My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[‘No Longer at Ease’ is the second of Chinua Achebe’s ‘African Trilogy’. Though it may be read entirely independently of ‘Things Fall Apart’, (review here), the preceding work, it benefits from it having been read given that the central character is the grandson of Okonkwo, the central character of the first novel. The two works together provide contrast in the change from the early days of British colonisation to the period here, the 1950s-1960s, when the British presence is well-established. In each, the character of Nigeria itself features as an effective protagonist, and thus it is worth seeing the development of that pseudo-characterisation as the nation’s history unfolds. My review for the third part of the trilogy, Arrow of God, which may be read entirely independently, is here]
No spoilers here. The opening chapter brings us beyond the closing of the work in showing us our main character, Obi, on trial for corruption. We then return to the story of Obi’s descent – largely through misfortune – from a man of good intentions to one who has, to all intents and purposes, simply given in to the pressures placed upon him both by the modernised world of the developing city of Lagos, and from the old tribal mores of his home village.
From the beginning we see Obi in mild contention with his own tribe. The tribe has sent some of its people out into the wider world and into the cities, there to earn money. One of the goals of doing so is to send one of their own to England to study law, the better to equip the tribe to deal with the vagaries of the changing world around them, and the duty falls upon Obi, an excellent student. However, he chooses instead to study English. Considering the implications of this, and the effort the tribe has put in in scraping together the money for Obi’s education, this does not put him in a sympathetic light. However, there is a sense – to be continued throughout the work – that Obi’s selfishness is that of the dreamer lacking in pragmatism, and the tribe proves surprisingly tolerant of his choice, perhaps given that any English education virtually guarantees Obi a position of some minor influence within the civil service.
While in England, Obi meets Clara, a compatriot. The meeting is brief, she seems uninterested in him, but chance brings them together again aboard the ship upon which both choose to return to Nigeria, their studies completed. Again, Clara is cool, but betrays her interest in a moment of passion he, sensing that her coldness is feigned, instigates. It is only momentary. She breaks away from him and makes it plain that nothing can happen between them.
Upon his return, Obi does indeed secure a job in the civil service. Working in the education department, he has some small influence over those individuals chosen by the nation for studies overseas. The wages are so low, the need to pay back his tribe for the money expended on his education so pressing, and with other expenditures forcing him to live hand-to-mouth always unsure he can make ends meet, Obi nonetheless refuses the bribes that would see him out of his financial predicament. Corruption in Nigerian society is something he detests, and though one of his close friends mocks him for his punctiliousness, he is adamant.
By now, he and Clara have indeed started a relationship, but she reveals to him that marriage is impossible. She is an osu. The osu are an untouchable caste within Nigerian tribal society. A forebear of Clara’s had been dedicated to one of the local gods, and that dedication rendered not only him untouchable, but also all those in his lineage. By implication, any children Clara and Obi may have would themselves be osu, not to mention the shame his marrying an osu would bring upon his family.
This may seem extreme in a modernising society, but I myself have encountered the same thing in Japan in the 1990s with the burakumin. Historically, these were the people who fell into the lower levels of Japanese society and dealt with such activities as the preparation of leather which went against Buddhist mores. With the burakumin, too, untouchability descends through their lineage and, (albeit illegally), genealogies continued to be circulated when I was there so people could avoid hiring one, or have one marry into the family. Given the extreme modernisation of Japan in the 1990s, that such a practice should have existed in Nigeria in the 1950s and ’60s comes as no surprise to me as a reader, though others may find it puzzling. Just accept it. People are weird.
Though Isaac, Obi’s father, is a Christian, the entire family ostensibly so, Isaac as a pragmatist recognises the difficulties that can arise from such a marriage. Obi’s mother, more traditional, forbids it outright and, already mortally ill, threatens to kill herself and lose what little time she has left should Obi marry Clara.
Obi has half a mind to continue with the marriage regardless, perhaps waiting for his mother’s imminent passing before undertaking it, but Clara breaks with him given the situation is so complicated and, in parting, tells him she is pregnant. Abortion illegal, Obi needs to find still more money to deal with procuring one for Clara. When he decides to ask Clara to continue with the relationship and to have the child it is too late. Clara has been taken to an unknown location for the operation and he cannot prevent it. This brings an effective end to his relationship with Clara who now wants nothing further to do with him from that point.
His mother’s death is the last straw for Obi. He sinks into a depression, does not even attend her funeral and, soon after, begins to take the bribes he has always rejected. One of the smaller bribes proves to be his downfall, a sting operation which results in his arrest and returns us to the events at the book’s opening.
This is a painful book. Obi’s good intentions are thwarted again and again by both his worlds, the tribal world of his family in its newfound Christianity, and the modern society of the city. Both are to condemn him for the corruption they themselves, directly and indirectly, have brought him to given that his desire to do the right thing never works out. Yes, there is bad luck too, but in his bad luck neither society affords him any relief.
That, I suspect, is Achebe’s intended message, but he did rather mess it up for me. Obi’s punctiliousness is laudable when it comes to his refusal to take bribes, but in a corruption-ridden society we have to ask how much damage it would have done had he done so from the beginning. Indeed, the low wage he earned in a relatively prestigious government-funded position reminds me of what I know to be the case here in China where corruption is also endemic. Though official posts are sought after, the wages again are low, but it is known that those wages are supplemented by kick-backs and the various ‘fringe benefits’ the posts bring with them. It is as if it has been written into the system. Government expenditure is reduced, their main income derives from the officials’ ‘end-users’, those who need their services and so, in a way, the user pays through a form of indirect taxation. As a justificatory for corruption this is weak, but not entirely without merit. The important point, however, is that the system is corrupt, and Obi’s refusal to participate in its corruption can make little difference.
This is important given two relatively minor asides in the course of the narrative. The first is in the first of the bribes Obi is offered. Having turned down the financial offer made by the father of a prospective student, he is approached by the student herself, a very attractive young woman, to see if he can be bought with sexual favours. His sanguine friend mocks him for turning her down – Obi already knows that she will be through to the next stage anyway, and so doesn’t even require his help. He may as well have taken her up on her offer. However, Obi is adamant. He will not be corrupted in that way. Somehow, in all this high-minded discourse, Clara doesn’t seem to count for much. His refusal is focused solely upon his idealism.
This is underlined by an almost pointless scene in which Obi pursues another girl. Nothing comes of it, but only thanks to the girl’s refusal. Thoughts of Clara are entirely absent.
Taking bribes in an environment riddled with corruption, then, may be above him, an act which – arguably – harms no one; but when it comes to his own relationship, he shows little interest in keeping it pristine. The damage infidelity would do to Carla is arguably greater than any damage he would do anyone in taking a bribe. This rather tarnishes Obi and makes his attitude seem hypocritical. However, it is so underplayed by Achebe that one suspects his tarnishing was unintentional. That led this reader, at least, to wince a little.
The only other criticism is some too-abrupt transitions towards the end of the book, most notably in the final few chapters, which had me flipping back a time or two wondering what I’d missed in getting here from there.
These gripes aside, though, this is a very worthwhile read. For me, it made for a particularly worthwhile read having come upon the ‘African Trilogy’ in the immediate wake of having read Philip Roth’s ‘American Trilogy’, a happy coincidence. I suspect it not so coincidental that Achebe named his trilogy in a manner so resonant of Roth. Similarities abound. A central character caught up in the Zeitgeist of his nation and falling foul of it is the central theme of each of Roth’s trilogy works, and so here, at least so far with two of the ‘African Trilogy’ under my belt. If Roth’s trilogy is as much about America as about his main characters, so here with Achebe’s. Achebe does not probe as deeply as does Roth, the works are shorter, the characterisation and situations less examined, but where Roth deals with exceptional characters, Achebe focuses upon the Everyman. Yes, Okonkwo is something of a village hero in ‘Things Fall Apart’, but his need to be conventional lessens this. Indeed, some of the ways in which he achieves his prominence is by being the village ideal; Everyman writ large.
I would rate ‘No Longer at Ease’ slightly higher than ‘Things Fall Apart’, but recommend both. Both are far from perfect, but well-worth reading.