Originally published in 1956, Peter Abrahams’ A Wreath For Udomo fictionalises the rise of African nationalism against the decline of the British Empire. Now, hardly two years after the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the questions it raises about colonialism and its divisive legacy seem to smoulder with renewed pertinence.
Abrahams, whose centenary was in 2019, was an eyewitness. An expatriate black South African, he moved in the same London circles as Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to be first Prime Minister, then President of Kenya, and Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana, then still known as the Gold Coast.
The novel opens in the city that, for the most part, still thought of itself as the heart of the Empire, and at the heart of its story is the titular Michael Udomo, shivering against the foggy chill of an unwelcoming London, wrapped up in a coat borrowed from his lover.
This, the book’s first volume, is The Dream. In many ways, it reads like a companion piece to the roughly contemporaneous London trilogy of Colin MacInnes, sharing with it a similar pulpy urgency, and, like Absolute Beginners in particular, using the clothes horse of kitchen sink drama as a framework from which to hang its more overtly political concerns. Both strands, in fact, culminate in set-pieces; the domestic in a late-term home abortion, the visceral ugliness of which underlines the scale of the betrayal which led to it, and the political in a conference whose running order provides an ecologically plausible niche for the type of exposition that would sit more clumsily elsewhere.
Here, as throughout, while Abrahams’ sympathies are undisguised, he is scrupulously even-handed in his distribution of wrong-headedness and obstinacy, scattering such unbecoming qualities among colonisers and colonised both, and, while allowing the worst of the British delegates to condemn themselves from their own entitled mouths, is empathetic to the better impulses of a few.
Whereas at the conference, the divisions between not just the British and the Africans, but between the Africans themselves, can play out with the almost comedic inconsequentiality of squabbling children making up the rules of the game as they go along, in the book’s second volume, The Reality, in which Udomo returns to his native ‘Panafrica’, even minor differences can be a matter of life and death.
A personal tragedy of suitably Shakespearian proportions, the novel’s achievement is to use the fate of its hero, foretold in its title, and the waxing and waning of the fortunes of the characters whose destinies are dependent on his, to draw the reader in, by painful degrees, to the birth pangs of a new nation, torn messily from the competing interests of British capital and tribal loyalties. If it has flaws, some of these are inherent in its form. Written for readability, all but its two principle female characters suffer from a lack of dimension. In the same way, the intentional paciness of the prose can occasionally lead to phrases as unintentionally hilarious as “he saw the dark glory of her naked beauty”.
Urgent, cinematic and, even with its faults, immensely readable, A Wreath For Udomo has earned its place back on the front shelves. In a decade in which social media reduces debate to the ironic polarity of black and white, its tacit acknowledgement of complexity has never been more relevant.