Literary identity of
The recent republication of
Sibhat Gebre-egzabher's uncensored edition of the book "Letum Aynegalign (I
would never see the dawn) has incited controversy among those who dub it
"decadent" and a "masterpiece".
The uncensored version of the book is different from the former censored
edition in its blunt use of language describing love-making and genital
organs. It delineates the life of the youth in the then "Wube Bereha", a
district of bars and prostitutes.
Sibhat's depiction of sexual matters as they are actually said without any
modification in his writings happened to attract attention from many, as
such matters are discussed in a humble and delicate manner in Ethiopian
culture. In his biography, "Mastawesha", written by Zenebe Wola, he explains
that he loves to face life as it is. "Life with its pimple." He believes and
so reflects on the uncensored version of life. But this attitude of him
happens to be strange and taboo in an Ethiopia society. This is evident in
the rebuke his literary style faced so often from many.
As an instrument to convey his attitude through, the characters in his
writings are employed. So often his characters are portrayed as persons in
the painful ordeal of life living in a slum. Such a world and persons that
are left behind the curtain as immoral, vulgar and unworthy of attention are
revealed in Sibhat's writings.
Mostly a literary diversion in the writings of Ethiopian authors is
attributed to the their exposure to the works of western literature. And
some literary scholars attribute the style Sibhat adopted in the Amharic
literature to French writers he had been a big fan of during his stay in
France such as the naturalist writers like Zola, Rabelais and especially
Camus's Sisyphus and Sibhat's characters
As explained above, Sibhat's literary
characters mostly belong to the lower social class for whom the burden of
life is so heavy and whose life is expressed in a natural and
straightforward manner. These characters thus possess and reflect the type
of mentality, language and living style typical of a lower class of society.
Sibhat's close veteran friend, Solomon Deressa, says, "He has successfully
managed to make perversity rub shoulders with sanctity and find explosive
humor in the quiet shortcomings of the national character," Albert Camus,
the prominent French writer, wrote his famous essay, "The myth of Sisyphus"
during the tumultous shambles of WWII. The main character of the essay,
Sisyphus, was condemned by the Greek gods for being rebellious and his
desire to outwit the gods. He was condemned to role a rock up to the top of
the mountain, watch it role back down again, and then push it back up again.
Camus believed that the essence of man was irrational and life is
nonessential, but one should face life with a sort of courageous humanism.
In the essay, Camus focusses most on the moment of time when Sisyphus is
coming down the mountain. He describes Sisyphus as being in a conscious and
vivid state. It is during this time of consciousness that Sisyphus begins to
formulate drastic conclusions about his fate. During his descent, he decides
he, and only he, can control his own destiny.
He decides that his fate will lie within his own hands and therefore he, and
only he, will decide whether or not he will allow this condemnation to
render him powerless or powerful. Sisyphus decided not to be miserable at
all and makes a conscious decision to understand that his nature lead to his
actions and his actions to his punishment but even still all is OK within
Camus analogizes Sisyphus' condition with the man of today. He says, "The
workman of today works every day of his life at the same task and his fate
is no less absurd"
Camu's writings and philosophical essays are dominated by the idea of the
absurd that is evident is Sisyhpus' action. The absurd man is one who raises
against the indefinable and irrational universe. Sisyphus is an absurd man.
Camus explains the absurd with a quotation from Pindar "O, my soul, do not
aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible."
Thus, Sibhat's characters possess the characters and personalities of
Sisyphus that are living in a wretched condition in a revolt against the
condition in which they are doomed to live. In the preface Sibhat wrote on
the controversial "Letum Aynegalign", he stated, "...Because the book is an
authentic reportage of human ordeal, it pleases most of the readers."
The characters, especially in his short stores like Besufkad of
"Five... six... seven" and Adam of "Adam and Eve", could be noted as
being typical models of Sisyphus.
Albert Camus is one of the literary
giants who played a major role in the development of the short story genre.
In his short stories he follows objective short story writing style. In the
objective short story, the author's aim is only depicting "the subtleties of
the riddles of life." To this end, he foucuses basically on the
characterization and naturally portrays all the essences of the character's
It could be boldly asserted that Sibhat's short stories are written in an
objective style. The theme of the writings is just a mere reflection of the
abject wretched or painful condition they are in and on the mystery of life
objectively. From his short stories written in such a style "five... six...
seven," is the most notable one.
These short stories published in the 80s are considered "masterpieces" and
estabilished him as a writer of an immense stature. The stories were even
rewritten in English by Windey Kindred. But the publication of his novel
Tikusat happened to invoke resentment in some conservative readers.
Sexual frankness in naturalism vs Ethiopian reader
Sibhat's novels were published long
after the time they are written. It is their sexual frankness, unlike the
conservative Ethiopian culture which holds that sexual matters must be
repressed, that held the books from publication. Some close friends of him
like Demissie Tsige have tried to censor the books such as Tikusat (fever)
and made them fit for publication. But the censorship couldn't save the
books and the author from criticism.
There are literature scholars
that attribute the style of the books and their frank sexual depiction to
the naturalism literary style of Emile Zola, for whose works Sibhat had
close exposure while he was in France.
In his naturalistic writings,
Zola himself argued that his special contribution to the art of fiction was
the application to the creation of characters and plot of the scientific
method. The new "scientific novel" would be created by placing characters
with known inherited characteristics into a carefully defined environment
and observing the resulting behaviour.
"Zola further tends to create
his principal characters as representative types rather than striking
individuals. He also places great emphasis on people acting in groups, and
is one of the few great writers of mob scenes. Humanity in the mass is one
of his chief subjects, and his individuals are selected to illustrate
aspects of society," remarks the on line journal of literary criticism.
According to Wondwossen Adane,
who gave a literary criticism on the uncensored version of "Letum
Ayinegalign," the characters in the novel are frail and disabled that
arrouse one's sympathy and at the same time anger. What we understand
directly (not implicitly) from the novel's presentation is that they are
adulterers who gathered in an escape from their loneliness and so are
labourers in search of their daily bread.
Moreover, perhaps it's Zola's
depiction of sexual functions as they are which is reflected in Sibhat's
works. Because of this frankness, his works were often banned, regarded as a
little more than pornography.
Sibhat's works, Tikusat
(fever), Sebategnaw Melak (The seventh angel) and Letum
Ayinegalign were marked as breaking with existing Ethiopian literary
forms and enhanced his repution for his graphic dipiction of sex.
By Abiy Solomon
The views reflected in the above
essay are solely of the author and are not necessarily shared by Meskot.
This article was taken from the ARTS