Marketing for O, Africa! describes it thus: “Moving from the piers of Coney Island to Africa’s veldt, and further to the glitter of early Hollywood, O, Africa! is an epic tale of self-discovery, the constraints of history and prejudice, and the stubborn resolve of family and friendship in the face of tragedy.” Quotes on the back cover call it a comedy.
Twin brothers Micah and Izzy Grand are big shot silent filmmakers. Micah flirts with danger–gambling and carrying on with a black woman. Wanting to avoid the negative consequences of Micah’s behavior and wary of the coming sound revolution, the brothers are happy to get away when their producer ships them off to the African jungle to gather stock footage–and to film a comedy.
What to make of this book? As I read it, I felt like the tone kept shifting. One minute it was stylized nostalgia (a bit fluffy and cartoonish), the next it was raw and dark, then it was a rather ugly and off-putting comedy, and then it was pulling away to make bigger philosophical statements—some more profound than others. It certainly is, as the marketing promises, an ambitious novel, and I can see it engendering good conversation among readers. Still, I can’t quite say I enjoyed it.
That the brothers’ fascination with movie making is sparked by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is huge. You could say that they are in some ways trapped by the views of their time, and the book ends with the statement that the brothers “try to forgive themselves at last for being in concord with their era,” but that doesn’t make the sexism and racism in the book any less uncomfortable. Characters experience sexism and racism in plenty of books. The problem with O, Africa! is that the author’s own voice paints characters and situations in sexist and racist ways.
A lot can be forgiven when a book has great characters. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to like any of the characters in O, Africa! They could be drawn with greater depth and subtlety. Even the most appealing among them, like King Mishi, aren’t quite successful because they feel like caricatures. Intimate relationships among characters are developed mostly in terms of sex and power, and the reader doesn’t see much beyond that.
Admittedly, some bits (for example: Micah raving that he’s been “subjected to a hot shave,” or thugs busting out in what is essentially a song and dance number) are funny—if sometimes ludicrous and/or offensive. But when one character says, “When audiences laugh, it’s never wrong,” you get the feeling the author is acknowledging that sometimes maybe it IS wrong.
O, Africa! does make some fine if not earth-shattering comments on the dangers of cultural imposition and of the expanded reach of powerful media and new technologies. Conn asks some intriguing questions about the nature of film and time, and despite one hokey plot element, the ending feels satisfying.
In the final analysis, though, while O, Africa! offers a lot to chew on, it doesn’t always taste very good.