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Walter Abish: Alphabetical Africa

This novel is a form of constrained writing. The first chapter uses only words starting with the letter a, the second chapter only words starting with the letters a and b and so on, until the twenty-sixth chapter where all words are allowed. The pattern is then reversed. The twenty-seventh chapter uses all words except those starting with z and so on till we are back with a chapter using only words starting with the letter a. He does make a few mistakes. Inevitably he slips in a couple of I‘s before their time and there are other mistakes. Doing this is quite difficult. Most of the novel cannot use the words the and you, not to mention why, what, where, when, who, etc. One of the key characters is Queen Quat but she cannot be named for much of the novel. The fact that he cannot use the letter I for a good part of the novel was welcomed by Abish who felt that it allowed him to be more neutral as a narrator. There is a plot as we follow two jewel thieves crossing Africa in search of their lover, who has been kidnapped by a group of Bantus. Both this plot line and the Africa subject are indicative of how the West has seen Africa from its perspective – exotic but dangerous. But much of the fun of the book is seeing how he manages to get away with it. As you read, you keep thinking, how is he going to manage without this word till later in the book but he does (with, as I said, a few slips). It sort of works and is enormous fun.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by New Directions