Delicious descriptions: Chinua Achebe’s people and places

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

In my recent post on Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things fall apart, I focused mostly on its themes and ideas, which drove the quotes I chose to share. Here I want to show more of his writing, including his wit and use of imagery.

I’ll start with this early description of the protagonist, Okonkwo, who is determined not to be like his failure of a father:

When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

At first the phrases “heels hardly touched the ground” and “walk on springs” conjured for me (anyhow) Jesus Christ walking on water, but they’re immediately followed by the very un-Christlike idea of pouncing on people, confirming that the reference is instead to powerful, predatory cats. The “slight stammer” could garner some sympathy from us. We can understand the frustration of not being able to speak fluently, but resolving it with his fists again undercuts the possibility of our sympathy. And the last two sentences! Love them. The economy – and wit – with which he makes the point. And to not respect his father? Unfortunately, for all his determination to not be like his father, to be an admirable man respected by all, he ends up with a son who doesn’t respect him. This is the sort of writing I love, writing that gives with one hand and takes away with another, that requires me to fully engage my brain as I read.

Oh, and the rhythm of this paragraph is lovely too – long sentence, short sentence, then long, followed by short, short. It just reads well.

There’s a lot of lovely imagery – mostly earth and nature related which you’d expect given the book’s setting – but I’ll just share one. It describes Okonkwo’s son Nwoye being tempted by the new (that is, Christian) religion:

But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth. Nwoye’s callow mind was greatly puzzled.

For an agricultural society, the image of rain on a “panting earth” provides a perfect description of Nwoye’s desperation for comfort.

Other imagery relates to aggression, violence, strength – wrestling, fire, knives – which is reflects the novel’s themes and the character of its protagonist. Again, I’ll just choose one example. It’s short and comes from Part 3 after Okonkwo has returned to his village to find the white man’s arrival has caused a breakdown in village relationships. Obierika says of the white man that:

He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

And with that, Achebe unites the novel’s title, its narrative arc, and the epigraph:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
(from “The second coming”, WB Yeats)

Such a beautifully conceived novel.

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (Review)

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

At last I’ve read that classic of African literature, China Achebe’s Things fall apart. It all came about because this year ABC RN’s classics book club is doing Africa. As I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and as my reading group has been making a practice of choosing one ABC RN bookclub book a year, I recommended Things fall apart and – woohoo – they agreed. I am so happy! OK, so I’m easily pleased, but …

The funny thing is that as I started it, I did wonder what all the acclaim was about. Yes, I was finding the writing gorgeous, and yes, I found all the detail about life in the little Igbo village of Umuofia fascinating, but were these enough for its huge reputation? Then, I got to Part 2 – this is a classic three-part book – and the arrival of white man and the missionaries in southeastern Nigeria. The plot started to thicken – but, not just the plot. The whole gorgeous structure of the novel, its complexity and its sophisticated analysis of human society and the colonial imperative started to become clear.

Here, though, is my challenge – a challenge faced by all bloggers writing about much-analysed classics – what can I add? I haven’t actually read any of the analysis, except for my edition’s introduction, so I risk either going over the same old ground, or heading off on a completely irrelevant tangent, but I’m going to try. And how I’m going to try is to talk about a few of the aspects of the book that stood out to me, which, as is my wont, will focus more on how it is written than with the story itself.

However, I will start with a brief synopsis of the story, just in case there are others out there who haven’t read it. The plot is fairly simple: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an “ill-fated”, “lazy and improvident” man, he decided early in life that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected “warrior” in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a “man”, to never show a “female” side. Male-female dichotomies are, in fact, an underlying thread in the novel. Whenever things go wrong for him, his response is always aggressive: if you aren’t confronting a situation head on, you are a “woman”. This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen I think as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw, an inability to be flexible, an unwillingness to marry his two sides.

This idea of two parts is fundamental to how the novel is structured and how the themes are developed – and Achebe conveys it through dichotomies and parallels. There’s the male-female one, which Okonkwo battles within himself. “When did you become a shivering old woman” he asks himself regarding the distress he feels after engaging in a violent act. Later, he is surprised to hear of a husband who consulted his wife before doing anything:

 ‘I thought he was a strong man in his youth.’ ‘He was indeed,’ said Ofoedu. Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully.

But there are other dichotomies, and two, in particular, that I found interesting. One is between  Okonkwo and his friend Obierika. Both are respected men in the village, and both adhere to their traditions and conventions, but Okonkwo, who is “not a man of thought but of action” is so fearful of appearing weak he follows the “laws” rigidly. Obierika on the other hand is more thoughtful:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?

A similar dichotomy is set up between two missionaries:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

So, we have dichotomies established within the two cultures he’s describing – the African and colonial/missionary – but these two sets of dichotomies also work as parallels for each other, reflecting the differences, the conflicts in fact, that can occur within both (all) cultures.

Now I get to more uncomfortable ideas. Okonkwo’s tragedy could be seen to mirror Africa’s, but this is a tricky thing to consider. Okonkwo’s flaw we know. Did Africa, likewise, have a flaw or weakness? We criticise colonialism – and surely it is a bad thing, the subjugation of one people by another, the taking of one people’s land by another – and yet … Achebe himself benefited from the education brought by the missionaries, and in Things fall apart he tells us that some Igbo villagers saw positives:

The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

Some even saw positives in the religion.

So, Achebe is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation – the colonisers and the colonised – but his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial project. In the last paragraph we learn that District Commissioner plans to write a book. Its title, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, euphemistically describes the colonisers’ mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as “pacification” and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is “primitive”. For Achebe, then, the overriding point of Things fall apart is not so much to present the positives and negatives within the two opposing cultures, but to expose the disdain with which the colonisers treated African people, and the way they denigrated African culture.

This is such an honest and provocative book, one that would bear multiple re-readings – like all good classics. Have you read it?

Chinua Achebe
Things fall apart
London: Penguin Classics, 2001 (orig. pub. 1958)
ISBN (e-book): 9780141393964

Sefi Atta, A bit of difference (Review)

Sefi Atta, A bit of difference

Book cover (Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

Nigerian writer Sefi Atta was once an accountant. Interesting switch that, accountant to writer, but Atta seems to have made it with great success. Her first novel, Everything good will come, won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and received an Honourable Mention in the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize. Her short story collection, News from home, won the Noma Award for Publishing. I don’t usually itemise awards but it seemed appropriate to do so for a writer who is probably little known to most of my readers. It provides some context to her standing.

However, I mentioned her previous profession for another reason. The main character in her most recent novel, A bit of difference, is a Nigerian accountant. I’m not sure how autobiographical the novel is but Atta clearly understands something about the world of accountants!

The novel is set in the early-mid 2000s, just post the war in Iraq, and takes place over a few months in the life of its protagonist, Deola (pronounced, we are told in the first chapter, “day-ola”). Aged 39, Deola is the director of internal audit for an international charitable foundation. Her role is to audit organisations that receive its grants. The novel starts with her travelling to the Atlanta, USA, office and sets the tone for her dissatisfaction regarding where she is in her life, that is, an unmarried, childless Nigerian expat living in London.

Deola and I have little in common, but I have lived the expat life twice, once in my early 30s and again in my late 30s-early 40s and I understood her desire to be with people who have a “shared history”. The trouble of course is that having gone to boarding school and then worked in England for many years, her “shared history” is a little muddy. However, she starts to feel it’s back in Nigeria, despite her own misgivings and those of her English and Nigerian friends in London.

This is not a book with a page-turning plot. It simply follows several months in the life of an unsettled woman who’s trying to make a decision. It’s told 3rd person, but from Deola’s point of view, and is chronological, with flashbacks to explain to us how she’s got to where she is. Despite the potential, given its setting, it’s not a grim novel. There’s humour – in some funny scenes, entertaining dialogue, effective use of irony. And there’s a wide cast of well-diffferentiated and rather colourful but very real characters – from the thirty-something sister in Nigeria who still likes hip-hop to the not-yet successful Coetzee-enthusiast Nigerian novelist friend in London.

What is most interesting in the novel is its multiple, intertwining themes: the often lonely life of the middle-class expat, race relations in England, African identity and politics, and the way even the enlightened or educated people in both cultures don’t always meet eye-to-eye. I was reminded, as I was reading the book, of Anita Heiss’s talk at the Readers Festival I attended last month. She said she wanted to write novels about young, professional, urban indigenous women to show that their concerns are much the same as their anglo-Australian contemporaries, with the added issue of racial identity and politics to contend with.

And so, as I believe Heiss’s “chicklit” novels do, Atta’s novel explores those universal concerns of belonging and identity, but set against a particular environment where ethnic distrust and/or racial and class hierarchies threaten the self, both at home and in the “adopted country”. Deola feels somewhat of an outsider. In England, she feels her views or experience are not respected by her employing organisation and she is conscious always of being black in a white country. Back home in Nigeria, she’s aware of corruption, and of the way Nigerians rank and distrust each other on a whole range of grounds. England may be characterised by “phony egalitarianism” but Nigeria doesn’t seem much better. Through a character like Deola, Atta can tease out the misunderstandings – or arrogance even – of western organisations trying to “do good” for developing countries while also showing the lack of cohesion in those very countries receiving the help. Fortunately for Deola, at least on a personal level, help might be on the way in the form a man she meets on a business trip to Lagos. But, like most modern novels, nothing is quite as simple as it seems …

Two motifs run through the novel – the fear of HIV/AIDS and the threat of “armed robbers”. These are the “bogies” of contemporary Africa, and serve as a constant reminder that for all the universalities, this novel is also particularised to Africa. A bit of difference is an interesting and satisfying book primarily for this very reason, for, that is, the fact that it so beautifully integrates an engaging personal story with one having a wider political resonance.

Sefi Atta
A bit of difference
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781876756994

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)