Encountering Africa in a Used German Bookstore

He was sure I had come into his store to look for books by Achebe or some other African author. He had read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and loved her coverage of the Nigeria-Biafra war. The septuagenarian bookseller at a used bookstore in Bochum. The beginning of Autumn of 2022 marked my encounter with him, his shelves of books, and the reality of subtle bias and the essentializing logics of its civil and polite gestures. 

Intrigued by the assumption that I would be uninterested in, say, works by Western authors, I asked if he had anything by Foucault or the Frankfurt School. And then added, “I generally like to feed my mind and not be limited to any particular intellectual tradition.” He didn’t seem convinced but offered an explanation of the rarity of the English editions of books by those scholars.

The used bookstore borrows its name from a European literary classic, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu—a play whose unruly obscenities blended well with the old tomes and decorative items by a glass window overlooking a busy road leading to the central train station. It became clear as we spoke that the bookseller’s political confessions were to be found in the themes of this French play, along with the picture of American musical legend Prince, and the other items he had displayed to court the attention of bibliophiles to his store.

At a point, my bookseller-interlocutor spoke of African and Caribbean literatures as mainly the same thing. I told him I wasn’t an expert in the Caribbean literary tradition, but he made the point to revisit the distinction I had insisted on as if he did not think it made any sense. Black literature was an undifferentiated aesthetic. When I asked if he had any African literary classics in German translations, he was sure he had some and so began the journey of his fingers across the forest of dusty book spines before him.

Naguib Mahfouz caught his eyes but the Arabic literary great was not an African writer he remarked. I protested with a smile—the kind you offer when you want to communicate warmth and friendship as a way of surviving the hostility of a strange environment.

Of course, he agreed North Africa is still in Africa, but I could not help recalling then the historical and epistemic politics of symbolically reterritorializing countries like Egypt. But I would not be drawn into rehearsing the efforts of Martin Bernal, Cheikh Anta Diop, and several others who have written about the African roots of the construct that is European civilization. Yet I found this aspect of our conversation useful in reinforcing my decision not to replicate the common erasure of North Africa from the African literature class in my own African lit syllabus. Of course, the Maghreb may define itself and its literary traditions first and foremost in Arabic terms that marginalize its Africanness, but, like most people to the South of the continent, our shared kinship was something to affirm.

Meantime, the bookseller was sure there existed an African adaptation of Ubu itself but he did not remember to which African country the play had traveled. King Baabu, I ventured to remind him, with a half-confident response that betrayed my own uncertainty. His face beamed with recollection.

Frankly, I hadn’t realized myself that Soyinka adapted King Baabu from a French play, but the sonic resemblances of both titles gave things away. I remember watching the play on the stage of the Arts Theatre on the campus of Ibadan over a decade ago. A political satire, King Baabu was written by the Nobel Laureate to parody the meaninglessness of the military junta in Africa. Naturally, it was time to rummage through the selves for Soyinka’s books. My host was charitable. He found a German translation of Ake, Soyinka’s childhood memoir. And then the playwright’s debut novel, The Interpreters.

“Do you recommend I read them?” The bookseller wanted to know. Of course, these are literary classics everyone should read. They were early editions, priceless books I could only hold but was unable to read because of my non-existent German language skills. But to mark my encounter with Soyinka in a used German bookstore, I did buy a rare print copy of his Nobel speech, published in 1988. The opening page taken from a poem in Ogun Abibiman tricked me into its pages. Rendered in English, it was a homage to Soyinka’s patron deity, but the rest of the material was in German! Yet I would not walk away from it.

In all honesty, the bookseller was a lovely soul who simply wanted to sell books and talk about literature with an African literature professor from the US. At the same time, I could not ignore his assumption of a certain provinciality in my reading interests. In millennial lingo, he gave certain vibes! Vibes that construed me as inhospitable to ideas from any canon that was not African. Because I see the danger of a binary here, let me note too that I am indeed interested in books. Period. Not Western. Not African. And I wished the bookseller had seen this.

But could I have been interested in Western classics and African literature at the same time? This lingered in my thought as I looked around the store for more books. It is a critical question that evokes the same failure of a woke decolonial movement today that is drunk on superficiality and structurally empty on the substance that improves the lived conditions of postcolonial societies. You want to dismantle oppressive systems by erecting another kind of structure. Like the nativist sensibilities that drove the wheels of Negritude. A performance of decoloniality that abjures any appearance of European thought is itself a reification of the ignorant niceties of the European mind who cannot bring himself to expect a productive and non-hierarchical cohabitation of African and European ways of knowing. While such an attitude is historically produced and shaped, our response to it could be more critical and nuanced.

To be fair, the bookseller is probably a reflection of our current moment. In our post-George Floyd era, would I have accused him of white privilege and chauvinism had he mentioned, or offered me, books by Goethe or Kant? Is the German bookseller merely obsequious to an epoch that appears to demand that white people tiptoe around Black people and give them whatever they want? I am not saying this was the case here, but anywhere you have a semblance of this scenario, it is the agency of Black people that is undermined.

While the encounter reminded me of the roadside booksellers I had met in Lagos or Harlem, street archivists of print culture whose knowledge was as vast as the universe in the books they sold, it was his reductionist gestures that stayed with me the most. I concluded the issue here was probably a free play of assumptions that overlapped with our zeitgeist.

When I left the store with my bag of books, the receipt he offered had a summary line that indeed reduced everything to my Africanness. And as if to document his essentialism. Never mind that the only Africa-focused works I had purchased were Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. The rest, and there were many, comprised works of Euro-American cultural and intellectual traditions, including books by Wilde, hooks, Marx, and Durkheim.  But I was an African, and all the receipt was made to read was: “Books on African literature and sociology.”   

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