Dance in a trance

Friday, March 29, 2013

Tribute to Chinua Achebe


If Chinua Achebe had been living in Dickens’ time, he might have succeeded in selling “Things Fall Apart” as a serial the way the great English novelist had done, keeping a growing audience hanging on each last word, savouring it until the next episode appeared. Because the story-telling in every chapter is so highly skilled that it is complete in itself.

The world mourns the passing of a great writer though he had lived more than his biblical four-score and ten and his best work was well behind him. Africa was his life, his being, the subject of his writing, the object of his fascination. Not just Nigeria but Africa because he came of age at a time when there were men with Pan-African visions like Nyerere, Nkrumah, Senghor, Kaunda and Mandela. They knew that the boundaries drawn on the map did not represent their reality. Without denying their own place and time, they had a sense of what linked them historically and geographically. Like Ngugi wa Thiongo Achebe was forced to live outside his beloved home country but anyway, the writer needs distance. He can see things up close all right but it is those things that are further away in space and time that exile gives him in abundance along with melancholy, nostalgia and long-term memory.

Some have criticised Achebe for romanticising pre-colonial times but this is a misunderstanding. If there is nostalgia it is for a time when the society he knew proceeded according to agreed sets of rules rather than the free-for-all we know now. Personal preferences didn’t count. The book’s hero Okonkwo is specially fond of his daughter Ezinma who “looked very much like her mother who was once the village beauty. But his fondness showed on very rare occasions.”
Can she bring him a chair to watch the wrestling? “No, that is a boy’s job.” There is no bending of the rules. Everyone knows that.

Writers of all races have been forced or have chosen to live elsewhere. Samuel Beckett not only chose Paris but decided to write in French in order to deliberately “impoverish” himself – not a negative concept but a way of stripping language to its barest bones. But Africans were not best known for their novels. The world knew them as oral storytellers. If there were Shakespeares buried in Timbuktu’s sands we didn’t know about them. What Achebe did was to lift that art into a written form and beat the white man at his own game. Soon there would come a time when the best writing in English no longer came from “that sceptred isle”  and Achebe was one of the first in that class.

We still have so much to learn from him, most of all, in my view, from Things Fall Apart. Ngugi may have berated him long ago for writing in the language of the oppressor but by now there are so many “Englishes” that the criticism no longer holds water.  Achebe turned the oppressor’s language into his own; he moulded it in such a way that it could speak with Igbo proverbial overtones and at the same time mock the colonialist.  Take the last chapter: Okonkwo has on the spur of the moment killed an enemy  messenger. Achebe doesn’t judge him; the man was filled with rage and had been provoked beyond endurance. It’s what he had to do at that moment. He has, like Oedipus and Agamemnon before him, shown hubris and the author knows his Greek tragedies. Fate has its own punishment. The next chapter begins with a visit from the District Commissioner who is looking for Okwonkwo. The men of the village are uncharacteristically  helpful.

“We can take you where he is and perhaps your men will help us.”

The DC is puzzled.

“One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.”

Of course this is deeply ironic; Achebe knows that the art of the novel lies in multiple ironies: from the individual sentence to the chapter to the entire edifice. It is the colonialist whose words are superfluous. As he approaches the small crowd of weary men looking for Okonkwo it is he who utters needless threats. “Unless they produced Okonkwo forthwith he would lock them all up.” Had he been able to read the scene and the mood he would have kept quiet.

Led by the hand we arrive with the band at Okonkwo’s body hanging from a tree. (Remember that we don’t see Oedipus gouging out his eyes at the discovery that the oracle was right.) This is why the men have been so obliging: their custom doesn’t allow them to bury a man who has taken his own life.

“It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.”

Strangers to each other and themselves. The poor DC can’t cope: nothing in his education has prepared him for such a moment. His way out is to reassure himself that this is a mere “undignified detail” and his mind  escapes to the book he will write about these wretched people. Unlike Okonkwo’s lifelong friend Obierika who is filled with rage, he feels nothing. He can only come up with abstract thoughts. This episode in the life of a micro- civilisation “would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate.” It is a magnificent irony given that the entire trilogy let alone this book centres on Okonkwo! One can almost hear the author chuckling quietly to himself. “One must be firm in cutting out details.” A man who cannot feel can never produce a work of art.  “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” – the DC’s pompous title -  form the last words of the book. There is no need to say who is primitive.

Achebe was equally adept at essay writing, adopting an easy conversational style which took the reader into his confidence. His breadth of reading is formidable but he never loses a sense of humility. In “Thoughts on the African Novel” (Hopes and Impediments - Selected Essays 1965-87) he writes:

“What I am saying really boils down to a simple plea for the African novel. Don’t fence me in.”

Rejecting the idea that the African novel is an impossibility because the genre was born in England he continues:
“I have no doubt at all about the existence of the African novel. This form of fiction has seized the imagination of many African writers and they will use it according to their different abilities, sensibilities and visions without seeking anyone’s permission. I believe it will grow and prosper. I believe it has a great future.”
His own work is the proof of that.

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