Monday, April 1, 2013
The Novel Achebe May Read Again
Arrow of God is so dense in plot, deep in characterisation and profound in narrative technique that even the author once confessed that it is the novel which ‘I am mostly likely to be caught sitting down to read again’
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s celebrated classic novel, did not come to being without experiencing the pangs of birth. It literally went through the valley of the shadow of death before seeing the light of day. The original manuscript got misplaced, making the writer develop some goose pimples. And when it was eventually found, no publisher was very eager to put his money on an African story with a strange narrative technique loaded with “native” anecdotes, strange, if not ordinary, characters with “unpronounceable” names and, above all, “native” proverbs that sounded esoteric in the ears of the white-man publishers. The stereotypes were too many. But rose would always smell nice whatever name you call it. Once the manuscript was eventually given the green light, Things Fall Apart instantly became the rave of the moment, enjoying fascinating reviews across the broad spectrum of literary critics in international journals and mainstreet publications. Sooner than expected, it became a novel sans frontiers. The acclamation was unprecedented.
It was morning yet on creation day for Achebe who rode on the crest of the popularity of Things Fall Apart to turn what could have been the concluding part of the novel into another story culminating in the publication of No Longer at Ease. In essence, No Longer at Ease is a sequel to Things Fall Apart. Obi, the hero of No Longer at Ease is the grandson of Okonkwo, the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. His own father, Nwoye, (baptised Isaac), was one of the early defectors of Umuofia to forsake their traditional African religion to join the missionaries and their new brand of religion. Achebe is not done yet. He recreates a new setting for what may be referred to as another Things Fall Apart called Arrow of God. Sounds strange?
There are both thematic and ancestral affinities among the trilogy. Both Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease have ancestral linkage through their respective heroes who share a common pedigree while Arrow of God shares a similar thematic bond with Things Fall Apart. Though No Longer at Ease is distinct from Things Fall Apart, apart from sharing a common ancestral heritage, the same cannot be said of Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart. The two have similar themes, settings, conflicts, characterisation and narrative techniques. So, why did Achebe write Arrow of God? Is it an overkill or a deliberate creative attempt to deliver the first literary “Siamese twins” to the world? Or what was he thinking?
Achebe’s motive in writing his early novels is well espoused in ‘The Novelist as Teacher’, a paper he delivered at the Leeds Conference on Commonwealth Literature in 1964. He told his audience, among other things, that his writing was an adequate revolution for him to articulate his people’s culture and help the African society regain its belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-denigration. “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past with all its imperfections was not one long night of savagery which the first European acting on God’s behalf delivered them”.
This aim is part of his contributions to the task of giving back to Africa the pride and self-respect it lost during the years of colonialism. Achebe himself reiterated this fact in ‘The Black Writer’s Burden’, a published article of his in 1966, as “the need to repair the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races”. This cultural attitude is well highlighted in his first three novels but most especially in Arrow of God with a seemingly similar theme, setting and characterisation as in Things Fall Apart. Achebe himself admitted that his purpose in doing so was to fill the gaps created in Things Fall Apart which he saw as a necessity before moving to the contemporary scene. This, in part, accounts for the density of the description of the complex but beautiful traditional life enunciated in the novel. In doing this, he is able to portray the Igbo society under stress, a stress which is symbolically represented in the jealousy of Nwafo by Edogo, in the perennial quarrels between Ugoye and Matefi (wives of Ezeulu, the protagonist), in the unhealthy rivalry between Nwaka and Ezeulu, in the long-standing enmity between two of the six villages of Umuaro, in the land dispute between the whole of Umuaro and Okperi, and finally in the confusion brought by the white man. In spotlighting this stress, however, the author does not part company with his avowed aim of giving Africans back their self-respect.
There is a vivid portrayal of the beauty and rhythm of African life represented in he socio-cultural and politico-economic expositions prevalent in Umuaro, the setting of the novel. The organisational set-up of the six villages that make up Umuaro – Umuachala, Umunnaora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwugwu and Umuisiuzo – as a clan, the appointment of a chief priest, the relationship between the priest and his people, the high regard placed on men of titles, the various customs e.g funeral ceremony, marriage, New Yam Festival, Feast of the Pumpkin Leaves, all these are wedged in the plot in order to show the values of traditional African life to the reader.
Any person who had read Things Fall Apart before getting hold of Arrow of God may be tempted to think he is watching a re-run of the film of events and characters in Things Fall Apart. To some extent, yes. But he must not be mistaken to believe that both novels can weigh the same on the scale of priority among intellectuals and critics who believe that there is a more profound and significant treatment of characters and situations in Arrow of God than in Things Fall Apart. Hence there is a more sustained character in Ezeulu, the chief priest, in Arrow of God than in Okonkwo, the warrior, in Things Fall Apart. It is in the more elaborate exposition of the character of Ezeulu and the conflicts within the Umuaro clan that the tragic dimension becomes more pronounced, unlike the unidirectional movements that led to the denouement in Things...
There’s no doubt that Arrow of God is a deliberate remix, to use musical entertainment language, of Things Fall Apart. The hero here is a man of superior intelligence imbued with a sense of moderation. Unlike the hero in Things Fall Apart who relies more on exterior strength and sheer bravado than internal wisdom. Though both are destined to end tragically, Achebe makes sure that Ezeulu towers far above Okonkwo in strength of character, especially in his ability to discern the change the white man’s incursion has brought to his domain and the inevitable social disequilibrium it will endanger.
The plot being an open one, Achebe uses occasional digressions via the path of anecdotes and village gossipers. For instance, any time Anosi is mentioned, one is sure of having the latest ‘gist’ in Umuaro clan. It is through his ever mobile tongue that almost all the six villages learnt of the abomination committed by Oduche, the Christianised son of Ezeulu who, out of overzealousness, attempted to kill the sacred python which further aggravated the enmity between the two priests, Ezeulu and Ezidemili whose deity, idemili, owned the python. This episode further advances the plot. Other techniques used in advancing the course of the story include the employment of digression through the use of anecdotes, short stories and oratory.
This method of adopting oral tradition is further used in the characterisation. The characters of Achebe are representatives of their societies. Just as Okonkwo is presented as the strongman of Umuofia, so is Ezeulu portrayed as the representative of his people. In such a situation, it is difficult to separate the individual from the tragedy that befalls the community and vice versa. It will, therefore, be artificial to separate the individual’s course of action from the social drama being enacted. The two movements must be woven into such unity that enhances the profile of the hero.
Examples abound in how Achebe is able to achieve this. In the internal rivalry among the villages, Ezeulu stands in the centre. In the bigger conflict between European and African cultures, he alone understands the nature of the dilemma posed by the presence of the white man in their midst, ushering in an age of new adjustment. No wonder he declares: “The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in the same place.” Alas! There are many forces working towards his tragedy – his pride and stubbornness, the internal division among the villages, the loss of his son, Oduche, to the new religion thereby becoming “the lizard that ruined his mother’s funeral” and the incursion of the white man into the erstwhile peaceful life of the Igbo people.
One cannot talk of Achebe’s achievement in Arrow of God without mentioning his language. Like in Things Fall Apart, the twin novel, Achebe uses English in a universally accepted standard and at the same time in a way to carry his purely authentic African experience. His mastery of the English language enables him to make use of a species of language “that is clear and generous which stirs the emotions and drops anchors in the memory.” Critics are not extravagant with such compliments for nothing. Right in chapter 1, page 1, Achebe gives a signal of what to expect in Arrow … “The moon (the chief priest) saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” The imagery is scintillating, a sort of literary echo from Thomas Hardy, the English poet and novelist known for his deep-etched descriptions, e.g in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Examine also Akukalia’s warning to the other emissaries sent to deliver a message to a neighbouring village. “I think I should remind you again to hold your tongue in your hand when we get there and leave the talking to me.” The idea of holding one’s tongue in one’s hands is patently African but its use does not in any way affect the meaning intended in the statement; rather it adds flavour to it. So also is Ezeulu’s praise of the deity of Eru in the presence of Obika after the latter had recounted the experience of his encounter with the spirit. “When he likes a man, wealth flows like a river into his house; his yams grow as big as human beings, his goats produce threes and his hens hatch nines.” In the background of this statement is the indulgence of Africans in the use of hyperboles which add flavours to their descriptive renditions.
Euphemism, too, readily comes handy. Obika marries Okuata and the narrator has this to say. “When he took his wife to his hut after the sacrifice, would he find her at home – as the saying was – or would he learn with angry humiliation that another man has broken in and gone off with his prize?”
Euphemism, in the description of sensitive or behind-the-door matters, is a common device in traditional African life and is effectively used in Achebe’s novels. He himself holds that the African writer should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.
As a corollary to this, there is a skilful handling and infusion of local proverbs and idioms. The aim of Achebe’s intensive use of these proverbs and wise sayings is to meet the didactic function which he is concerned with. It is also aimed to reveal their place in African traditional life. To him, proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten and he lays them bare on the table as a delicious buffet for all readers. But as a literary artist he does not just present a collage of proverbs for art’s sake. They have their functional relevance as they help bring into focus and sustain the themes the writer is exploring. After the judgement on the land dispute, Ezeulu’s friend, Akuebue, has to rebuke him for turning himself into a traitor in the eyes of his people because of his outspokenness. Hear him: “A man cannot win judgement against the clan.” The message in this wise saying is carried through the novel as Ezeulu fails in the fight against the clan over his detention in Okperi and Umuaro’s lukewarm attitude to avenge his humiliation. Ezeulu’s response as contained in the proverb – “when brothers fight to death a stranger inherits their father’s estate’ – is both prophetic and ironic because when he fights the clan to near-death it is the white man who inherits “the estate” when Christianity is accepted by the people.
Through the proverbs and idioms, traditions are received and handed on, and when they disappear or fall into disuse it is a sign that a particular life is passing away. This is why Achebe lamented in a foreword to “A Selection of African Prose” by W. H. Whiteley (Oxford, 1964) that this aspect of traditional life, often evident in oratory and even in the art of good conversation, is dying down fast and there seems to be no way of preventing it. There is no doubt that the proverb – laden narrative of Arrow of God (and, indeed, all Achebe’s works) is a deliberate effort to retain traditional African prose and consequently to show Africa’s cultural continuity.
His early novels, especially Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, are literary chronicles of traditional African life in Igboland before the advent of the white man who came carrying a Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other to pacify the “primitive tribes” of the Lower Niger. But Arrow of God is so dense in plot, deep in characterisation and profound in narrative technique that even the author once confessed that it is the novel which “I am most likely to be caught sitting down to read again” because of its “peculiar quality”.