctor wants him to be quiet and take his medicine.
“Don’t argue with anyone, you can’t win,” Juana tells Baako.
That’s something I should have known too. Outside,” Baako responds. (P. 190)
Juana goes homes and prepares to receive Baako after his release.