Elsbeth Etty is book editor at NRC Handelsblad and extraordinary professor in literary criticism at the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit.

Elsbeth Etty: Art and its constraints

September 2009 -

In my view, artists who only want to make 'art for the sake of art' are not artists. True artists will climb into a corset, into a shape, if you will, that best expresses what they want to say about the way they relate to their era and circumstances. As long as they climb into the corset themselves and are not forced by some external institution into one suit or another, their art has something to tell us. Doing what someone else wants done, be it the powers-that-be, a group of rebels or a commercial enterprise, is something that any smart advertising guy or gal can do. I believe it doesn't matter much whether you are an African artist, or Asian, American or European - a universal artist can be recognised by his or her search for ways to find his or her own voice, completely independently, and to let that voice resonate as purely as possible.

Elsbeth Etty

When we - the Book editing staff for NRC Handelsblad - decided to discuss six African titles for our Reading Group (the titles were selected by experts from our staff), we did not look at the message being sent in these books. Without denying that it may well be worth the effort of readers to analyse a literary text in search of possible hidden agendas and messages.

I am not always equally skilled at doing so, sometimes because I simply lack the knowledge. With Children of Gabalawi by Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz, for example, it felt to me that the author had not (yet) found an adequate form with which he could shape his dissident views. At least I thought his metaphors were bland and insufficiently daring, while former Eastern literature has taught me that it is presentation cloaked out of despair that often brings the most painful of truths to light. To find those truths, however, you need to know the taboos and inhibitions of certain historical contexts and cultures. As a relative layman in the area of African literature, the greatest surprise among the six titles was Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe. Based on what I knew about Achebe, I was expecting an explicitly anti-colonial message, but what I read in this novel was a convincing complaint against tribalism and a plea for universal values.

How intriguing to read in the essay that Ruth Franklin wrote about Achebe (ZAM, edition 12, issue number 3) that the author would have totally rejected my interpretation. "Achebe voiced serious criticism against those in search of the 'universal' in African fiction; he says Western fiction is never put to such a test", wrote Franklin. Based on Achebe's literary perspective, Franklin went on to wonder whether "the existence of the African novel as simply a novel, stripped of its social and educational assignment" was merely a Utopia. Well, after reading the titles selected for the NRC Handelsblad Reading Club, I think that is certainly not the case. Even despite the seriously ideological and educational intentions of Achebe's novel, it proves to stand very well on its own, and its multi-interpretable nature gives it universal meaning.

Achebe's message is not unambiguous and that is exactly what distinguishes art from advertising or propaganda, the difference between a self-chosen shape and a mandatory corset. The message told by Nurruddin Farah in Maps that, to put it frankly, seems like Blut und Boden, disgusts me. And yet I would compare this intense and sincere novel to Multatuli's Max Havelaar, another educational novel with a message, albeit one that demonstrates the necessity of precisely saying in certain historical circumstances that which must be told using the voice of conscience, irrespective of regulations and restrictions. Only then will true art evolve.