Thursday, December 26, 2013

Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

This is a curious book.

The plot, what there is of it, concerns a group of European agents operating throughout post-colonial Africa. They share romantic ties, work for and against various African powers, fight and sometimes die.  But that's not what makes Alphabetical Africa a curious book.

Walter Abish has structured his novel around the alphabet.  It's a novel about Africa, but it's also a novel about language, the English language in particular.  He starts chapter one using only words that begin with the letter A.  Chapter two adds words starting with B.  Chapter three C. And so on.   By chapter five he is using words starting with A,B,C,D, and E.

Once the novel gets to Z, Abish begins removing letters until he has returned to a final chapter using only words that start with A again.

(Did you see what I did there?  A again?)

There are points in Alphabetical Africa where this language game works brilliantly well.  Take this paragraph from the first G chapter.  Letters A through G are used to offer up a wonderful satire of Germany's exploitation of Africa's resources  to develop it's own high culture.

Gustof's gastronomical gladness cannot conceal Gustaf's bloated belly, Germany's generals gloomily admit as gifted Gustaf entertains Alva at Gabon's best diner.  Good Gabon food.  But everyone at diner genuinely alarmed by German's great girth, by German's great appetite.  Gobbling gestopfte Gans, gobbling Gabelfruhstuck, gobbling goulash, gobbling Geschwind, Gesundheit, Gesundheit, gobbling Gurken, Guggelhupt, Gash Gash, Gish Gish, groaning, grunting, also complaining, chewing Grune Bohnen, Geschmacksach, as Germany grows greater.  Alarmed, Gabon grows additional food for Gustaf, and Gustaf's children, Gerda, Grete and Gerhart. Gifted Grosseres Germany consumes energy and guarantees greatness, get going, grow another Goethe, great guy, claims Gustaf, as all Grundit gramophones in Gabon, gently croon: Goethe, Goethe, Goethe.

I love how this paragraph about the uncontrolled  consumption of Africa's natural resources is so out of control itself, so full of food, and the eating of food, the hard G sounds repeating like a great creature smacking it's lips as it eats everything the diner/country can produce nonstop.  Even the name Goethe takes on a chewing sound through repetition.  Germany grows greater while Gabon grows food to feed it in the hopes that Germany will produce another mind as great at Goethe was.  Of course, the reader knows full well what Germany is capable of producing.

Alphabetical Africa is not an easy read.  Consider it advanced reading, for those of us who have made our way through the lower levels and are ready to face greater challenges.  I'll never understand why more readers don't read like that, the way gamers play video games.  Video gamers are never satisfied with simply mucking around levels one and two.  The whole point is to get to the next level, which is always more difficult.  Yet so many readers are contented to stay with material they find easy going.  Ask any gamer, the really  good stuff is always in the higher levels.

It is possible to follow the book's narrative, and Abish manages to develop a couple of pretty wonderful characters, but in the end, what I came away from the novel wondering about was not Africa but language.

The thing about the book that struck me most was how dramatically the addition of a single letter affected the language while the opposite was not at all true when letters were taken away.  Going into the book, the addition of each letter really opens up what the author can do.  Even a letter with a limited lexicon like Q dramatically affects a novel about Africa by allowing the entrance of a queen.  I was also struck by how unnatural the language sounded, how artificial it felt until 2/3's of the way through the alphabet.

However, taking letters away on the way out of the novel, didn't really affect the language much at all.  For the longest time, I didn't even notice it.  I knew we would soon have to say goodbye to the queen but I hardly noticed her absence.   How is it that adding the letter T, for example, had such a powerful affect, but taking it away didn't.   Of course, once the book reached a certain point, once enough letters had been removed to dramatically affect the language that was left, each letter was greatly missed.  I didn't notice it when T or S or M left the scene, but by the letter H I felt the effect of each new loss.

Does this apply to other things.  When we add a person, a new friend, to our lives they can certainly cause a dramatic change in our everyday world.  Should that friend move away, do our daily lives not change much or at least not change in ways that we notice until much later, once more friends have moved away.  

Alphabetical Africa has left me thinking about this question.

The final chapter, the return to only words starting with A, is a knockout.  It's a single paragraph, simply a list of things each prefaced with the word 'another' but this makes for a powerful statement.

Another abbreviation another abdomen another abduction another aberration another abhorrent ass another abnormal act another aboriginal another approach another absence..........another aviary another avoidance another avocation another avid avowal another awareness another awakening, another awesome age another axis another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet.

I'll be keeping my copy of Alphabetical Africa.  I'm sure that I'll be reading it another time.  


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a VERY curious book! It's intriguing, rather experimental. Good to see that you appreciated it. Not sure it's for me but it's at least fun to read about it.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Ella Minnow Pea, which I enjoyed, but where the removal of letters from their vocabulary was part of the plot, as it doesn't seem to be for Alphabetical Africa.