Alphabetical Africa  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Alphabetical Africa is a constrained writing experiment by Walter Abish. It is written in the form of a novel.

A paperback edition was issued in New York by New Directions Publishing Corporation in 1974 with ISBN 0-8112-0533-9. It was still in print in 2004.

The Constraint

The writing is constrained by an interesting pseudo-alliterative rule: the first chapter contains only words starting with the letter a, the second chapter only words starting with a or b, etc.; each subsequent chapter adds the next letter in the alphabet to the set of allowed word beginnings. This continues for the first 26 chapters, until at last Abish is (briefly) allowed to write without constraint.

In the second half of the book, chapters 27 through 52, letters are removed in the reverse order that they were added. Thus, z words disappear in chapter 28, y, in chapter 29, etc..


The implications of the progressive constraint of the first half of the book, and the corresponding retrogressive constraint of the second half, are more interesting and profound than they might first appear.

As the reader grows accustomed to the constraint, he/she begins to be able to predict some events. For example, it is not clear during the first section that the novel is a first-person narrative. However, a savvy reader might anticipate the appearance of the first-person voice, quite naturally in the first I chapter.

Indeed, the reader begins to understand that some events in the novel are both inevitable, and at the same time painfully arbitrary. For example, the character Queen Quat, only introduced by name in the first q chapter, must inevitably disappear from the narrative in or before the last q chapter.


Readers have noted that there are several places in the narrative where the constraint is violated. Most counts of these violations number them between four and six. One point of dispute is whether the failures to meet the constraint are intentional, and therefore potentially meaningful, or are simply editing mistakes. It is said that when Abish was notified of the errors, he reacted with total surprise. Two of the errors were "I"'s found later in the book, situated next to the margins, most likely overlooked during editing. Similar mistakes of spelling and grammar occur in other Abish works, such as How German Is It (1980), where exact presentation is clearly a priority, and thus the mistakes come across as intentional.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Alphabetical Africa" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools