Naturalism, Humanitarianism and the Fiction of War
Words by Graham Murray
ELENI COUNDOURIOTIS provided a fascinating talk centred on war novels in post-colonial Africa. The talk took place on the Monday evening 10thDecember and was the third event in the humanities strand of this year’s research series for the Humanities. The professor of English from the University of Connecticut, addressed her talk around themes of naturalism, the discourse of humanitarianism and western perspectives on war in Africa. Her talk encompassed many of the humanities, incorporating elements of English literature & language, as well as politics and history.
Coundouriotis began the talk discussing humanitarian law. In this, she deliberated the issue surrounding the definition of war, given the fact it has no legal definition. She described war as not defined by actions of war, but by the actors of war. Beyond this, she spoke of humanitarianism in general – how it naturally takes the side of victims, and how “the discourse of humanitarianism is fundamentally a discourse of surrogacy”.
She turned her attention following this to the African war novel, identifying the fact that war had always been a present theme in African novels. She was also quick to point out how African war novels often challenge stereotypes of Africa being conflict ridden and dysfunctional. The talk focussed much on humanitarian narratives in these novels, and the so-called “politics of pity”. This means to say how the reader sympathises with the plight of the novel’s protagonists – yet it also distances them.
Coundouriotis identified four main motifs that heighten the impression an African war novel forms a distinct literary tradition – the ‘Song of my Country’, the male warrior as war personified, the ordeal in the forest and the perennial landscape.
Berthold Schoene, MMU professor of English and director of the Institute for Humanities and Social Science Research remarked that:
“The work of Professor Coundouriotis highlights the significant interplay within the Humanities between sociological research (human rights and their abuse around the world) and art (the literature of war in Africa). Her analysis of war novels, and the role they play in “witnessing”, brings to life how Humanities research has the capacity to deepen our understanding of global suffering and conflict.”
All in all, Coundouriotis presented an interesting notion of how the African war novel is able to display another side to Africa as a whole, and was an excellent specimen of how the humanities can be so interlinked as subjects.