Upon mentioning recently that I had just finished Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, I was accused of having a taste for “novelty” books. I replied that this novel was more John Cage than “Laughing Gnome”: a sustained exercise in minimalism and constraint that tries to say something about the form itself.
The constraint is simple enough: the book’s first chapter contains only words that begin with the letter “a.” A typical extract: “Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture…” (1). The second chapter adds words that begin with the letter “b,” the third adds those that start with “c,” and so on until only with the twenty-sixth chapter can words start with any letter of the alphabet. But then the process is reversed. Gradually the number of permitted words decreases until the final, fifty-second, chapter again consists of nothing but words beginning with “a.”
The plot takes us from Antibes to Zanzibar, on the trail of what emerge as a couple of jewel thieves, Alex and Allen, who themselves are pursuing the mysterious Alva, who seems to have made off with their loot following a bungled kidnapping in the south of France. Of course, the mystery takes a while to unfold, because for instance the fact that Alex and Allen are “killers” cannot even be mentioned until chapter eleven, when words beginning with the letter “k” are first permitted. A shady Queen Quat (could she perhaps be Alva in some new disguise?) is the focus of much interest in the central part of the book, but necessarily fades from view after chapter thirty-five.
The reader is constantly aware of what can and cannot be said, of the gradually expanding and then contracting field of signification. First person narration is only possible once “I” can be uttered; definite articles and third-person plural (they, their) have still longer to wait; and second-person address is only fleetingly available.
Perhaps Abish’s greatest technical achievement, indeed, is maintaining a remarkable stylistic consistency despite the very different resources available to him at distinct points of the novel. Even when, briefly, all the constraints are lifted, he still writes with enigmatic terseness: “Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back” (64). It is as though when the full richness of language is available, we fear being overwhelmed by detail; we need to sit back. Meaning and sense-making are possible only thanks to constraint, to a recognition that not everything can be said, at least not all at once.
The book is clearly about representation: its arbitrariness and its slippages. But it is not about representation alone: there is a constant sense that Africa is slipping away, but also that it is somehow now physically wasting away. Abish acknowledges that there is something particular about Africa, and its colonial and postcolonial history, that enables fantasy and seems to wither the real: “Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess, and now to a shrinking land mass” (58). And Ernst van Alphen argues for a subtext of genocide and counter-insurgency.
Finally, there are the mistakes, the points at which the rigid representational strictures are breached. It’s tempting to regard these as accidents, but some are so blatant they seem to be calling out: in a chapter in which words beginning with “s” are supposedly now banned, “for she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow” (105). These errors point less to the impossibility of the task that Abish has set himself, than to a perverse, perhaps unconscious rebellion against the project. “I,” for instance, will make its way where it has been outlawed (138, 146, 147).
In short, both Africa and the alphabet become fields on which the dramas of order and disorder, rebellion and domination, pattern and singularity are played out. The book calls out attention both to grids (linguistic, geographical, political) and to their limits, and ends up with the perhaps utopian gesture of invoking “another Africa another alphabet” (152).