Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 26)
Chinua Achebe 1930–
(Born Albert Chinualumogu) Nigerian novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 127.
Achebe is considered one of the finest of contemporary African writers. In his novels he explores traditional tribal values and the cultural changes resulting from European colonization. To present these themes, Achebe fuses ancient proverbs and idioms of his native Ibo people with the political ideologies and Christian doctrines emerging in modern Nigeria.
Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is praised by Charles R. Larson as "the archetypal African novel" because it traces the beginnings of European colonization in Nigeria and the developing conflict between tribal and Christian cultures. Arrow of God examines the breakdown and inevitable failure of traditional tribal customs in resisting colonial rule. No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People discuss the materialistic influence of Western culture on Nigeria's youth and the corrupt forces behind the country's victory as an independent state.
Achebe's writings in other genres also reveal the turmoil of Nigeria. Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems is highly regarded for its ironic simplicity in describing the anguish of the Nigerian civil war. Girls at War and Other Stories bitterly reflects a disillusionment with war and nationalism.
Commenting on his work, Achebe has stated that a writer in an emergent nation could not afford to pass up the opportunity to educate his fellow countrymen. Despite this urgency to teach, however, Achebe's work is also considered by most critics to be good reading.
The Times Literary Supplement
Mr. Achebe is a young Nigerian. In Things Fall Apart, his first novel, he draws a fascinating picture of tribal life among his own people at the end of the nineteenth century. His literary method is apparently simple, but a vivid imagination illuminates every page, and his style is a model of clarity. He has chosen a very cunning way of getting as much authentic background into his story as he can, by making his hero a powerful and egocentric social climber who exploits every possibility of tribal life….
The great interest of this novel is that it genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside. Patterns of feeling and attitudes of mind appear clothed in a distinctively African imagery, written neither up nor down…. We are made to share the African's experience of his masked gods, his oracles, and even his weather.Only at the end of the book, when the European missionaries appear on the scene, does some confusion of attitude prevail. For Mr. Achebe himself owes much to missionary education, and his sympathies are naturally more with the new than the old. His picture of the collapse of tribal custom is perhaps less than compassionate.
"The Centre Cannot Hold," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2938, June 20, 1958, p. 341.∗
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The breakup of African tribal society is the subject of [Things Fall Apart]…. This theme has been discussed before with the same melancholy conclusions, but Mr. Achebe's book is distinctive in that most of it concerns African life before any European interference occurs.
Mr. Achebe's hero and his environment are described with care, and no attempt is made to disguise their unlovable aspects. Even by the standards of his own people, Okonkwo is not a particularly attractive man: hard working and a good provider, but overambitious, short tempered, heavy handed, humorless, and self-important. (p. 101)
To Okonkwo's credit, he is honest, conscientious in his civic duties (he has risen to the honorable office of representing one of the ancestral spirits during their masked appearances in public), fond of his wives and children despite his bullying manner, and devoted to his gods. He also has physical courage, although he is short of nerve on moral questions and always takes the easy, conventional way out.
This is the portrait of any ordinary, proper, businesslike citizen, and Mr. Achebe has been very clever in building it up in terms of mud-walled compounds, yams, and human sacrifice…. These affairs permit Mr. Achebe to record the habits, jokes, stories, work, and festivities of the tribesmen in detail, until the structure of their society rises as clearly as his hero's character.
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Obi, the educated young Nigerian hero [of No Longer at Ease], sits in a government office in Lagos and reflects on his English boss:
He must have come originally with an ideal—to bring light to the heart of darkness, to tribal head-hunters performing weird ceremonies and unspeakable rites. But when he arrived Africa played him false. Where was his beloved bush full of human sacrifices?
And yet Okonkwo, Obi's grandfather, had severed heads, as readers of Chinua Achebe's previous novel [Things Fall Apart] may recall, and the darkness lay all around. (p. 616)
No Longer at Ease is Obi's contemporary story, another grim one. The pacification has been long completed and Nigerian independence isn't far off. The brilliant local boy returns, after several years' study in England, to find himself at odds with both his family and the well-wishers—the Umuofia Progressive Union—who subscribed to send him away. He falls in love with Clara, an osu or 'untouchable,' and makes himself unpopular by refusing to take the traditional bribes in his new job. But his salary is inadequate to cover his commitments…. Mr. Achebe's novel moves towards its inevitable catastrophe with classic directness. Nothing is wasted and it is only after the sad, understated close that one realises, once again, how much of the Nigerian context has been touched in, from...
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Robert C. Healey
["No Longer at Ease"] is the bourgeois tragedy, African style, of the promising young urban executive who succumbs to temptation when he is no longer able to keep up appearances and make ends meet. Obi Okonkwo, the mixed-up young hero who is no longer at ease, is the grandson of the tough tribal chief who fought to the death against the white man and his ways in Chinua Achebe's first novel, "Things Fall Apart." Unlike his single-minded grandfather, Obi has become thoroughly confused in his loyalties and allegiances, and the white man is only indirectly to blame.
Obi has too much status, too much to live up to even on a handsome salary. He is a "been-to," the only person in his village who has been to England for a university education…. As a university graduate he enjoys a select civil service status and naturally has to live in a suitable European apartment and keep up a car and a chauffeur. He has certain obligations to his family in the village, and there is also Clara, another "been-to" he is most anxious to marry. As the bills and obligations pile up, little wonder that he begins to heed the siren song of the bribes that seem so much a part of the atmosphere around him.
Outwardly this might be the plight of any ambitious junior executive continually strapped for cash. But this is Lagos, and Obi, so much at home in English literature, is a halfway child ill at ease in a culture which has sedulously adopted the...
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[In A Man of the People Achebe] illuminates today's confused events along the opaque waters of the Niger. Life imitates art, but seldom so promptly on cue. Achebe's book sounds the obituary drums for "the fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime" that history has extinguished, and makes clear why his still unstable nation should turn to military government. In fact, his novel ends with just such a military coup, the first of many, it seems….
Achebe tells his story through the mouth of Odili Samalu, a sprightly rapscallion—part idealist, part young man on the make—whom it would be tempting to call a colored Candide, except that Odili has no innocence at all, only a naiveté that makes a farce both of his convictions and his ambition. He is, in fact, perhaps the most engaging character in fiction about Africa since the hero of Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, who was factotum to a white colonial official. (p. 80)
But times change. The white man has gone, and Odili must emerge with his emergent nation and attach himself to black power in the person of a cynical grafter named Chief Nanga. So begins a comedy of Freedom Now….
Later he joins a reform party to put Chief Nanga and his grafters out of office. It ends in debacle. Odili is beaten nearly to death by the chief's forthright constituents, and it is back to the village for him. But all is well. A military coup deposes Nanga's...
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[Arrow of God] is not comfortable reading, nor is it easy to keep track of three dozen minor characters with names like Ofuedu and Amoge, but Arrow of God is worth the effort. It is enormously informative. It crackles with ironic contrasts and the sour comedy of reciprocal misunderstanding. Old Ezeulu and his unreliable sons are vividly living people whose unfamiliar principles gradually become comprehensible and worthy of respect. One even grows fond of their proverbs.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, in her review of "Arrow of God," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 220, No. 6, December, 1967, p. 150.
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Before he opens ["Arrow of God"], the American reader will be well advised to ask himself two basic questions. Is he about to read it because it's a new novel—or because it's written by a prominent Nigerian about Nigeria? Will he judge it as fiction, or as ethnic reporting of ancient customs in conflict with new politics? In both cases, the second approach will prove more rewarding—though even then the rewards will be on the meager side….
Not that Mr. Achebe's new book lacks plot in the conventional sense. Here, once again, we have the story of the native ruler (Chief Priest Ezeulu, "god" of six Ibo villages) in conflict with the British District Officer (Captain Winterbottom). Ezeulu finds his position strengthened when Winterbottom heads off a fight with his neighbors. Determined to learn the White Man's secrets, Ezeulu sends his son to study the ways of the Christians, only to find that he has brought a new enemy into his kingdom. His last stand against the tides of change, and its tragic aftermath, bring the book to an end.
As plots go, this is familiar and acceptable. But the slender story-line is soon lost in a plethora of local color—and local color alone, whether Nigerian or Californian, is no longer adequate stuff for novels, now that the anthropologists are doing the job so much better. In "Things Fall Apart," for example, Achebe wrote that "Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very...
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In reading Arrow of God, it's not … necessary to know that there is such a place as the African continent to recognize at once that you are in the presence of an extraordinarily mature literary artist.
In fact, I don't think it extravagant to say that the book brings to mind Joyce Cary's African novels. It must be added, however, that if Achebe should ever happen to read this he would probably dissent vigorously and take the comparison as affront rather than honor. More than once he has said, in so many words, that Cary got away with murder, that he had no real knowledge of his subject, that his characters (notably Mister Johnson) were merely caricatures, and so forth. But whether or not this is true seems hardly the point. The fact is that the works of the two men have a great deal in common, and I am far from the first to have noted the similarity.
Which, when you get down to it, is all but inevitable. Both Arrow of God and Cary's African writings deal pretty much with the same people, the same land, and the same period, not to mention the same problems of racial and cultural adjustment. Possibly these resemblances are superficial, but there remains (apart from both men's copious literary talents) a vitally significant common ground. This is their intense preoccupation with the individual as he comes to grips with elemental questions of ethics and personal responsibility in his relations with his...
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Chinua Achebe's powerful feeling for a lost civilization has really nothing to do with that other West African turning back to tradition—that is, the NEGRITUDE of the French-language writers. It is not reversion: it is not a desire to return. It is a contemporary writer's examination of the past, made so that he may better understand himself in the present…. As has been oft-noted, the title of Achebe's first and finest novel, Things Fall Apart … is significantly from Yeats, and is clearly indicative of the novelist's concern with the coherence of a former life….
What is perhaps most striking about Achebe in Things Fall Apart is that he does not neglect the ugliness, the iron brutality of habitual modes of life. Writing with admirable detachment, he creates in the central character, Okonkwo, a great literary figure of the last half of the nineteenth century—a powerful and ambitious man whose faithfulness to the importance of order is so strong that we might say his destruction comes from this strength rather [than] from any weakness.
And yet Okonkwo is a man; and to be a man is to possess private fears. Okonkwo is no more free from these than, say, Macbeth. (p. 10)
As if to impress on us what is lost in the Okonkwo story, Achebe at first focuses on the closely circumscribed arena of the village, so that until the final quarter of the novel there is no real sense that a "world"...
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Achebe's first three novels, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God have been published as a trilogy. His last novel to date (and surely, now, there must come a book about the recent Nigerian/Biafran conflict) is Man of the People. Superficially, however, the novels fall into two camps. Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God are "traditional" novels in that they are situated firmly in the past, in the traditional Ibo culture and way of life. No Longer at Ease and Man of the People are present-day situation novels, dealing as they do with educated young men versus corrupt politicians. The differences are superficial, however, because the main theme as it seems to me, the tragedy of the man who can't or won't adapt, is implicit in all the novels. And it is in the deeper meanings of the novels that I would suggest that Achebe is not dealing with parochial trivia. "This no be them country" may be geographically and ethnically true for non-West Africans, but the problems and issues that Chinua Achebe raises are relevant to most peoples and cultures.
Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first novel, has probably been paid the most critical attention of the four, not only because of its position in the brief history of the Nigerian novel, but also, because it gave for the first time in English, in a strong, confident, subtle prose, a picture of an alien society that most people outside...
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Adrian A. Roscoe
[Achebe's declared aims as a writer] are twofold: to teach his people, and to satirise them; or, as he puts it, 'to help my society regain its belief in itself' and 'to expose and attack injustice'. The first is part of his contribution to the task of giving back to Africa the pride and self-respect it lost during the years of colonialism, to repair 'the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races'. In this way, he takes his place alongside the band of historians, anthropologists, and political scientists who are hard at work on the massive task of African rehabilitation.
The second, the satirist's vocation, is in a sense loftier than the first, since it can transcend the bounds of temporary needs and exigencies; it also suggests an important role which the author has always been called upon to play. But Achebe's espousal of it arises directly out of West Africa's current predicament, in which the sins of the former conquerors are being cynically committed by the newly liberated…. A satiric note is certainly heard in the first three novels; but while bearing this in mind, it is convenient here to take these works as representative of what we might call the author's more 'pedagogic' period and to see the fourth novel. A Man of the People, as the beginning of a phase pre-eminently satiric in nature.
Achebe's desire to teach raises a number of interesting points. It is...
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It could be argued that the real tradition of Nigerian literature in English begins with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart…. It begins a tradition not only because its influence can be detected on subsequent Nigerian novelists, such as T. M. Aluko, but also because it was the first solid achievement upon which others could build. Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully transmute the conventions of the novel, a European art form, into African literature. His craftsmanship can be seen in the way he creates a totally Nigerian texture for his fiction: Ibo idioms translated into English are used freely; European character study is subordinated to the portrayal of communal life; European economy of form is replaced by an aesthetic appropriate to the rhythms of traditional tribal life. Achebe's themes reflect the cultural traits of the Ibos, the impact of European civilization upon traditional African society, and the role of tribal values in modern urban life.
Although his writing lacks the infectious spontaneity of [Amos] Tutuola's and the intellectual sophistication which is [Wole] Soyinka's trademark, Achebe is, in my opinion, the most competent literary craftsman in Nigeria today. Each of his novels is a success and shows a control in the handling of his material of a kind which often escapes Tutuola and Soyinka. Other writers may be more promising, or show signs of genius, but in the case of Achebe there is a solid...
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Chinua Achebe is very clearly the best novelist in that group of writers who at Ibadan in the fifties contrived the birth of West African literature in English. He may lack the easy grace and wit of that urbane dramatist Wole Soyinka, yet his work has a structural strength and architectural coherence unmatched by other novelists…. So close are many African novelists to the events they record that there is none of that artistic distance which is the basis for the writer's art. Plots mirror the autobiographical information proffered in the fly-leaf of the book's dust-jacket and this causes the balance of events to be seen only through the single self-satisfied vision of the protagonist, and the end, unless it has the shock of unexpected melodrama, can be a mere finish, for the novel has failed to develop any impetus more structural than that of the author's own life. None of these criticisms can be levelled at Achebe. The mere fact that he is one of the few novelists from Africa to write his stories with an historical setting is in itself indicative of the way he has been able to separate his own immediate experience from that of his protagonists, and thus achieve artistic rather than personal expression….
Undoubtedly one of the reasons for Achebe's great success as a text in schools has been the relative orthodoxy of his handling of the genre of the novel. Teachers of literature have found that although the novels are written by an...
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The New Yorker
[The stories in "Girls at War and Other Stories"] show, among other things, how British colonialism, the disintegration of tribal ways, modern education, and the Biafran war have affected Nigerian life. The excellent title story is about a proud young Ibo girl who becomes completely demoralized by the war. In another story, "The Voter," old rituals and new money are used to fix a local election. Mr. Achebe's writing has a kind of serene, grandfatherly quality—especially his humor, which comes at unexpected moments. These are worldly, intelligent, absorbing stories, whose only flaw is a superfluity of untranslated Ibo words and phrases….
A review of "Girls at War and Other Stories," in The New Yorker (© 1973 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 8, April 14, 1973, p. 155.
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Ifeanyi A. Menkiti
The mood [of Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems] is as varied as the subject matter. The opening section deals with the years immediately before the Nigerian Civil War, and the second section (from which the book's title is taken), with the war period. Then there are "Poems Not About War"—about you and me, and about gods and the things they do to men. Achebe writes with grace and clarity. The poems, throughout, reflect the attachments of a man whose roots run deep into the Ibo soil.
Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, in his review of "Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, May 1, 1973; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 98, No. 9, May 1, 1973, p. 1493.
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The New York Times Book Review
"Girls at War" is ironic, witty and complex in its consideration of various ways in which the old Africa interacts with the new.
In "Dead Man's Path," one of the best and most representative of the stories, an ambitious and "modern" young teacher is assigned to take over the school in a provincial village. A path runs through the school grounds, connecting the village with the ancestral graveyard; the teacher considers it an eyesore, and closes it off. "Look here, my son," he is told by the village priest, "this path was here before you were born and before your father was born. The whole life of this village depends on it…." The teacher scoffs ("The whole purpose of our school … is to eradicate just such beliefs as that"), but shortly thereafter a young woman dies in childbirth; the villagers, fearful that their ancestors have been insulted, reopen the path by destroying the school grounds.
The story is very short, but it summarizes the book: the conflicts between the old and the new; between superstition, and faith, and "education"; between the wealthy and educated of the cities and the impoverished people of the countryside; between the new nations and the old tribes within them; between the white man's culture and religion and those of the African people.
Achebe is a quiet writer, and his prose is deceptively understated. Though the stories range over two decades, and some are clearly those...
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[Christmas in Biafra], Chinua Achebe's first book of poetry, may turn out to be, like Things Fall Apart, a landmark in African writing…. Written during the long period of his silence as a novelist, the poems are a chronicle of the difficult years of a man and his nation, as well as a truly unified book of poetry which has much to offer for both African and Western readers. Divided into 5 sections, the book takes us on a journey which begins with dark omens of disaster, progresses into the nightmare of a fratricidal war, passes through the difficult transition period when both the writer's own voice and the nation of Nigeria were being reborn, and finally rises to the point where the poet has returned, full-blown, to both his power and his duty as a writer.
The book begins with a short poem, "1966."… The poem is rich in inference and reflects the duality of the poet's vision of Christianity. (It is the same Christianity which would be the forerunner of empire and yet also a faith possessed of a kind of gentle grace which would stir the heart of Nwoye, the son of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart.) The oil which was an important reason for the involvement of the European nations in the Nigerian War, the disappointment of Christianity in Nigeria (a land which some of the early missionaries saw as a new Eden, an Eden they would create), the death of Abel at the hands of Cain and the forthcoming "war between...
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Francis M. Sibley
[Chinua Achebe's four novels] are all set in Nigeria. Read as a tetralogy, they reveal a theme of tragedy together with intense moral concern. The tragedy and moral concern are not just for the fictional characters in the novels, nor are they just for the people of Nigeria, who experience extreme changes in their lives as a result of colonialism and internal strife. Rather, these novels, as they focus upon tragedy and morality, transcend their setting. By being extremely provincial, Achebe projects a picture of human experience with universal applicability. His art entertains, but it entertains in order to instruct, and it instructs about the nature of tragedy and about workable morality in fiction and in life. Of course, a great deal of fiction written in English is roughly analogous in intent and function; but Achebe's novels reflect the Ibo tradition of non-separation of art from other aspects of daily living…. (p. 359)
[Achebe's major theme is] that he and his characters and, mutatis mutandis, his readers and non-readers, are indeed no longer at ease as a result of things having fallen apart to the extent that men of the people and arrows of gods play new and confusing roles. The ability to keep one's balance in such a world is predicated upon the possession of a moral gyroscope; and Achebe's tragic vision insinuates itself as just such an instrument.
Things Fall Apart presents a picture of Ibo...
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G. D. Killam
[Achebe's short stories in Girls At War] reveal the same interests as the longer fiction….
[The stories] fall into two classes: those which show an aspect of the conflict between traditional and modern values—for example, 'The Sacrificial Egg', 'Dead Man's Path', and 'Marriage is a Private Affair' (originally called 'The Beginning of the End')—and those which display the nature of custom or religious belief without attempting to probe or explain their meanings. In fact such a separation is arbitrary; in the best stories the conflict between the traditional and the modern has its base in the general beliefs which underlie the former.
To these may be added a third classification—stories which deal with aspects of the Nigeria-Biafra war, one of which stories gives the volume its title, Girls At War. (p. 99)
['The Madman'] is about village life, presumably modern village life. But that is no matter. It is a village wherein the village values obtain. Its hero is Nwibe, a man who has achieved about the same degree of success as Okonkwo when we first met him…. Like Okonkwo, Nwibe has a fierce temper and his judgement deserts him when he is under its full sway…. The story is about pride and about ambition. But it is more: it is about the nature of sanity and the nature of tolerance. (pp. 99-100)
The story asks what madness is, what just conduct is, what is fit...
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A Man of the People, Achebe's fourth novel, embodies a major new feature in his development as a novelist. It is a first person narrative told from the limited point of view of one of the principal participants in the story, and the accounts are given not very long after the final catastrophe. The major personal conflict in the book is between Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, M.P., and Odili Samalu, his former pupil. In his capacity as narrator Odili begins his story with a deliberately sarcastic statement about Nanga. This sarcasm sets the tone for the satire which sometimes involves Odili himself…. (p. 143)
[It] is part of the novel's irony that as narrator of the incidents which lead to the political struggle with Nanga and as portrait painter of the man, Odili succeeds in exposing perhaps more of his own character and motivations than his opponent's, for the whole narrative is told from his point of view rather than from Nanga's. The result is that in the train of events we come to know Odili, in this case not as passive narrator but as active participant, through his varying responses to Nanga's personality. It is he who emerges as something of a hero in the novel's final pages. (pp. 143-44)
It is in his relations with people—notably Nanga and the women in his life—that Odili becomes himself the butt of Achebe's satire which is quite unsparing of the people and institutions that are encountered,...
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With the publication of Things Fall Apart (1958) Nigeria had the classic book that would serve as a point of reference and comparison for future writing. The novel was not only more competent than anything that had preceded it, but it also introduced techniques that liberated future African novelists from having to imitate the conventions of a western literary genre. The omniscient narrator of the opening paragraphs is representative of the voice of the community and introduces the story with simple, somewhat repetitive sentences in an approximation of a story-teller, thus associating the novel with Igbo traditional oral literature. In contrast to the literary device of a first-person narrator which makes us see events through the eyes of the individual speaker, Achebe's narrator makes us part of the awareness and vision of a small, apparently self-enclosed community of nine villages. We are immediately introduced to the traditions of the community, its history and myths, its arts and crafts…. (p. 65)
The apparent simplicity of [the opening] passage is deceptive. It is artistry of a radically different order from those … who later tried to write novels of village life limited to repetition and simple sentences. Achebe's purpose is to situate the reader within a community governed by a rich tribal culture which, being a living culture, is undergoing changes, and the continuity of which will be challenged by the intrusions of...
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