The man who rediscovered Africa

How Achebe's novels captured the soul of a continent -- and helped me discover my own history

Published January 24, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses at his home as he reflects on his works and life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)  (Associated Press)
Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet poses at his home as he reflects on his works and life at his home on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York where he is a professor Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (Associated Press)

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

This article also appears as the introduction to Chinua Achebe’s "The African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God" now available through Everyman’s Library.

When, in 1958, the London publishers William Heinemann received a manuscript of Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart," they were unsure whether to publish it. The central question, according to editor Alan Hill, was this: "Would anyone possibly buy a novel by an African?" Not only were there a mere handful of examples of African writing in English at the time – such as Amos Tutuola’s surreal "The Palm-Wine Drinkard" and Cyprian Ekwensi’s novel of contemporary Lagos, "People of the City" – but none of them had the ambition, the subtlety, or the confidence of "Things Fall Apart."

Chinua Achebe had initially conceived it as a story of three generations: a man in pre-colonial Igboland who struggles against the changes brought by the first European missionaries and administrators; his son who converts to Christianity and receives some Western education; and his grandson who is educated in England and is living the life of the new elite on the cusp of independence. Achebe later scaled down the novel, focusing only on the first generation, to produce a carefully observed story of the African-European colonial encounter set among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria in the 1890s, with the tragic hero Okonkwo at its center. Achebe’s second novel, "No Longer At Ease," would skip a generation and tell the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi, a civil servant in 1950s Lagos. His third novel, "Arrow of God," about an Igbo priest and a British district officer in 1920s Igboland, can be read as representative of the times of Okonkwo’s son. All three novels, taken together as Achebe’s "African Trilogy," create a full and beautifully nuanced arc, a human chronicle of the cultural and political changes that brought about what is now seen as the modern African state.

After William Heinemann overcame their reservations and published "Things Fall Apart" in June 1958, it became a critical success. Achebe, the Times Literary Supplement wrote, had "genuinely succeeded in presenting tribal life from the inside." A novelty indeed. "Things Fall Apart" was pioneering not in its subject but in its African point of view, as there were already many well-regarded books about Africans written by non-Africans; tribal life had already been endlessly portrayed from the outside. Achebe himself first read some of the better-known examples of these "colonialism classics" as a secondary school student in the 1940s. "I did not see myself as an African to begin with," he has written about his response to the African characters. "I took sides with the white men against the savages. The white man was good and reasonable and intelligent and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid or, at the most, cunning. I hated their guts." As Achebe matured and became more critical in his reading, he began to understand the enormous power that stories had, and how much this power was shaped by who told the stories and by how they were told. As a university student in the 1950s, in addition to reading Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Coleridge, Achebe also read Joyce Carey’s "Mister Johnson," a novel set in Nigeria, which Time magazine had named the "best book ever written about Africa." Achebe disagreed. Not only was the Nigerian character in the novel unrecognizable to him and his classmates but he also detected, in the description of Nigerians, "an undertow of uncharitableness ... a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery."

There has been much written about Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" as a response to Mister Johnson, and one likes to think that Achebe would have written his novel even if he had not read Cary’s. Still, the prejudiced representation of African characters in literature could not but have had an influence on Achebe’s development as a writer. He would, years later, write a famous essay about the portrayal of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s classic novel "Heart of Darkness," arguing not that Conrad should not have written honestly about the racism of the time, but that Conrad failed to hold an authorial rejection of that worldview.

The strangeness of seeing oneself distorted in literature – and indeed of not seeing oneself at all – was part of my own childhood. I grew up in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka in the 1980s, reading a lot of British children’s books. My early writing mimicked the books I was reading: all my characters were white and all my stories were set in England. Then I read "Things Fall Apart." It was a glorious shock of discovery, as was "Arrow of God," which I read shortly afterwards; I did not know in a concrete way until then that people like me could exist in literature. Here was a book that was unapologetically African, that was achingly familiar, but that was, also, exotic because it detailed the life of my people a hundred years before. Because I was educated in a Nigerian system that taught me little of my pre-colonial past, because I could not, for example, imagine with any accuracy how life had been organized in my part of the world in 1890, Achebe’s novels became strangely personal. "Things Fall Apart" was no longer a novel about a man whose exaggerated masculinity and encompassing fear of weakness make it impossible for him to adapt to the changes in his society, it became the life my great-grandfather might have lived. "Arrow of God" was no longer just about the British administration’s creation of warrant chiefs, and the linked destinies of two men – one an Igbo priest the other a British administrator – it became the story of my ancestral hometown during my grandfather’s time. "And No Longer at Ease" transcended the story of an educated young Nigerian struggling with the pressure of new urban expectations in Lagos, and became the story of my father’s generation.

Later, as an adult confronting the portrayals of Africa in non-African literature – Africa as a place without history, without humanity, without hope – and filled with that peculiar sense of defensiveness and vulnerability that comes with knowing that your humanity is seen as negotiable, I would turn again to Achebe’s novels. In the stark, sheer poetry of "Things Fall Apart," in the humor and complexity of "Arrow of God," I found a gentle reprimand: Don’t you dare believe other people’s stories of you.

Considering the time and circumstances under which he wrote, perhaps Chinua Achebe sensed that his work would become, for a generation of Africans, both literature and history. He has written that he would be satisfied if his novels did no more than teach his readers that their past "was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them." He has, on occasion, adopted a somewhat anthropological voice in his fiction: "Fortunately among these people," we are told in "Things Fall Apart," "a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father." But what is remarkable is that Achebe’s art never sinks under this burden of responsibility. A reader expecting to find simple answers in Chinua Achebe’s work will be disappointed, because he is a writer who embraces honesty and ambiguity and who complicates every situation. His criticism of the effects of colonialism on the Igbo is implicit, but so is his interrogation of the internal structure of Igbo society. When Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son in "Things Fall Apart," breaks away from his family and community to join the Christians, it is a victory for the Europeans but also a victory for Nwoye, who finds peace and an outlet for deep disillusions he had long been nursing about his people’s traditions. When a character says, "The White man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act as one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart," the reader is aware that Achebe’s narrative is as much about the knife as it is about the vulnerabilities, the internal complexities, the cracks that already existed.

Achebe writes spare, elegant sentences in English but it is a Nigerian English and often, more specifically, an Igbo English. All three novels are filled with direct translations from the Igbo, resulting in expressions like "still carrying breakfast" and "what is called 'the box is moving?'" as well as in laugh-out-loud lines, especially for an Igbo-speaking reader, like "the white man whose father or mother nobody knows." It is, however, the rendition of proverbs, of speech, of manners of speaking, that elevate Achebe’s novels into a celebration of language. In "Arrow of God," for example, Ezeulu eloquently captures his own cautious progressiveness when he tells his son whom he has decided to send to the missionary school: "I am like the bird eneke-nti-oba. When his friends asked him why he was always on the wing he replied: men of today have learnt to shoot without missing and so I have learnt to fly without perching…the world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place."

Achebe takes his characters seriously but not too seriously; he finds subtly subversive ways to question them and even laugh at them, and he refuses to rescue them from their foibles. Okonkwo, perhaps the best-known character in modern African writing in English, is the quintessential Strong Man, and is ruled by a profound fear that blinds him. His insecurities result in a relentless harshness and an extremist view of masculinity – he is so terrified of being thought weak that he destroys a person he loves and yet the reader empathizes with his remorse, repressed as it is.

It is impossible, especially for the contemporary reader, not to be struck by the portrayal of gender in "Things Fall Apart," and the equating of weakness and inability with femaleness. More interesting, however, and perhaps more revealing, are the subtle ways in which Achebe interrogates this patriarchy: Okonkwo denigrates women and yet the child he most respects is his daughter Ezinma, the only character who dares to answer back to him and who happens to be confident and forthright in a way that his male children are not. My favorite part of the novel, and a small part indeed, is the love story of the old couple Ozoemena and Ndulue. When Ndulue dies, his wife Ozoemena goes to his hut to see his body and then goes into her own hut and is later found dead there. Okonkwo’s friend Obierika recalls, "It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind. I remember when I was a young boy and there was a song about them. He could not do anything without telling her." This recollection troubles Okonkwo because, in his eyes, it casts doubts on Ndulue’s authentic masculinity. He says, "I thought he was a strong man in his youth." The others agree that Ndulue was a strong man and had led the clan to war in those days. They do not see, as Okonkwo obviously does, a contradiction between the old man’s greatness in the realm of masculinity and his mutually dependent relationship with his wife.

It is this rigidity of Okonkwo’s, in addition to his uncompromising nature, his rashness, his excesses, for which the reader feels impatience. Yet, when placed in the context of the many small humiliations of the colonial encounter, his actions become worthy of empathy. The power structures of his society have been so easily overturned. Okonkwo is left struggling to understand a world in which the dignity he had always taken for granted has disappeared, in which elders are treated with scorn and he, proud warrior that he is, is flogged by agents of the District commissioner. The reader is moved to understand the helpless rage, and final violent actions, that are Okonkwo’s response to the enormous, and perhaps baffling, political and economic power that came with Christianity and Colonialism. We are left, in the end, with an unforgettable tragic character: a man who is gravely flawed but who has also been gravely wronged.

Ezeulu, the character at the center of "Arrow of God," which remains my favorite novel, is both flawed and wronged like Okonkwo, and is also held captive by what he imagines his society expects of him. Unlike Okonkwo, a character who was clearly in Achebe’s control, Ezeulu is wondrously unwieldy and his deep complexity lends "Arrow of God" much of its enduring power. I suspect that, as happens in the best fiction, Chinua Achebe did not have complete control over this character; ultimately the spirit of Ezeulu dictated how his story would be told. "Arrow of God" is told from the points of view of both Ezeulu and the British district commissioner Winterbottom; when the novel begins, the central event has already occurred, much like a Greek drama, and what Achebe explores is the aftermath. Ezeulu has testified against his own people in a land case with the neighboring town, because he is determined to speak the truth, and this action has earned him the respect of the district officer the as well as the ire of his local opponents. It will also act as a catalyst that – added to Ezeulu’s stubborness, his idealism, his pride – will contribute to his tragic end.

Like "Things Fall Apart," "Arrow of God" shows the angry helplessness of people in the face of formalized European power: powerful men are treated with scorn by government agents, great men are flogged, the justice system is replaced by one the people do not understand and do not have a say in, and the internal dynamics of the society is turned around.

In "No Longer at Ease," however, this helplessness is replaced by something inchoate but less suffocating, because the terms have changed during the short-lived optimism of independence. Obi, struggling with the pressures of the new Nigerian society, captures this change when he thinks of his boss the Englishman Mr. Green, who he is sure "loved Africa but only Africa of a certain kind: the Africa of Charles the messenger, the Africa of his gardenboy and stewardboy. In 1900 Mr Green might have ranked among the greatest missionaries, in 1935 he would have made do with slapping headmasters in the presence of their pupils, but in 1957 he could only curse and swear."

Achebe writes in the realist tradition and there are often traces of the autobiographical in his work. He was born in 1930 in the Igbo town of Ogidi, southeastern Nigeria. His parents were firm Christians but many of his relatives had retained the Igbo religion and so he grew up a witness to both sides of his heritage and, more importantly, a recipient of stories from both. Influences of his great-uncle, a wealthy and important man who had allowed the first missionaries to stay in his compound but later asked them to leave because he found their music too sad, are obvious in "Things Fall Apart." He worked as a radio producer in Lagos in the 1950s and the details of this life – film shows and clubs and bars, observing formerly expatriate clubs that were now admitting a few Nigerians – give "No Longer at Ease" its verisimilitude. It was through a radio program that Achebe heard the story of an Igbo priest in a nearby town who, as a result of a number of events with the British administration, had postponed the sacred New Yam festival, which had never been done before. He decided to go and visit this town and the story inspired "Arrow of God."

All of Achebe’s work is, in some way, about strong communitarian values, the use of language as collective art, the central place of storytelling and the importance of symbolic acts and objects in keeping a community together. The American writer John Updike, after reading "Arrow of God," wrote to Achebe to say that a western writer would not have allowed the destruction of a character as rich as Ezeulu. This is debatable, but perhaps what Updike had understood was that Achebe was as much concerned with a person as he was with a people, an idea well captured in the proverb that a character in Arrow of God recites: "An animal rubs its itching flank against a tree, but a man asks his kinsman to scratch him." 

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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