[This is the first part of Chinua Achebe’s ‘African Trilogy’. The review for part two, ‘No Longer at Ease’, may be found here; part three, ‘Arrow of God’, here]
Chinua Achebe, and this work in particular, came highly recommended as, supposedly, one of the foremost examples of modern African literature. I doubt it is so. I’m giving it four stars for the final third of the book which ended well, but the first two-thirds left much to be desired in the choices Chinua Achebe made.
We are presented with a tribal village, Umuofia, and the Ibo people who live there, in the pre-colonial 1890s of what is now Nigeria. Chinua Achebe scores on a lot of levels. This is not a romanticised view of pre-colonial primitivism. The unpredictability of the next-to-nature existence of the tribe, their beliefs, competition with their neighbours, these things and others combine to present us with an often brutal existence. Twins are abandoned to die in the forest as soon as they are born. Inter-tribal warfare is frequent. When we are introduced to the main protagonist, Okonkwo, he already has five heads to his name, the skull of the first of these used by him as a drinking cup. As the story progresses, at the urging of the tribal seer, he puts his own adopted – and beloved – son to death for, it seems, no apparent reason.
It would be wrong to exaggerate this presented, as it is, as a list, and to say that is all we see in Umofia and in our central protagonist. We also see acts of kindness, of generosity, we see hard work undertaken and, albeit heavily disguised, we even see love, but the brutality of the situation is at the forefront. Chinua Achebe does not want us to romanticise the tribe, though it would make the task he has by the book’s end easier had he done so. For realism, the work is deserving of applause, and the author along with it for not taking any easy options.
My frustration with this first two-thirds of the novel comes almost entirely with the perspectives Chinua Achebe selects. Early in the novel we meet Okonkwo’s father, a ne’er-do-well, forever borrowing, (and not paying back), the cowrie shells the tribe uses as money. There is humour there, the father presents a mischievous character, but sadly he is dead before the narrative really begins. His son, in contrast, is conventional in the extreme, and if the work tells us nothing else it is that conventional people have a mindset that leaves much to be desired and is the same the world over. Not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Okonkwo is determined to do well at everything that can mark him out as a respected member of the tribe. He works hard, honours his debts, does all that tribal customs demand and yet, in the end, for all the five heads he collected in warfare, we see the mind of a man who, had he been born in London, would wear a suit, a bowler hat, carry an umbrella, and be a mid-ranking executive in the city. It is not that he is markedly adapted to his environment; it is more a case that, through his desire for conformity and his natural inclination towards it, he has adapted himself to suit that environment. What we see, then, is more an attitude than a character. it does not make for a fetching protagonist.
This is not the only failing in perspective. There are the guns in the village. We know the tribe has had no contact with white people, so where do they come from? It would have been nice to have been told. Then there’s a scene in which the tribal spirits come together to administer justice in a dispute. We know that Okonkwo himself is behind one of the masks and here, at least, it would have been interesting to have had his perspective on the role he is playing. However, we don’t get it. Instead we have the perspective of others in the tribe, fearful of these ‘spirits’, watching as they retire to debate the case and re-emerge to pronounce judgement. What happens in the course of that retirement we are not told. How did the men, and Okonkwo himself, prepare for their roles? Do they take them seriously, or when they are alone together do they smile at the anxiety they engender in the audience, taking off their masks in order to relax? Again, it would have been nice to have been told.
Overall, this is a rewarding read up to this point. We do have a good portrait of the tribe, though Okonkwo is a little too disengaged from his fellows – even his own family – most of the time for us to have much of a perspective beyond his own and that, again, is unfortunate. An imperfect beginning, then.
We are nearly two-thirds of our way through the work when the pace changes. Okonkwo’s gun explodes, killing a child. The death is accidental, but even for that the punishment is severe – a seven years’ banishment. He moves to his mother’s village where he is welcomed along with his family as a kinsman, but the main action moves now to the coming of missionaries into the village, there to spread themselves out such that, when Okonkwo does indeed return to Umuofia, they have set up there as well. Their peaceful invasion disrupts tribal life completely. Okonkwo loses his own son early on as a convert to the new religion. Old traditions are challenged. Routines are disrupted. Above all, opposition is met with strong reprisals on the part of the administration, the new government from England, that trails in after the missionaries to impose a foreign law and foreign customs upon the people.
It is now that the work shines for the question of what truly constitutes barbarity. We see the British colonials and their governance as advanced, yes; even, on some levels, as ‘civilised’ but, beneath it all, we are often hard-pressed to decide which of the two societies we prefer in terms of their behaviour; the openly brutal tribal culture, or the more insidiously brutal culture of the colonists in their usurpation.
Overall, then, this is a good, if flawed work. There’s much to think about here, but wiser choices early on in the story would have raised the level of the work considerably.