Monday, December 12, 2011

An awakening to Chinua Achebe

I recently finished a compilation of 3 of Chinua Achebe’s novels: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Anthills of the Savannah. It was completely foreign to anything I had ever read before, as Achebe’s utilization of oral tradition, proverbs, Igbo language and non-linear storytelling overwhelmed my senses. Achebe’s distinctly (and refreshingly) non-Western writing style inserted me into a West African culture. It was reading by feeling: the truth of the proverbs, the weight of heritage, the glue of family and community, and the pain of the tragic events caused by the clash of modernity and tradition.

It is this first collision between European colonists and the Igbo tribe in Nigeria that Achebe explores in Things Fall Apart. The reader is introduced to Okwonkwo, a prominent man in the foremost Igbo village at the prime of his life. We see his pride, arrogance, compassion, and honor. Through his eyes we view the unwelcome intrusions of British justice and religion, and their devastating impact on his family, on his standing in the village, his village’s prominence within his tribe, and the Igbo culture as a whole.

I’ll admit that Achebe’s portrayal of the Christian missionaries felt as true as it was frustrating. Frustrating because I identify myself as a Christian, yet sympathized more with the traditionalist characters than the Christian ones. Because in all the I have spent in sub-Saharan African countries I had never once asked a national about their perception of colonization. Because I had never read about the colonization of Africa from an African’s perspective. Moreover, my meager exposure to African thought is still many times greater than that of most other Americans. It is a tragedy that the stereotypes of an impoverished, starving, diseased, corrupt, and violent Africa prevail throughout the Western mindset. More readings of Achebe and other African authors would be the beginning of a new awakening of the West to the diverse cultures and the rich histories that comprise Africa.

The second book in the volume, No Longer At Ease, translates these themes into a Nigeria that is on the brink of independence, yet is under a new kind of imperialism. This story follows the grandson of the main character from Things Fall Apart, and it illuminates the dark path into corruption that continues to ravage the political lives of so many African politicians. This grandson was supposed to usher in the bright future of an independent Nigeria, yet succumbed to the very temptations he vowed to fight. For the first time, I understood some of the pressures that are unique to the West African public official and how the imposition of a Western-style government fails to address the reality of communal bonds and familial obligations. I see in a new light see the impact of the clash of Western modernity and Igbo traditionalism, and I recognize that the vague label of “corruption” is insufficient in describing the challenges that face the Nigerian (and perhaps other African) societies in the 21st century.

Anthills of the Savannah, the final installment of this volume, takes the themes present in the first two novels and develops them into their late-20th century manifestations. The reader is thrust into a chaotic West African dictatorship struggling to maintain a pretense of democracy in the face of an increasingly restless population. Achebe gives a more intimate exploration of the characters’ thought lives, and the novel swells with poetic daydreams and inspiring speeches. The point-of-view transitions from character to character, which makes the first few chapters a bit disorienting when read immediately after the simple third-person narrative of the first two books. But after I was accustomed to this different style and the new characters, Anthills of the Savannah became my favorite of the three works. This book provides a more comprehensive view of a West African nation; the reader meets the president, members of his administration, academics, cab drivers, market-ware hawkers, and slum-occupants. As the regime unravels, Achebe slowly adjusts the focus of the story from the primary individuals onto the community that they become. The rediscovery of traditionalism and community within the urban modern context is the salvation of the people that find their lives upended by the political chaos. The main characters must draw back from their individualism into community which is protective and close-knit, yet open and hospitable story. Once these developments occur, the hope, dynamism, and beauty of these characters, and thus of the modern West African experience, finally shine through the tragedy that was wrought by colonialism and continued by the corrupt and abusive. This sunrise of hope—even amidst the suffering—is made even more precious by the despair witnessed in Achebe’s first two works.