Black Odysseys, by Justine McConnell, Oxford University Press, 336 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-0199605002
If Odysseus had been acquainted with Star Trek and paid some attention to Starfleet’s Prime Directive – stipulating no interference with the development of alien civilisations ‑ perhaps he would have approached the Cyclops differently. Instead, casually building on his knowledge that the island’s culture is primitive, he and his crew have no qualms about helping themselves to Polyphemus’s provisions and lecturing him on the obligation owed to them as his self-declared guests.
In Ulysses, Polyphemus is a man known as the Citizen and Odysseus/Bloom encounters him in Barney Kiernan’s pub, where he is the subject of some hostile remarks. By the time he is ready to leave, the Citizen has grown more aggressive, and angered by the ripostes to his anti-semitic taunts hurls a biscuit tin at the departing Bloom. For many readers and critics, the Homeric correspondence in this chapter plays out along didactic lines: the xenophobic citizen represents belligerent nationalism and Bloom’s pacifist but stout resistance embodies an ethical act of humanist, liberal resistance. Life is not so simple in fact or in Joyce’s fiction. As Emer Nolan (James Joyce and Nationalism) and Andrew Gibson (Joyce’s Revenge) have shown, some of the historical judgements expressed by the Citizen were shared by Joyce and the discourses being ridiculed in the “Cyclops” chapter are primarily those of the Anglo-Irish intelligentsia rather than of ethnic nationalism. The limitations of Polyphemus are obvious enough, especially as regards his eating habits, but in Ulysses he is also a liberating presence, a vulgar but wickedly funny antithesis to the evasions and omissions of revivalism as propagated by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde et al.
It is a short and historically accurate step to move from seeing Polyphemus as an “actual Irishman, living in history” (Andrew Gibson) to regarding him as a native of a land that is invaded and its material produce stolen. The ramifications of such a step were explored in the essays collected in Semicolonial Joyce, edited by Attridge and Howes, and the author of Black Odysseys places her work in such a tradition: “[aiming] to consider those writers who respond to Homer’s work from an anticolonial or postcolonial perspective that is connected with Africa”. Such a statement could sound condescending, denoting a derogatory view of such writers’ work as derivative of the Western canon, but McConnell is aware of this and stresses that she sees the works under discussion as including a response to Homer but not dependent on or derived from the ancient epics. She is not claiming that the work of certain black writers only exists in the form it does because of Homer or that they cannot be understood without seeing them as works of classical reception; instead, more modestly, she seeks to approach them from a particular perspective that she hopes will shed light on the writers’ postcolonial standpoints. The Ulysses story functions, as did myths for the Greeks, as a way of thinking about important aspects of life.
The book gets under way with a discussion of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retours au pays natal (notebook of a return to a native land), a prose poem written in 1939 when Césaire was thinking about returning to colonial Martinique from France after being trained as a teacher of Latin and Greek at the École Normale Supérieure. Cahier appropriates rather than emulates Homer, viewing Odysseus as an imperialist but in a way that implicates Césaire, the Parisian intellectual who finds himself forced to examine his own identity. There is an incident on a tram when, at the sight of a hugely tall, unattractive black man, he finds himself in complicity with two white women:
He was a gangling nigger with no rhythm or measure.
Poverty, it couldn’t be denied, had gone to great lengths to finish him off.
It had pushed in the eye-socket and made it up with a cosmetic blend of dust and rheum … Overall it was the picture of a hideous nigger, a grumpy nigger, a gloomy nigger, a slumped nigger… A nigger who was comical and ugly; and behind me … women were looking at him and giggling.
He was COMICAL AND UGLY.
COMICAL AND UGLY, for sure.
I exhibited a wide smile of connivance.
The role of Odysseus here is played not by a person but by the forces of poverty and exploitation, created and/or maintained by imperialism, and the narrator is also part of the problem by allying with the white women and betraying his own race. Such a moment in Cahier, where the presence of Homer can be felt, is not unusual and McConnell provides a number of other examples. In the following chapters of her book, she discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Derek Walcott’s Omeros and The Odyssey: A Stage Version before turning to Jon Amiel’s 1993 film Sommersby. A Hollywood romantic drama seems unlikely ground for a dialogue with the Odyssey, especially when Jodie Foster, wooed by a suitor after her husband had gone off to the war and is presumed dead, does little to bring Penelope to mind. Similarly, Richard Gere is not an obvious Odysseus figure given that the man who returns home to Jodie Foster is impersonating her husband who really is dead. Nevertheless, such twists in the story do provide intriguing echoes of Homer’s tale and when the old dog, who in the Odyssey dies after recognising his old master, realises in Sommersby that the returning stranger is not his master and is killed by him for this reason, we know that the director is consciously playing with the ancient tale. McConnell’s argument in Black Odysseys is that the two characters of Esther and Joseph, former slaves on Sommersby’s estate, evoke Eumaeus and Eurycleia and shed light on issues of slavery in the ancient world as well as in the Deep South at the end of the civil war. The reader is left wishing to see an otherwise mediocre movie with interest, even if the experience only serves to confirm the dismal observation that Hollywood has a supreme knack for turning good stories into emotional mush and makebelieve.
Two chapters towards the end of Black Odysseys are salutary ‑ devoted to works that are not widely read, like The Mask of the Beggar by Wilson Harris and Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela, though the account of the South African writer is at risk of being vitiated by liberal pieties.
A more general caveat, though, arises from the book’s provenance; developed from a doctoral dissertation, the style of writing has a dryness that betrays its scholarly origins and the consequent need to spend too much time acknowledging what other academics have written on a particular topic. It would be nice if the adjective that Homer so likes to use about Odysseus – polutropos (literally “of many turns”, hence “resourceful”, “of twists and turns”) – could also be used to describe the style of Black Odysseys. Edith Hall managed this in The Return of Ulysses, a cultural history of the Odyssey, but she had a broad and diverse canvas to work on whereas Justine McConnell’s focus is purely on the reception of Homer by writers of the African diaspora. The result is a scholarly work that should lead readers interested in Homer and ancient Greece into a wider, politically charged world where colonialism is a power that hurts and maims people’s lives.
Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).