Friday, January 25, 2013

No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe

Once before he went to England, Obi heard his father talk with deep feeling about the mystery of the written word to an illiterate kinsman:

"Our women made black patterns on their bodies with the juice of the uli tree.  It was beautiful, but it soon faded.  If it lasted two market weeks it lasted a long time.  But sometimes our elders spoke about uli that never faded, although no one had ever seen it.  We see it today in the writing of the white man.  If you go to the native court and look at the books which clerks wrote twenty years ago or more, they are still as they wrote them.  They do not say one thing today and another tomorrow, or one thing this year and another next year.  Okoye in the book today cannot become Okonkwo tomorrow.  In the Bible Pilate said: 'What is written is written.'  It is uli that never fades.

The passage above, from Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease, struck me immediately as a kind of self-justification.  Achebe's decision to write in English has opened him up to criticism from other African authors, like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, but writing a novel--and perhaps, this passage suggests, even writing in general--is a practice imported from European colonizers, no matter what language the novel is written in.  To write an African novel in English is to navigate the competing demands of two conflicting cultures, and to admit that banishing one in favor of the other is impossible.

Like Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease is a story of an African who tries and fails to navigate those demands.  In the former it was Okonkwo, the Ibo villager whose fierce pride cannot overcome the advent of white missionaries; here it is Okonkwo's grandson, Obi Okonkwo, who returns from being educated in England to take a civil service position in his native Nigeria.  The demands on Obi are largely financial: he has been educated at the expense of his tribe, who expect him to pay back the money they have spent on him, but also to show the generosity of a privileged son.  His peers expect him to maintain a certain lifestyle as well, as if this were an Edith Wharton novel.  Because the novel opens as Obi is on trial for accepting a bribe, we know how this particular aspect of the tragedy plays out.

But the Western and traditional worlds pull at Obi in other ways: He has fallen in love with an Ibo girl named Clara, whom he cannot marry because she is an osu, a member of the Ibo's "untouchable" cast.  He rails indignantly against this tradition, but even his father Isaac--Things Fall Apart's Nwoye, who rebels against Okonkwo by converting to Christianity--insists that it is a tradition that cannot be dismissed.  The syncretism of Christianity and traditional Ibo religion is one of the book's more interesting aspects:

Everybody stood up and he said a short prayer.  Then he presented three kola nuts to the meeting.  The oldest man present broke one of them, saying another kind of prayer while he did it.  "He that brings kola nuts brings life," he said.  "We do not seek to hurt any man, but if any man seeks to hurt us may he break his neck."  The congregation answered Amen.  "We are strangers in this land.  If good comes to it may we have our share."  Amen.  "But if bad comes let it go to the owners of the land who know what gods should be appeased."  Amen.

This kola nut ritual appears unchanged from Things Fall Apart, except it is now punctuated by "Amen."  The word sits uncomfortably amid the traditional prayer, and there is a tragic uncertainty in that last line, which suggests that those caught between multiple cultures and religions are less able to make sense of misfortunes when they occur.  Like the title, pulled from an Eliot poem (as Things Fall Apart is from Yeats), these are people "no longer at ease" in their own country.

I read No Longer At Ease because I wanted to read something else about sub-Saharan Africa after Henderson the Rain King, which as I wrote in my review, is really terrific but not intended to be a realistic picture of Africa.  Achebe's warts-and-all approach is just the opposite, but ultimately I thought the book was too slight to be effective.  The character of Clara in particular is so underwritten that Obi's devotion to her never lands, which complicates our perspective on the tragedy as a whole.  Do you guys have any "Africa" books you've enjoyed?

Other perspectives:

The Brothers Judd
Friends of African Village Libraries
Geosi Reads

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