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The Sunjata Story by Anonymous
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The Sunjata Story

by Anonymous

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The Sunjata Story is book 17 in the Penguin Epics collection. It is 108 small pages of an oral story told by Malian narrators Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute translated by Gordon Innes and Bakari Sidibe. It is the only one of the Penguin Epics collection to be a narrated story. The full version of the tale is the [[ASIN:1405849428 Epic of Sundiata]] telling of the rise of the founder of Great Mali. The Sunjata Story tells his tale from an austere start to slay his enemy Susu Sumanguru.

Sunjata's tale is in part historic. He existed and was a great leader who rose to power bringing with him a legacy of two centuries of Empire in western Africa. His world existed in the vaccuum after the collapse of Ghana, his great rival Sumanguru being a more easterly force amongst the peoples existing immediately south of the Sahara. The Epic is part of popular folklore in the lands influenced by the Mandinka.

The version offered in Sunjata Story is offered in two parts. The first is a short re-telling from Bamba Suso. The second is a more lengthy narrative from Banna Kanute. It is written in poetic form, this is not a prose story as it is a transcription of a performance. No notes or commentary is provided so there is only the imagination to draw the wordsmithery of the original into vision. It would take some familiarity with West African narration to be comfortable with the flow and emotion, especially the frequent use of repetition.

Throughout most of the story it appears to be a poor translation. It is only right at the end when the impossible to understand phrases such as Cats on the shoulder are explained in part by Banna Kanute. Still, it makes it hard to follow when these phrases are used so often, more often in fact than the narrative itself.

One of the difficulties with this version of the Epic of Sunjata is that not too much happens. The short form from Bamba Suso is probably the right length for the tale. It is a simple story that belies the extraordinary origins from which it arose. Sunjata's family flees from Susa and hides to prevent being attacked and wiped out. Of course it is too much to say a national hero hid so instead he was unable to walk until miracles allowed it, Susa was tricked by a beautiful woman, and Sunjata emerged on his path to glory.

There is not much else to speak of in terms of plot. The two versions are interesting in that they spin a couple of things slightly differently, especially how Susa was tricked. The longer story from Kannute is more in-depth and goes into much detail for each part of the tale which is likely much more in line with the way it is told by narrators. Kannute's version includes more use of magic and fetishes which form part of the belief system in that part of the world and which eventually spawned the voodoo religion. Kannute goes to quite some lengths to Islamicise the tale, imposing the monothestic belief system on top of local traditions.

It is these between the lines points that are of most interest. The brief descriptions of various clan genealogy is presumably designed to nation-ise a peoples spread over many countries and without the unifying empire they had nearly a thousand years ago. The role of women, strong and powerful at times is a great antithesis to some of the weaker depictions of women in European and more particularly Asian literature.

As an introduction to the Epic of Sundiata the Sunjata Story is not enough. It does not do enough to explain the context or the people involved. Far too much space is given to theatrical niceties such as repitition of inexpicable phrases. It is only from other sources that the importance of this work can be understood.

Whether The Sunjata Story has a credible place in the Penguin Epics collection is debatable. It is excellent to have an African story in the collection with West Africa being a particularly rich location for such a tale. The legendary scribes of Mali make sense as a source for an African story in the collection. However, this one is not great and it is a pale reflection of an epic time. Even with a more expansive and interesting depiction of early Mali it would still be a strange decision to include this as the one African tale when the greatest story ever told is the story of man's emergence from the darkness of the forest as told by the Bantu people of West Africa in the form of Kwame Anansi. Anansi's exclusion from the Penguin Epics collection is an embarrassment to Penguin so the Sunjata Story as a token inclusion from that same region feels like a bit of a mistake. ( )
  Malarchy | Sep 17, 2014 |
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It is I, Bamba Suso, who am talking.
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A child is born who will overthrow a king. After the leader of a great African kingdom hears that a baby has been born who will destroy him, he hides behind a mighty army and surrounds himself with magical charms. There remains only one way to kill him. Concealing this secret weakness from the world, the ruler clings to power. But when the sister of his enemy seduces him, lust overwhelms the king. And as he lies beside her in the night, desperate to know her body, he foolishly begins to share his secret.
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