A novelist's vision of Two Africas through
the eyes of a missionary
"YOU must forgive me," wrote
Ruskin, " for not always distinctively calling the creeds of the past `superstition' and the creeds of the present day ' religion '; as well as for assuming that a faith now confessed may sometimes be superficial, and that a faith long forgotten may once have been sincere."
Herein is to be found the main theme of Mr. Denys Craig's book. For rightly understood. Man in Ebony* is nothing less than the study of a West African negro priest who loses faith-both his faith in Catho lic Christianity and his faith in his own native Juju religion.
The case is presented without bias: it is as if the author invited the reader to the courtroom to hear the factual evidence of one witness. since Fr. N'Gante's tragic story is told with such realism that it is difficult to accept Mr. Craig's account of him as pure fiction. Instead. one is reminded of those cases so often brought to court in Africa where it is evident that the most bitter conflict exists between priest and .people, and sometimes even between priest and priest. It is as if his notebook were that of an African '' court journalist " and his novel a compounding of several cases into one.
THE novel is preceded with a short introduction by Mr. Joyce Cary. In it he points the reader's attention to the skill with which Mr. Craig has protrayed " the religious intuition of an African mind."
The critic who is also a Catholic might point the reader's attention to a certain criticism of the Christian ethic which is inherent in the book. For one feels that Er. N'Gante's loss of faith is conditioned to some extent by his attempt to import " Mediterranean devotions" for a people whose very nature is alien to the " Latin and white West." In short to see Fr. N'Ganta's failure in perspective is to be brought face to face with the whole problem of missionary technique: and at a time when there is a danger of the two terms Western Union and Christianity becoming synonymous, it is a salutary challenge.
After fifteen years Fr. N'Gante returns to his native village : those fifteen years he has spent at the Sorbonne and in Rome preparing for the time when he may return to his own people and preach to them the word of Christ. As he makes the slowjourney through the forest, it is in the light of his new religion : his symbolism is Catholic. " All night those forest belfries had been ringing out their splendid tones of Gloria in Ercelsis Deo, and N'Ganta rebuked himself for not having used his imagination to listen to their colourful harmonies,"
Then he arrives at the King's Village : he is met by his twin sister and she takes him to her husband's hut. Together they have a meal; belt Fr. N'Gante is revolted by the special feast prepared for him--a hot and greasy stew and cakes soaked In caterpillar sauce.
The conflict has begun : he has lost the tastes of his early youth; he nas outstripped his habits of the past, Intellectually. he is still an European, but within him the negro spirit cries
Jut for fulfilment. The physical conflict develops into a moral one.
The moral conflict
THE second part of Man in Ebony presents this conflict tn detail.
The drums in the market place thud out their message, summoning the village. A tribal dance is to he held to invoke rain.
Bend towards us. Rain Cloud! Son of Thunder,
Little Sister Wind,
Re soon, soon in your blessing!
Fr. N'Gante attends the dance. but he watches it as a spectator : his allegiance to Catholic symbolism is still uppermost. " He heard far-off thunder rumbling over Old Mountain of God, like an organ pedal echoing among the stone arches of a great cathedral, heralding the climax of Assumpta est Maria." Again as he sees Yomi dance, as nimble as an acrobat, her dancing only serves to remind him of how in medieval days a Tumbler would dance in processions before the statue of Our Lady. Yet there the comparison stops for him : for all his years of learning. he is unable to divorce Yomi's dancing from something dark and barbarous; he is unable to sec that from her point of view it may be as much an act of homage to the deity as were the acrobatics of the medieval Tumbler. For the time being he remains intellectually sure of Catholicism, although emotionally he is beginning to waver; and this intellectual surety is tinged with an element of intellectual pride. When the rain comes and " like a black Ionglear of St. Francis " he dances with Yami, Fr, N'Ciantd feels that his while missionary robe keeps him immune from the Juju gods : but at the best his white missionary robe is no more than a symbol of defence and inwardly doubts are already gnawing at his soul.
EVENTUALLY Fr. N'Gante
can no longer hold out against the hypnotic powers of the Sorceress crouched on the floor like a quadruped, he begins to nibble the sprig of green leaves which is offered to him.
Before the watchers, the Sorceress kills the goat which is possessed of the precious soul of a priest." The next morning he recalls a sermon he had preached at a small suburban church outside Paris : the text he chose then was from St. Luke, " When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man. he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none he saith, ' I will return unto my house whence I tame out.' And when he corneth. he findeth it
swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there : and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
Remembered now, the sermon appears particularly incongruous : yet just at this moment when neither Rome nor the Sorbonne could seem farther away, in an ironic manner his European learning stands him in good stead. The King remains uncured. So it is Fr. N'Gante is called upon
to try his '' white medicine." He does so and the King is cured; but his success is short-lived.
Asked by the King to read a chapter or two of " the magic book "
which contains the essence of
" Catholic wonder-work in g," Fr. N'Gantd translates a section from the Book of Kings. The section chosen concerns King Solomon and the King and his wives take it as a direct affront : they are envious that a richer king should have existed and they demand the banishment of Fr. N'Gante : his mission is at an end.
NOW, it will he seen that Mr. Craig's novel is a simple and direct tale, and already Miss Pamela Hansford Johnson has described Man in Ebony as a book which illuminates a question beyond elucidation.
tAs e humanist Miss Hansford Johnson is probably right : further
there can be no doubt that Mr. Craig was wise in the extreme to refrain from pointing a moral. just as Graham Greene refrains from passing judgement on the whisky priest in the power and the Glory.
A novelist's aim must always be first and foremost to give the reader a newer and deeper awareness of the possibilities of life; and this in considerable measure Mr. Craig does.
He shows that although African religion may be isolated by large forests. it is by no means a series of local cults being executed by different tribes at different forestclearings : it is not at all the mere " superstition " which so many of Ruskin's contemporaries and their successors have thought it.
On the contrary. one is tempted to attribute Fr. N'Gante's loss of faith to a failure of vision : one feels that although he returns to his village in excellent heart, it is with something of an academic heart.
It is as if he were trying to impose an ethic from above. to trans
plant wholesale the Latin culture of the Sorbonne and Rome : one feels that his mission is doomed to failure in precise ratio to the extent that both the ethic and culture which he wishes to foster amongst his people is presented as something alien. as importations " from the white man's Far Away."
This must always be fatal because Catholic Christianity is far too Catholic to be interpreted like a legal code. As Mr. Cary comments : Roman Catholic belief is quite a different thing in Southern Italy from what it is in Northern France. The ritual and creed is the same, but they have a different meaning." Were this otherwise the effect would be stultifying, for it is one of theglories of Christendom that its ethic has evolved largely out of the legacies of earlier civilisations; of Greece, Rome and Israel.
* Man in Ebony. by Denys Craig. Introduction by Joyce Cary. (Gotlance, 8s. 6c1.). t Doily Telegraph, March 17, 1950.