The third of Achebe’s African Trilogy, my review of the first, (Things Fall Apart), may be found here; the second, (No Longer at Ease), here.
This, the third of Achebe’s African Trilogy, seemed to require more attention than its predecessors. The plot is straightforward, some of the scenes take place from the point of view of Nigeria’s colonial administration and those were easy enough to get into, but the tribal scenes needed patience. Patience is rewarded with some wonderful insights into tribal life and the sayings of the Igbo people but, unfortunately, I’d lost a lot of the flavour of the work before I realised that for gulping rather than chewing and, indeed, I lost some of the plot as well.
To restart at the beginning…
Ezeulu is the priest – and arrow – of Ulu, the god of the village of Umuaro. The village itself, relatively isolated from colonial administration, largely goes about its own business unhindered, but intrusions do take place. One such earned Ezeulu the trust of Winterbottom, a trust that is to prove damaging later. Another – peripherally – is the intrusion of Christianity in the form of a church established near Umuaro by one John Goodcountry, a church to which Ezeulu sent one of his own sons in order to become a Christian and serve as his eyes and ears, though it is clear this engenders within the son split loyalties between his father and Christianity, a faith he begins to adopt as his own with increasing dedication.
A third encounter affecting Ezeulu directly comes with the building of a road. The administration decides to bring in unpaid labour in order to hasten the project onwards, and another of Ezeulu’s sons is volunteered as one of the labourers. A wayward lad, given to sloth and over-indulgence in the local beverage, he turns up late for work with a hangover and taunts the overseer with his attitude. The overseer, an Englishman, beats him severely for doing so.
Ezeulu, then, is not as well disposed to the colonial administration as he might be when Winterbottom decides to set Ezeulu up as a local chief in the area following the policy of indirect rule whereby trusted locals take positions of authority on the administration’s behalf. He summons Ezeulu to attend him, such summons always being delivered by locals who, running the administration’s errands, cannot resist using their position to levy taxes and to gain benefits by making demands with the supposed authority of the administration itself. Their arrogance in delivering their message further compounds Ezeulu’s negativity and, moreover, they do not know the basis upon which the summons has been made, further frustrating Ezeulu who finds the summons peremptory. Ezeulu resists, refuses on the basis that a man in his position is not to be summonsed in this fashion, but fellow villagers – not wishing to offend the white administration – prevail upon him to attend.
He arrives to find Winterbottom indisposed by illness and a deputy, less familiar with the situation in Nigeria and not knowing Ezeulu at all, has the task of making the offer. Ezeulu refuses, and the deputy imprisons him out of irritation, and in the hope he may be able to persuade him in that way.
Here, Ezuelu’s absence from the village becomes important. With each new moon, he eats one of a dozen yams from the previous year. When these are used up, he announces the new harvest of yams but, in his absence, yams have gone uneaten. When he returns, then, for the ritual to play itself out, the harvest is fatally delayed. There is some question here in my mind whether Ezuelu is pedantic about this merely given his dedication to the ritual, or whether irritation with his fellow villagers at sending him on his demeaning mission plays a part. The ambiguity may have arisen from my o’er-hasty reading, but it does seem Achebe focuses upon the latter when Ezuelu first makes his decision, the former as events work their way through as a consequence. Either way, Ezuelu is adamant.
Goodcountry, the priest, sees an opportunity. He puts it about that if the villagers bring offerings of yams to his own harvest festival, the Christian God will protect the villagers from the wrath of Ulu and so they can bring in their harvest. Many of the villagers prove reluctant to abandon their traditions in this way, though their plight is severe, and Goodcountry offers them a solution. However, Ezuelu is to suffer yet again when one of his favoured sons, in temporary ill-health, is prevailed upon to undertake a strenuous activity at a funeral ritual. It is too much for him, and he dies.
Ezuelu is now a broken man and, the arrow of Ulu, the villagers see a broken god. We know that their abandonment of the old ways for Christianity is now inevitable.
Whether or not Achebe intends his readers to see the book in this light I do not know, but for me this is a story of the unintended consequences of power, and the inevitability of its leading those over whom it holds sway into the ways of those who wield it. Winterbottom may be content for the villagers to continue with their traditions so long as they cooperate with the administration, but that very cooperation has consequences. The fact it is able to simply commandeer labour brings tensions, and it is only able to do so because of the awe in which the administration is held, however that may or may not be acknowledged. That is a tension that must be resolved. Moreover, no local aware of the ways of the tribe would have kept the priest away from the identification of the new moon and disrupted the annual ritual. In other words, the two cultures can exist side by side only in temporary stasis. Even with the best of intentions – not that I am claiming the best of intentions for British colonial rule in Nigeria overall – the dominating culture must prevail and usurp its predecessor. The tensions are too great between them, and the more powerful culture will inevitably win out as the old, perforce, fails to live in harmony with it, even if the disharmony is unrecognised by the usurping culture and its actions in bringing it to the fore are unintentional.
This is a work to take slowly and carefully. I am sorry to say I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. The easier passages dealing with the colonial administration led me to be too hasty in reading the sections about the tribe which dominate the book. Nonetheless, I got a great deal of satisfaction from it. The careful reader will derive even more.