…And the Night Hissed (A Critical Review)

And the Night Hissed chronicles the expedition of a group of slave drivers in what is now known as Southwestern Nigeria. The story spans three weeks approximately, detailing slave raids from one town to the other, with the approval of a powerful royal accomplice. Enraged by loss, betrayal, ego, and disappointment, the group decides to venture into a supposedly terrifying forest, where the only survivor is the narrator, Dr. Reginald Cromwell. However, the novella is not merely a concatenation of slave raids; many of the slave drivers die mysterious deaths, and more mysterious is their epiphany about their encounter with death. What is interesting about And the Night Hissed is not only the bizarre story of slave trade and inexplicable deaths, but also the manner in which the story is told. Perhaps the immediately striking narrative device is the use of dates. Although there was no conscious use of the formal techniques of the memoir, there is a sense in which the dating of specific portions of the expedition mimics explorers’ diary or memoir about distant and strange lands.

The novella is largely structured by dates, starting from June 16, 1806 and ending about June 28, 1806. But the text does more than to organize the story around random dates. On the one hand, the dates make it difficult to label the novella as pure imaginative writing. That is, fiction. Yet, the text cannot but be fiction because the structuring element of dates is itself an illusion of historical reality. Therefore, the novella places itself uneasily between two modes of narrative and is at once both and neither. The setting of the novella in 1806 however, is significant beyond merely adapting two different modes of apprehending reality. Far from a pure memoir, the dating system immediately reminds the reader of the history of British economic expansion, which in other contexts has been known in part as modernity. In other words, the expedition in And the Night Hissed self-consciously transports the reader back to this past of economic expansion. This history is particularly important to the British in particular and Europe in general precisely because it has become the “event” through which the actors have constructed and maintained an identity. Although the novella does not explore the construction of British identity in great detail, the available references to the British culture and the cultures of other people constitute ample evidence that demonstrates the importance of this period in the history of modernity.

And the Night Hissed also shows that modernity is not an uncontroversial phenomenon. In fact, one of the main issues is the elevation of “freedom” in the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and subjugation of other people in the sites of historical acts. It is this contradiction that the novella explores in part, in the early sections of the text. That is, the industrialists are trying to make the best use of the period of slave trade and gather as many of them as possible; at the same time, anti-slavery / abolitionists are fighting the injustice of slavery in the British parliament. And the Night Hissed seems intent on lending its voice to one of the arguments about reparation. Apparently, one of the problems regarding reparation is the argument that Africans did not only aid slave trade, they were also the main actors, and the merchants only went along because Africans themselves provided the commodity and in fact, invented the European market. The novella exploded this myth by contending that European merchants were active in the establishment and perpetuation of the commerce for as long as it lasted. Not only that, the book demonstrates that some of the ardent supporters of the slave trade were top officials in the British parliament. Therefore, the year 1806, the temporal space in which the novella is set, is a period of frenzy, it is a period of anxiety in which the future of slave trading and the freedom of slaves hang on the uncertainty legislators’ conflicting interests. The history, therefore, casts on the text, certain degree of truthfulness, one that makes a reader believe that the text is more than mere fiction. It is real. Yet, the fictional element of the novella does little to mitigate its reduction to “truth.” That the story if fictional does not imply that it is created from a writer’s imagination, without any remote reference to known events. Also, the fact that the novella centralizes the history of the slave trade indicates that its fictiveness has limitations.

The indictment of slavery and lave trade is perhaps more visible through another formal device of fiction: characterization. In this novella, the narrator details each of the participants on the expedition. These personalities include Captain Enoch Abraham (a veteran of the Royal Navy), Nigel Hookes (the sadist), Lord Powell (the idealist), O’Brien (the neighborhood hooligan), Lieutenant Oswald (the borderline neurotic), and others. Many of these characters have questionable history prior to the expedition and more or less live on the margins of their own society, the effect of which is general predilection for violence. This set of characters is so much different from the missionaries or colonial administrators purportedly committed to civilizing mission; the adventurers in And the Night Hissed can be labeled the dregs of their own society. Even Lord Powell who has a more or less privileged and upper class heritage joins the expedition to seek adventure; his inclusion serves an important purpose, which is to critique the complicity of the privileged in slave trade, through which Powell shares Hookes’s sadism. The doctor, Reginald Cromwell, is arguably the most questionable of all. Since his role on the mission is to determine the fitness of potential slaves, he certainly is as culpable as the merchants and slave drivers for whom he works.

Dr. Reginald Cromwell’s function goes beyond that of the physician; he is also the narrator and being a narrator implies having an audience. Fictional adventures and stories about distant places and peoples such as Heart of Darkness, Mr. Johnson, Out of Africa and Flame Trees of Thika entertained readers at home in Britain. This was an audience for whom the bizarre nature of the stories formed the excitement of such texts, and by indulging themselves in the horrific tales of people regarded as uncivilized, they helped to perpetuate the fiction about superiority / inferiority divide between Western and non-Western peoples. Through these classic texts, the writers as well as the readers tended to assume an identity, which incidentally, was contingent upon a history that was barely a century old: that is, the history of industrial revolution became the sum-total of British identity. Surprisingly, any peoples whose history did not fit within this logic became known in such stories as barbaric, savage and uncivilized. On the surface level, And the Night Hissed seemed indebted to this literary tradition; however, if one tries to understand the readers who constitute its audience one would discover that this novella has done something different from the conventional stories.

The first thing to consider is to determine the immediate audience and this can be done by focusing on the narrator. The narrator, Dr. Reginald Cromwell, exhibits the stereotypical mannerisms of narrators in traditional novels of exploration. For example, he believes strongly in the superiority of British culture, he is very proud of the accomplishments of the Royal Forces, and at specific moments, he critiques those other characters that dehumanize “these Africans” even though he also believes he belongs in a culture that is higher on the hierarchy of humanity. He makes statements such as, “An African village is the most bizarre of settlements” (9); “A Negro child. . . . like the rest of the natives, was stark naked” (9); “A high-pitched note. . . . not a flute, neither did it sound like any musical instrument known to civilized man” (25). In most cases, these statements were commodities that the audience at home consumed, as long as they were people who were represented as odd and were either without history or belonged in a much lower level of civilization than them. But something is different in And the Night Hissed. The author is not Conrad, Cary, Huxley, or Dinesen. The author is Claude Opara, a Nigerian. Most certainly, he has not written, at least exclusively, for a British audience and it may be safe to suggest that the primary audience is a local one. That is, Nigerian readers in particular and African audience in general. For the lack of an adequate expression, this style can be called reversed ethnography. In the traditional ethnography, the observer who comes from outside the community of study becomes conscious of his or her “outside” status and on the basis of direct observation and interrogation, describes the people, the object of study. However, in And the Night Hissed, even though Dr. Reginald Cromwell can pass as the traditional observer, he, and the rest of the contingent on the slave raids are actually the objects of study. But unlike having the observer who is physically present, what we have in And the Night Hissed is the “eye” of the reader, the “I” of the reader that does the observation, and follows the progress of the narrator’s study. In this case there are two levels of observation: the first being that of the narrator who expresses his prejudice, contempt and admiration about the people being observed, while the second is the reader’s own interpretation of typical ethnographic situation. Therefore, rather than non-Western people as the target of observation the target is now the ethnographer(s) who now constitutes the object of study. The roles have now been reversed. This style is not totally new; in cinema Manthia Diawara once turned his camera on the veteran anthropologist, Jean Rouch, in a study entitled, Rouch in Reverse.

This style has a far-reaching significance. First, whether the author of And the Night Hissed intended it or not the novella makes a reference to the tradition of explorers’ narratives about Africa. But the reference goes beyond mere similarity with the established tradition of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since in this case the audience has changed, the enthnographer has changed, and the object of observation has swapped places with the observer, there now exists a doubling of observers. The first level is that of the narrator, Dr. Cromwell while the second is that of the reader. Opara’s novella is a repetition of the classic explorers’ stories; it is a sort of mimicry of this tradition in a way that the reader who is familiar with the political tensions that Conrad’s novella generated in the 1950s and 1960s will immediately appreciate the depth of the repetition, the mimicry. Second however, if a reader is clueless about Cary’s Mister Johnson, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Chinua Achebe’s responses to them in Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and Morning Yet on Creation Day, the repetition and mimicry may be lost. The reader would certainly wonder, not so much about the details about slave hunting, but about the profusion of negative stereotypes about Africans. When he or she discovers that And the Night Hissed was written by a Nigerian, the curiosity will increase tremendously and it would take lots of interrogation to overcome the shock as a result of the negative representation in a text that is replete with racial prejudice about Africans. Because of the reference to an earlier tradition of explorers’ tales, there exists a situation that is commonly described as inter-textuality, which implies the existence of one text in another. However, this reference can involve appropriating the earlier text and sometimes it may require a critical attitude towards the original text. When the language of the novel or novella becomes conscious of the critical and political debates about another genre or tradition, it helps the reader detect the ironic twist in representation through mimicry. And the Night Hissed may not have made this ironic dimension easily accessible to non-specialist reader. Notwithstanding, the irony is present, but exists in a latent form and this might create a challenge for casual readers who may have difficulty comprehending the “rationality” of racial deprecations that abound in the novella. This tendency is not necessarily a negative one; the positive side to it is that readers are more likely to become critical when faced with a conundrum such as understanding the reason behind some Britons’ contempt for Africans, especially when the writer of the novella is a “fellow” Nigerian. Third, there is the tendency to interpret And the Night Hissed as a sort of fantasy.

This notion of fantasy is central to the story in this novella; it has to do with the privileged vista through which the writer invites the reader to see. Although there are black African characters in the work, the story is told through a British narrator, through whom the reader gains access to the depth of hate and contempt that the British supposedly have for Africans. Having European characters despising non-Europeans is nothing new in the history of world literature since this tendency can be found in novels about African by Europeans and in novels about Africa by Africans. But the difference here is that And the Night Hissed is defined mostly by its representation of Europeans, not by an African narrator but by a British narrator, who is oblivious of its creator. The book is a fantasy in the sense that the writer has produced for the reader the “authentic” and “original” thought of Britons towards Africans of southwest of what is now Nigeria. The novella is very crucial in the sense that it allows the reader to become of the psychology of Britons, to whom Africans are little more than despicable natives. Therefore, it is a sort of resistance novella because it is a critique of slavery, violence and most important, hatred that is premised on having a darker skin color, having a different racial heritage, and having a different kind of social system. While the novella might be strong as a critique of slavery and racism there is no doubt that one would also wonder why an entire novella is devoted to Europeans’ thought about some Africans. In other words, literary works about slavery and racism abound in African and Caribbean literature and if this is so it is not very clear, why African readers should know Europeans’ private thoughts about them. The novella, being a privileged view into the “esoteric” lives of Europeans, probably exhibits the implied author’s own fantasy about Europeans. That is, the details about violence, contempt towards black people, molestation and abuse of African women by European men, all point to the implied author’s expectations about European imagination about Africans. This manner of representing power relations between a major world power like Britain and a former colony like Nigeria can tentatively sum up what Slavoj Žižek calls fantasy. Although the implied author’s fantasy can be positive in the sense that it draws its power from irony through which the reader experiences domination by an imperial power, it might also become a criticism of the writer who might be seen as imagining Africans only in subordinate roles in global power relations.

However, the novella does not always depict its African characters in subordinate roles, and neither does it limit them to the position of voiceless and inactive victims of slavery. Perhaps the main medium through which the major African community challenges the slave raiders is through their divinity, known in the story as Adaniloro and Olori ejo, who is said to be the avenger of innocent victims. The novella presents the adversary as almost superhuman. For instance, Captain Abraham is described as leviathan of a man. The narrator says about him further, “stunned by his assailant’s audacity . . . seized the man by the throat and raised him two feet in the air” (20). Regarding Lord Powell, one stroke of his bejeweled stick causes, his attacker “reeled, coughed out blood, and then crumpled to the ground . . . for good” (23). Nigel Hookes’ marksmanship is almost unearthly; with a pistol he shoots a runaway chief in the lower brainstem. In addition, McAllister throws a “Negro” aside “like a sack of grain” (86). The group’s encounter with the Esho is a demonstration of “[t]he white man’s firepower” and its evidence is “dozens of mutilated Negro bodies” (87). Despite the sheer brutality with which the slave drivers dispense with black opposition they record their own casualties. The one that immediately comes to mind is Oswald who is discovered in the morning, apparently bitten to death by snakes. Another is Nigel Hookes who is believed to have been pushed to suicide by some inexplicable force. O’Brien, with a stunned look, claims to have seen the Adaniloro before he dies. Captain Abraham himself turns raging mad and could not be located after the rescue squad rescues Dr. Cromwell from the forbidden forest. The novella impressively represents the slave drivers as arrogance but their effrontery is subdued by a mysterious avenger of the abused and the violated. In fact, the main reason for venturing into Igbo Irunmale is for the adventurers to prove their invincibility to a people they imagine are uncivilized. This dimension of divine vengeance in the work debunks the myth of docile non-Europeans, who are so overwhelmed by the superior military power of the Europeans that they could not muster any resistance.

On the surface level, the reader is likely to question the rather mystical or magical response to slavery and violence that accompanies it. The rationale is premised on the fact that the Britons come with superior technology, with which the communities are pillaged; whereas the communities challenge the raiders with forces that are ostensibly incomprehensible through rationalist logic. The implication of such interpretation is the restoration of the old divide between Europeans and non-Europeans in which the former consider themselves as being rational while they consider the latter as irrational, and often without history. But the novella is not as simple as that because it offers another, more critical interpretation than the rational / irrational, logical / illogical, technological / primitive, and historical / ahistorical analysis. Actually, the battle between the Britons and the African communities can be described as battle of mythologies. The Britons come with their myths of technological superiority while the Africans confront them with the myth of a divine avenger, supplemented by guerilla attacks. (ABRIDGED)

Dr. Kayode Ogunfolabi,  Dept. of English, OAU, Ile-Ife



2 thoughts on “…And the Night Hissed (A Critical Review)” by Claude (@Claude)

  1. Thank you, @winnie_1

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