illustrated portrait of Igbo Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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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

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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.∗

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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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...

(This entire section contains 345 words.)

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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.

Okonkwo's world is brutal in some respects, very gentle in others, highly organized but quite incapable of contending with jails and policemen. These arrive hard on the heels of the first missionary, and everything is thrown topsy-turvy. Okonkwo, a born conservative, fights for the old gods and is beaten at once. He becomes a paragraph in a projected book on The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, to be written by a man who does not understand any more about the society he is busily destroying than Okonkwo does about bookkeeping. (p. 102)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "The Onslaught of Civilization," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1959, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 203, No. 2, February, 1959, pp. 101-02.

John Coleman

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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 the prejudice and corruption of Lagos to the warm, homiletic simplicities of village life.

Both these novels are fine in themselves, but they're bound to have an added value at the moment—as indigenous relief-maps of hardly explored cultural territory—since Chinua Achebe is a young Nigerian, himself an Ibo, writing at first hand and in lucid, uneccentric prose of his own people. He is seen to offer all the more exciting a prospect for Afro-English when one compares his decent style with the mannered solecisms of another Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola…. Tutuola's swollen reputation can only remind me of how much condescension still lurks in Western attitudes to African art. The liberal mind, enraged when the cry of 'they're-just-children' goes up from smug colonials, seems oddly content to allow itself similar liberties when it comes to discuss African sculpture or literature. The cult of primitivism (its qualities vaguely sensed as 'colour,' bold lines, confident naïveté, and the poetry of illogic) continues to do as much harm as good by fostering essentially juvenile virtues…. Nothing changes quite overnight, but—as Obi and the very real achievement of Mr. Achebe's two novels imply—it will be no help in the next few years to look across the conference table thinking hectically of beloved bushes full of human sacrifices, nostalgically of marvellous feckless primitives. (pp. 616-17)

John Coleman, "Beloved Bush," in The Spectator (© 1960 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6904, October 21, 1960, pp. 616-17.

Robert C. Healey

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["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 outer trappings of the white man without surrendering all of its old ideas….

Compared to his heroic grandfather, Obi cuts a rather sorry figure and he is intended to. But Achebe is at his best in sketching significant details and backgrounds, the metropolitan bustle and temptations of Lagos or the dignified formality of a village which could adopt the white man's formal invitation for its feasts but interpret the RSVP as "Rice and Stew Very Plenty." Wholly declarative and bare of rhetorical subtlety, "No Longer at Ease," which was apparently written several years before Nigerian independence, is primitive storytelling in the best sense. Its very artlessness is its greatest asset and charm.

Robert C. Healey, "Between Two Worlds," in Lively Arts and Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1961, p. 28.


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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 gang, and, with a more or less good conscience, the convalescent Odili is able to pay the "bride price" for [Nanga's] now redundant "parlor wife." He does it from party funds.

No American Negro writer has approached the comic posture that Chinua Achebe has achieved toward his own people. His book is worth a ton of documentary journalism. Indeed, he has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists. (p. 84)

A review of "A Man of the People," in Time (copyright 1966 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 88, No. 8, August 19, 1966, pp. 80, 84.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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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.

Ronald Christ

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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 highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." One must go back to Cervantes and Sancho Panza to find anyone else as meaninglessly proverbial. "When an adult is in the house, the she-goat is not left to suffer the pains of parturition on its tether." Even with palm oil on the side, "parturition" is hard to swallow.

No American or English novelist could have written such sentences; unfortunately, they are even more abundant in "Arrow of God." Perhaps no Nigerian, at the present stage of his culture and ours, can tell us what we need to know about that country, in a way that is available to our understanding….

Here and there, in flashes, Achebe can embody the power struggle he is describing—only to lose it again in folk-patter. There is no doubt that he is writing from the inside out. In the future, let us hope that he will write of his vital subject in a way commensurate with his obvious intelligence, not his slight narrative skills.

Ronald Christ, "Among the Ibo," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 17, 1967, p. 22.

Charles Miller

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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 fellows, his gods, and himself.

Such a pattern of conflicts dominates Arrow of God. (p. 30)

[The book's structure] is certainly Olympian in its rendering, and the key to its impact will, I think, be found in Achebe's clean, unerringly direct manner of saying what he has to say. His approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable. It is a measure of Achebe's creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama.

Worthy of particular attention are the characters. Achebe doesn't create his people with fastidiously detailed line drawings; instead, he relies on a few sure strokes that highlight whatever prominent features will bring the total personality into three-dimensional life. A facet of Ezeulu's nature is revealed through the eyes of one of his sons, who "remembered what his mother used to say when she was alive, that Ezeulu's only fault was that he expected everyone—his wives, his kinsmen, his children, his friends and even his enemies—to think and act like himself. Anyone who dared say no to him was an enemy. He forgot the saying of the elders that if a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude."

Achebe does equally well with the white man, which is more than can usually be said about whites who try to portray Africans….

Achebe spent his youth in rural Ibo society at a time when he could observe ancient customs which, though even then beginning to disintegrate, were still fairly widespread. His descriptions of festivals, council meetings, family life, even (or especially) personal quarrels—in fact, the entire fabric of the Ibo community—carry not only the ring of authenticity; they evoke a dynamic, tradition-rich society that lends a vital dimension to Arrow of God. (p. 31)

Charles Miller, "Mixed Allegiances," in Saturday Review (© 1968 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. LI, No. 1, January 6, 1968, pp. 30-1.


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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" exists anywhere outside the village. Okonkwo, hard and unbending in his attachment to this tribal life, which is all he knows, goes down to his destruction with all the inevitability of an Oedipus.

When the oracle states that Okonkwo's ward, Ikemefuna, must be killed, Okonkwo, despite his love for the young boy, enters into the ritual murder. Later, at the funeral of Ezeulu, Okonkwo accidentally kills the dead man's sixteen year old son…. Accident or not, "The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman … He could return to the clan after seven years." In this instance, Okonkwo serves only the seven years because his crime is a "female" one that is, inadvertent. Achebe is plainly dealing with a highly-unified social order, one in which everything is inexorably prescribed—every offense has its traditional, accepted punishment.

What Okonkwo cannot accept, finally, is the coming of the white man to the land…. Okonkwo cannot understand how his countrymen could be destroyed rather than defend themselves.

A more subtle tear in the social fabric results from the coming of the missionaries. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that they are only able to convert the worthless, the castoffs, the untouchables of the tribes—all those, in short, without status in the traditional life of the village. Thus, ironically, the missionaries attack the tribe at its weakest link—where the chain of being was already broken.

Among the missionaries is Okonkwo's weak son, Nwoye. He and other missionaries disrupt life in family and village, and set one relative against another. A member of the tribe who, like Okonkwo, is an old man, sums up the entrenchment of Christianity; his speech is good evidence that Okonkwo is not alone in his conservativism; and the speech comes close to Achebe's central concern—the dissolution of the "bond of kinship."… European individualism has … clearly caught on, and a once-vital feeling for communal life is beginning to be archaic…. It is immediately obvious when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia from his seven years of exile that a new order has settled over his old home. The white man is now in the area in force, with his policemen, commissioners, traders, and teachers. The hope that Okonkwo has of purging the village of outside influences is vain. But he refuses to cooperate with the British, and is ultimately arrested with six other old men (again, he is never alone in his defiance). Okonkwo feels that his brutal beating and his imprisonment by the whites will surely rouse the villagers to revengeful, concerted action, but they cannot be moved. Okonkwo, obsessed with his notions of communality and pride,… decapitates a policeman who comes to break up (significantly) a community meeting.

Finally, in despair, Okonkwo proceeds, just after this killing, to commit the most horrendous of all offenses against the earth goddess—suicide. Thus he ends in disgrace with the community whose preservation obsessed him. His tribesmen cannot even touch or bury him; they can only attempt to cleanse the desecrated ground where he hanged himself.

Why does the man, his life and his death, move us so? It is, I think, because Okonkwo, perhaps best among his fellows, sees the imminent danger to that old order which is their life, and more stubbornly than anyone else refuses to give up the old forms for the new formlessness. Such determination as Okonkwo's is heroic. Call it obsession; but it is nonetheless, as in Melville's Ahab, the mysteriously stirring course of a man brave enough to reach beyond his fears to bold action.

In Things Fall Apart, while Achebe portrays the death of an old civilization, he makes no fanfare for a new order. Neither does he in Arrow of God …, his other village novel. (pp. 10-11)

Arrow of God relates how Ezeulu, out of respect for the power of the whites (after they stop a war between two communities) sends his son Oduche to the Christian white man for training. Instead of carrying back home (as his father had hoped) all the secrets of the white man's power, Oduche upon his return tampers with the traditional religion of the community, attempting in his zeal to kill a royal python, sacred in Umuaro. Finally, in trying to battle the new Christian influence, Ezeulu is destroyed both as a leader and as a man. Because of his imprisonment by the British and his ensuing stubbornness over the consumption of the sacred yams, the traditional harvest time cannot be observed, and so Ezeulu loses his power in the community. The conflict leaves "a crack in Ezeulu's mind."…

[By] the time the novel ends, we learn that the "natives" have been "pacified." (p. 11)

Undeniably, Achebe intends in this novel to take into account the internal weaknesses of the old order which is destroyed. We must remember that the time is now closer to 1920 than to 1870 or 1880, and that there has been a great deal of British influence contributing to the undoing of traditional life. But flaws and all, the old order in Arrow of God is a kind of order after all; and even at this late stage in history, the loss of it is keenly felt.

Most important for our purposes here is that old Ezeulu's downfall is symbolic of the disintegration of an ancient way of life. Perhaps nothing in the novel as strikingly supports this symbolic role as the death of Ezeulu's son Obika who makes a ritualistic, and as it turns out, fatal run for the tribe. (pp. 11-12)

With a remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time, and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences of the African-European collision. There is an artistic unity of all things in these books which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction.

As for Achebe's contemporary Nigerians in the novels No Longer at Ease … and A Man of the People …, we can only conclude that the author does not view happily or hopefully the Nigerian "been to," the young person back home to work for the government as likely as not, after an education abroad. A new trauma has been inflicted upon the characters in these novels—the city. (p. 12)

Let us examine Obi Okonkwo, the "hero" of No Longer at Ease. When he returns home from England, the Lagos branch of the Umuofia Progressive Union meets to greet him and to arrange with him the manner in which he will pay them back the 800 pounds sterling which they advanced for his education. The President of the organization warns Obi about the city: "'… If you follow its sweetness, you will perish.'" And perish Obi does. Significantly, the book is encompassed by the ugly framework of a trial: beginning with Obi's trial Achebe flashes back to the events of his return and his taking bribes and then his eventual arrest. He will be sent to jail.

In all Nigerian novels set in the city we see that no urban heroes are without their ties to the village; most urban citizens in West Africa are still new enough to Lagos or Ibadan or other larger cities to have carried with them some sediment of the mythic concerns of their rural forebears. But the folk ways are nearly dissolved since Okonkwo's time. (Nwoye, for instance, has deliberately given his son Obi an anti-African education). And neither have the fancy university educations of such as Obi seemed to build any substantial moral fibre into the younger generation. Obi's criminal acts cannot be condoned in any existing code of behavior, European or African. Clearly, Obi does not possess the force of character of Okonkwo. The personal integrity, the holding fast at the center of an understood scheme of things is not possible for Obi.

In Achebe's most recent and least substantial novel, A Man of the People, the plight of Odili is very close to that of Obi: how to comport himself in the complex system of governmental corruption in modern Nigeria. It is impossible to admire the morality of Odili any more than we respected the morality of Obi. Odili discovers in his opposition to Nanga that the whole political sphere of Nigeria is hopelessly corrupt. He sees too that by being involved in it he is as despicable as the rest of the political crowd, and that, worst of all, Nigerians have come to accept these corrupt political facts of life. Odili survives in the story, physically. Even that is due largely to accident—that he wasn't beaten to death. He never displays any immense intelligence or any strong moral fibre of his own. And his monologue at the end of the novel about the "fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime just ended" does not cover the essential characterization of Odili the opportunist. If Odili's story indicates anything it would seem to be that the amalgamation of British and Nigerian modes of life has effected no more than the destruction of the best in both cultures. The string of continuity which has stretched deep into African history has been snapped; and what is doubly disturbing, the Africans, by partaking of the European experience (for nearly a century now), have put on all of the contemporary spiritual problems of western man as well.

Confusion? Indeed it is. Perhaps the central concern of the African intellectual today is as Judith Gleason phrases it, "… how to go about being an African." With Obi and Odili, at least, Achebe has indicated how not to go about it. (pp. 12-13)

It may well be that only in a modernized version of older social systems (such as the Tanzanian Ujama) will there develop a meaningful and comprehensible life structure in Nigeria. It is clear how very much the Nigerians lost when the prescribed and traditional forms of society collapsed around them. Yet it seems reasonable, too, that older forms can never be revised in any purity—nor would such resuscitation be desirable in the twentieth century, when man all around the globe is fated to live in cities.

Meanwhile, out of the swift and confusing change sweeping over contemporary Nigerian life, there is emerging a new man. Such writers as Achebe are attempting to catch an image of that man as he is being formed by his society and as he in turn is molding his social milieu. (p. 13)

Robert McDowell, "Of What Is Past, or Passing, or to Come," in Studies in Black Literature, Special Issue: Chinua Achebe (copyright 1971 by Raman K. Singh), Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1971, pp. 9-13.

Kate Turkington

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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 West Africa had never heard about or been interested in. The British may have 'occupied' Nigeria for 100 years, but they knew little or nothing of the indigenous culture they imposed their own civilization upon. At first glance then, Things Fall Apart is an historical novel. It gives us a vivid picture of an Ibo society that was dying when Achebe wrote about it, and that recent events have done little to improve. Okonkwo, "one of the greatest men of his time" in the village of Umuofia destroys himself finally because he cannot unbend himself and his traditional ways in the face of change, represented by the white man and his new religion. He kills the white man's messenger. (pp. 205-06)

Okonkwo is Everyman facing the unknown. The situation is universal, the reaction particular. Because he is the simple, inexperienced product of an ancient and ordered way of life he becomes inarticulate in the face of things he cannot understand. This inability to comprehend becomes translated into violent action which in turn will result in his own violent death. But he dies pure, because he lives up to the ideals that his background and culture have given him. But this is more than simple narrative. Achebe is delineating a problem not only concerned with Africans tragically under pressure in a changing world. The key sentence in [one of the passages] is, "He heard voices asking: 'Why did he do it?'"

These are the voices of universal 'survivors' for whom compromise is easy. The question Achebe poses here is a subtle one. To survive you must adapt and therefore adopt some kind of compromise. But does this entail a loss of personal honour which can only be satisfied by holding on to what you believe in? Which is better, expediency equalling survival, or a failure or refusal to adapt, thus maintaining personal integrity? Okonkwo is a fine man and the hardness of his character must be judged by the standards of his day and traditional society, not ours. But there is something elemental about him which almost symbolizes man against lesser men. Achebe understandably is less sympathetic in his treatment of the white man in this book. He presents a savage satire on the bumbling District Officer and his refusal to attempt a compromise…. [The official's intention to write a book entitled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger] is not pretty irony; there are echoes here of Robinson Crusoe's view of the black man. "I taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name." However, Achebe does show more compassion towards Mr Brown, the missionary, who was "respected even by the clan because he trod softly on their faith".

Achebe deals with the same problem of compromise in No Longer at Ease. And the very titles of these first two novels underline the issue. Here the setting is the present, but the dilemma facing Obi Okonkwo, the dead Okonkwo's grandson, although more sophisticated, is basically the same. Obi returns from four years' studying in England to try to find his position in life, literally and metaphorically. But his 'been-to' experience forces him into a situation where he must mould and adapt this 'European' experience to the African and Ibo tradition. Ironically it only limits his powers of adaptation and compromise. He had been sent to England with the high hopes of Umuofia behind him. (pp. 206-07)

Achebe carefully relates back Obi's character to that of his proud grandfather, "his self-will was not new". The conflict is yet embryonic. When Obi returns to Nigeria he is unable to compromise both his own personal integrity and his new 'European' habits and ideals to what his people expect from him…. The irony is that Obi knows full well what is expected of him, but cannot or will not bring himself to do it. But like his grandfather in Things Fall Apart this is not simply a failure in humility. It is also a failure of compromise and perhaps of imagination.

In the world of Achebe's novels it does not seem possible to exist successfully in any arbitrary scheme of ideals. To do so is to invite disaster and retribution…. Hopelessly in debt, Obi is forced to shelve his integrity and to accept bribes in return for government scholarships, although he still tries to pretend to himself that he has not lost all his honour by only considering candidates who have satisfied the minimal educational and other requirements. Old Okonkwo refused to attempt any kind of compromise. Obi attempts a half-hearted one and fails. And just like the "survivors" in his grandfather's time who had asked "Why did he do it?" everyone now asks the same question of Obi. (pp. 208-09)

The theme is explored again in Arrow of God. This novel brings into conflict again, not only the old and the new, African experience confronting European experience, but also expediency versus honour. Ezeulu, the old priest, brings personal tragedy upon himself because he refuses to compromise his pride and his traditional beliefs.

In the final novel, Man of the People, Odili, the idealistic and honest young schoolmaster is drawn pell-mell into the whirling, robust, boisterous world of present-day African politics which is not only extremely funny but extremely sad too. Odili's motives are pure. He wants to fight corruption and right wrongs and his innocence leads him to believe that he can triumph in a political society that makes the eighteenth-century Hustings look like one of Mrs Gaskell's tea parties. He joins the new political party, C.P.C., the Common People's Convention, that has been formed by Max, his friend from University days. Odili's scruples are easily overcome. (p. 210)

These novels are not only about Nigeria. They represent too some of the issues that face us all in a world where ideals become more and more slippery in such a rapidly changing period of moral transition. But if, as I suggest, Achebe is presenting us with the recurrent theme of compromise or die, what is he then offering as a positive solution? Okonkwo failed to adapt and died. Max tried to compromise but also died. Odili and Obi die spiritual deaths when their ideals are shattered by reality. Achebe, I think, makes no arbitrary stand. He puts a relevant world problem into a West African setting and observes, reports and then leaves us to our own judgement. And although there is so much humour in his books he means them to be sad books. (pp. 211-12)

The language of Achebe's novels presents a highly skilful hand. He has a wonderful, true ear for Nigerian and English speech rhythms and a simple-seeming but very sophisticated use of metaphor. He has understood and mastered, and made it a dominant feature of his writing, the English philosophy of understatement and its concomitant bare narrative style. And much of his narrative style has its roots in a very wide literary tradition. The writings of many nations have been concerned with the effects of dramatic change on traditional ways of life. This conflict is often sharpened by glorifying or semi-deifying the 'traditional' hero. (p. 212)

Themes in literature are rarely original. It is in their individual treatment that they take on their own particular coloration. Achebe's novels define not only situations common to the Old Icelandic Sagas but ones which recur in much of modern literature. Because he places them in his own environment, which although, specifically Nigerian, is still a microcosm of a much larger world, he gives to them a fresh colour and insight. "This no be them country" may be metaphorically true of Okonkwo and Odili in that they cannot exist successfully in a period of social and moral transition, but it is not true for us, Achebe's readers, because his "country" can be for and of all of us. It is not so much a narrow canvas as one that rather affords us a sharply angled view of a familiar human condition. (p. 214)

Kate Turkington, "'This No Be Them Country'—Chinua Achebe's Novels," in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 14, No. 2, September, 1971, pp. 205-14.

Adrian A. Roscoe

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[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 generally agreed that African literary artists have always fulfilled this function in society, so that Achebe, ostensibly espousing a modern cause, is simply falling in line with tradition. Furthermore, teaching, by its nature, implies an audience. Achebe told the world … that he does have an audience; that it is large, and, in the main, indigenous. Consisting mainly of young readers, still at school or college, this audience pays him the compliment of regarding him as its teacher.

But what really concerns us here are the implications which this holds for Achebe's style and method. Proudly African, and believing his 'pupils' should share his pride, Achebe is obviously concerned to portray with all the power at his command the beauty and rhythm of African life. What is more, since this is an indigenous audience, the most successful ways of appealing to its imagination and sensibility will be those that lie closest to indigenous modes and practice. Here the characteristics of traditional African literary art and the present need for good pedagogy meet…. Achebe developed his technique accordingly. His books do have a simple narrative line; their canvas is dominated by one central figure; imagery is clear and his style has the added virtues of lucidity and economy.

But one of the most useful devices which Achebe has employed to achieve his aim has been the African proverb. (pp. 122-23)

The reasons why Achebe uses the proverb are easily found, for the gnomic tradition, familiar in western literary history since Anglo-Saxon times, has occupied a central position in African life since time immemorial, and indeed has included precisely this didactic function with which Achebe is concerned. What is more, many scholars assert that the gnomic tradition, while either dead or moribund in the West, is still vitally alive in Africa. (p. 123)

African proverbs … represent an astonishingly versatile device. They are guides to conduct, aids to instruction, rallying cries to tribal unity, and, in a continent where the rhetorical arts are yet vigorously in bloom, the weapons of debate and the buttresses of oratory…. No situation appears too unusual for [a proverb], no aspect of social behaviour lies beyond its reach.

In the society that Achebe's novels often portray, it is the tribal elders who are the great masters of the proverb and the most fervent believers in its power…. Thus, in Arrow of God, when young men are keen to fight and risk destroying the clan, an old villager tries hard to restrain them with the powerfully blunt reminder that 'the language of young men is always pull down and destroy; but an old man speaks of conciliation'. The elders see their instruction of the young as a natural social function. Before Obi, in No Longer at Ease, sets off for England, on a scholarship provided by the Umuofia Progressive Union, one of them feels it his duty to warn him not to rush into the pleasures of the world too soon, 'like the young antelope who danced herself lame when the main dance was yet to come'; nor to marry a white woman, for thus he will be lost for ever to his people, like 'rain wasted in the forest'. Versed in his clan's myths and tales, these are allusions whose meaning and force Obi readily understands. On the hero's triumphant return from overseas, with an Honours degree in English (regarded by the clansmen as a kind of modern day Golden Fleece), an illiterate elder, no doubt feeling challenged by so much erudition among the young, explains to him why he still feels competent to offer advice. (pp. 124-25)

It is not from books but from experience and from listening to old men that the young learn wisdom; such is the perpetual theme of the elders' pronouncements. (p. 125)

More often than not, Achebe's proverbs are basically images with a didactic function, and can be used in the manner imagery is commonly used in literature, to bring into focus, and then sustain, themes the writer happens to be exploring…. The matter of clan solidarity is a case in point. Since Achebe is rehearsing the beauty of a traditional way of life and recording the anguish of its steady disintegration, this is an important concern in two of the first three books, especially when, as in No Longer at Ease, the clansmen are in Lagos, far from their homes in Iboland. In unity there is security and mutual aid in times of crisis. The clansman knows that 'He who has people is richer than he who has money', and the collective wisdom of the tribe, distilled from centuries of experience, has given him the saying 'when brothers fight to death a stranger inherits their father's estate'. (p. 126)

More richly illustrated, however, is the strong sense of tragedy pervading the novels, which all recount the downfall of their central character—Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Obi in No Longer at Ease, and Ezeulu in Arrow of God. When the High Priest of Ulu is shocked into silence by the news of his son's death, which he believes is a punishment from his god, Achebe uses a proverbial comparison quite magnificent in its simplicity:

They say a man is like a funeral ram which must take whatever beating comes to it without opening its mouth; only the silent tremor of pain down its body tells of its suffering.

A diligent if obstinate priest, Ezeulu cannot understand his fate; and his predicament is the more pitiful because he cannot explain it by resorting to tribal proverbs. Indeed, lying at the very heart of his grief, and potent enough to drive him insane, is a conviction that some of the fundamental precepts enshrined in the proverbs of the old dispensation—especially those governing parents' duties to their children and a god's relations with his priest—have been shockingly and brutally violated. In his final cri de coeur, with its weirdly impressive conclusion, he expresses amazement that his god could treat him so harshly. (pp. 126-27)

In all three novels there are brave efforts to bear up beneath the burdens of misfortune; and sometimes the hero will proceed by adopting an attitude of stoic realism, as Obi does when he tries to ease the pain of his mother's death with the reflection, 'The most horrible sight in the world cannot put out the eye' and then with an apparently negating proverb, 'The death of a mother is not like a palm tree bearing fruit at the end of its leaf, no matter how much we want to make it so'. In spite of this, however, the novels firmly insist on the inevitability of human suffering whether man accepts it or not. (p. 127)

The protean nature of the proverb makes its precise function sometimes difficult to determine…. But whether imposing order on chaos, rallying the tribes to brotherhood, asserting ancestral truths or evoking the pathos of man's earthly estate, it is clear that proverbs are cherished by Achebe's people as tribal heirlooms, the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage. Through them traditions are received and handed on; and when they disappear or fall into disuse (as the novelist may well fear could happen) it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away. (p. 128)

Achebe's first three novels showed the author as teacher. His most recent book, A Man of the People …, represents the kind of writing which [his] 'The Black Writer's Burden' manifesto led us to anticipate. The novelist is here in his new role as the scourge of villainy, the outraged vox populi crying out against oppression and injustice. From instructing his society to lashing it with satire; from portraying with a touching nostalgia the beauty of a vanishing world to savagely pillorying what is succeeding it—A Man of the People indeed marks a new departure. Achebe's former avowal of giving back to his people their self-respect has been set aside for an angry statement of their present sins; and a concern with the ills inflicted on an unwilling race by colonialism has made way for concern with the ills which that race has inflicted upon itself.

This novel, therefore, differs in aim and theme from those preceding it…. Equally important, it also marks a new departure in technique, for Achebe uses here for the first time (and probably in imitation of Mongo Beti) a persona, a mouth-piece or other-self, who can conveniently and independently narrate and comment on the events of the plot. This persona, a university graduate and schoolmaster, has become alienated from the common people; he inveighs against their fickleness, and, ironically, while showing moral weakness himself, reviles them for their spinelessness in face of oppression. His creator fills him with righteous indignation towards a hopelessly corrupt political élite and a cynical people who recognise evil yet will not revolt against it. Yet he is as much an object of satire as everyone else. As we have seen, it is Achebe's view that the novelist can and must influence his society; and by using the persona device he can safely point a finger at the warts and sores on the face of contemporary society. Readers are immediately aware that this is the present-day Nigerian scene, that these are the ugly facts of West African life.

Unfortunately, this in itself is not a guarantee of good fiction. It is the illusion of life that fascinates us in great literature, not real life itself. We have the mass media—radio, television, and, above all, journalism—to give a plain account of real life; but the work of fiction is different, it must create, not copy. 'But who cares?' Achebe says, and the reply must be, 'Literary criticism cares'. One of the main strengths in Achebe's first three novels lay in his dispassionate detachment and in a style which recalled [Walter] Pater's remark that 'the true artist may be best recognised by his tact of omission'. He called up a world, stood away from it and left us to gaze on its details. Historically, of course, the use of a persona has normally guaranteed detachment, too, and writers as far apart as [Jonathan Swift, Joseph Conrad, J. D. Salinger, and Keith Waterhouse] have all used the device to devastating effect. But in Achebe's hands the technique is a failure…. Righteous indignation with a corrupt political élite is well enough; but as a primary aim in writing it is more in line with the tradition of the political tract than with the tradition of fiction. This is indeed the contemporary scene which Achebe is mirroring; these are real people he is drawing; but they are the 'real' people of journalism rather than those whom great authors create. (pp. 129-30)

In his anxiety to solve the present problems of his society, even if it means writing 'applied art' instead of 'pure', Achebe's artistry declines alarmingly. The teaching role suits him better; it has long roots in African tradition and makes demands on those qualities for which Achebe is distinguished. The good lesson requires minute preparation and painstaking presentation; it requires the voice of persuasive reasonableness and a care for consistency, above all, perhaps, impartiality. These are demands to which Achebe is remarkably well equipped to rise. Newcomers to satire, however, are apt to feel that its only requirements are white hot zeal and a loud voice; neophytes are apt simply to cry destruction and smash idols…. Satire, one suspects, has not enjoyed a long history in Africa; and for Achebe the absence of this kind of strength at his back has been disastrous. The prose is uneven. Its unsteady rhythm might well be taken as reflecting the turbulence of a committed and indignant spirit; but the effect is not artistic since there is little feeling of restraint. Success at the Swiftian saeva indignatio requires, above all else, control; in the heat of his moral tirade this is precisely what Achebe has lost. Much has been made of the rather prophetic close to A Man of the People: 'But the Army obliged us by staging a coup at that point and locking up every member of the Government'. It sounds suspiciously as though Achebe is suggesting a solution. It is not, generally speaking, the job of art to provide answers; art which does so simply moves towards propaganda.

The first three novels were enough to establish Achebe's superiority over such fellow writers as Onuora Nzekwu, T. M. Aluko, Nkem Nwankwo, and Cyprian Ekwensi. Not only did the novels display the quality of his literary skill; they illustrated the successful way in which he, unlike many of his colleagues, had faced up to, and largely solved, the literary problem modern African writers must tackle: how to write, in the metropolitan language, recognisably modern literature, which reflects contemporary mores and problems, and yet retains a large measure of cultural authenticity. As we have seen, Achebe met this problem in part by using the proverbial idiom of his people—one of the most ancient and protean teaching devices which his continent had to offer. One hopes that he will, eventually, return to a style of writing that uses still further the resources of the indigenous tradition. Then the decline represented by A Man of the People will be remedied and the work of journalism left to the journalists themselves. (pp. 130-31)

Adrian A. Roscoe, "West African Prose," in his Mother Is Gold: A Study in West African Literature (© Cambridge University Press 1971), Cambridge at the University Press, 1971, pp. 71-131.∗

Bruce King

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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 body of accomplished work which is fully achieved in its own terms and which can be evaluated, judged or criticized as literature, without reference to some of the controversies which so often erupt over the evaluation of African literature.

Achebe has a sense of irony and is especially good at social satire. It is remarkable how often his evocation of society, whether the tribal past or the present, is tinged with the sharp eye of the detached observer. His first four novels trace the progressive deterioration of a traditional culture until it has become corrupt and inefficient. Many of the problems of modern Nigerian society are seen as having their roots within tribal customs and values. The tragic forces which cause the ruin of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart are implicit within the tribal culture depicted and are not merely the result of European colonization. In this sense Okonkwo is destroyed, and brings ruin on others, because he is excessive in his adherence to the values of his society; those who can compromise, change with the times and adjust are seen as more sensible. This does not make Okonkwo any less tragic or heroic. Despite Achebe's objective manner of narration, his characters are portrayed with sympathy and achieve noble stature in the course of the novels; the principles they uphold are also seen as noble and engage our sympathies. But such principles are often flawed and inherently unsound in the face of social change. Achebe is like such nineteenth-century English novelists as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in presenting a tragic universe in which exceptional individuals are crushed by larger cultural forces. One is tempted to describe it as a deterministic universe, since the causes of the tragedy are inherent within the culture itself and its relationship to larger realities.

Although Things Fall Apart is one of the best known books of African literature, it is not necessarily Achebe's best novel. Arrow of God … and A Man of the People … are in my opinion better. In A Man of the People, he allows a thoroughly corrupt politician to have an immense warmth and vitality. His zest for life is given full credit and he comes alive on the pages of the novel. The seeming hero of the book, however, is not very likeable; it is implied that his disapproval of corruption comes as much from pride, failure and jealousy as from absolute moral standards. Only an excellent craftsman would have dared to reverse our normal expectations of the sympathetic hero and the unsympathetic villain. It could be argued of course that Achebe has always cast a wary eye on his heroes, or it could be argued that A Man of the People attempts to satirize all of Nigerian society, whether the corrupt politician, the intellectual, or the masses who see no wrong in corruption. In either case Achebe's ability to step back from total involvement with his main characters is an example of his artistry, a sign of his concern with literature as an art, and sets his work off from those who mistake literature for journalism, sociology and anthropology. (pp. 3-5)

Bruce King, in his introduction to Introduction to Nigerian Literature, edited by Bruce King (copyright © 1971 by University of Lagos and Evans Brothers Limited; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1972, pp. 1-11.

John Povey

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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 African they retain a structure that allows the established tools of European literary criticism to be applied. When one can so readily make cross-comparisons with the work of Achebe and, say, Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad, one has the satisfying sense that the African writer can be conveniently set within the context of the much wider field of English language writing…. (p. 97)

Yet Achebe cannot be dismissed in this way as a minor branch on the tree of modern British writing, for he has a very real individuality. His immense competence as a writer has allowed him to tackle and largely solve the two major problems that face the African writer who chooses to employ his second language for his creativity…. The first problem is the difficulty of bridging the gulf between the cultural assumptions of the writer and a part of his readership, without the intermediary assistance of a translator. The second is the establishing of a suitable English-language diction that will reflect the syntax and tone appropriate to the range of African characters the writer presents, while yet retaining that international standard of English which is required if his work is to be other than merely local in its effects.

Since the writer is aware of a foreign audience, he must too often explain things which his own local readers can take for granted…. Achebe manages to convey the essential elements of belief, of the importance of the yam festival in Arrow of God for example, without there being a sense that one is reading a series of notes in parenthesis. He makes them an integral part of the structure of his story, so that we are informed, almost, as it were, without recognizing it and our attention is not directed away from the essential elements which give the novels their power and concentration.

In the formation of a new diction Achebe is just as successful…. He achieves an impressive range of styles, from the extremely formal appropriate to the most educated, to the rather dislocated English of the less educated. He also employs pidgin English where appropriate, retaining sufficient comprehensibility for the works to be readily interpreted and yet retaining all the flavour of pidgin itself. This may best be seen in the speech of the characters in A Man of the People. One notices the range of Nanga's idiom and how exactly it reflects his sense of the degree of formality of the occasion. (pp. 98-9)

Achebe's language matches his people, from the somewhat shallow intellectualism of Odili to the powerful command sustained by the speeches of Ezeulu. His deliberate use of Igbo proverbs, at times a mannerism, more often lends density and distinction to the style and flavours it with the African speech which he knows from the vernacular of his locality. To read Achebe is to feel a deliberate and effective selection at work moulding verbal patterns to achieve specific artistic aims….

[Achebe's four novels] make the most important prose achievement yet in African literature in English. (p. 99)

John Povey, "The Novels of Chinua Achebe," in Introduction to Nigerian Literature, edited by Bruce King (copyright © 1971 by University of Lagos and Evans Brothers Limited; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1972, pp. 97-112.

The New Yorker

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[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.

Ifeanyi A. Menkiti

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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.

The New York Times Book Review

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"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 of an apprentice writer, they are remarkable for consistency of style and point of view. "Girls at War" has a great deal to say to Americans about the new Africa, but it is first-rate fiction in its own right. (pp. 36-7)

A review of "Girls at War and Other Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 36-7.

Joseph Bruchac

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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 brothers" are all conjured up by these few lines. It is the type of poem which we encounter throughout the book, simple, understated, full of irony and possessing of a depth which many may miss on first reading. (pp. 23-4)

"Mango Seedling," which may be Achebe's best-known poem,… speaks of a mango seedling which sprouts on the concrete of an office building and then dies from lack of water. Dedicated to Christopher Okigbo …, the prodigiously talented young Igbo poet who was killed in the Civil War, the poem is an image of both the dead poet and the Biafran state. Without ever mentioning the now familiar clichés of malnourished babies and bombed villages, the poem achieves a feeling of the loss, the pain and suffering which those two deaths entailed. The mango seedling lives on "seed-yams" (yams stored to be planted the following season—when they are gone there will be no harvest in the following year)…. When its death comes at last, it is tragic, yet something other than a defeat. (pp. 24-5)

In the second section of the book, "Poems About War," the irony grows even stronger…. [Here], for the first time in the book, we are shown the familiar image which was for most Americans the quintessence of what Biafra meant—a mother and her starving baby. Two poems in this section, "Mother and Child" and "Christmas in Biafra" concern themselves with that well-known tableau, yet they do so in a way which is most untypical, making points which few Western newsmen cared to make. Both poems relate to Christianity with quiet anger…. In ["Christmas in Biafra"], its title alone a colossal irony, all of the apparatus of the sacred season has gone rotten. Even the hymns broadcast over the radio are filled with messages which are the opposite of what they purport to be…. A mother, too poor to offer even the worthless secessionist currency, tries to show her starving child the crèche, but he turns away…. The repetition of "distance" in the poem emphasizes the gap between the people and the religion which was both harbinger and tool of the colonial era which led inexorably to the Biafran conflict. The child's lack of recognition and his turning away from the meaningless spectacle of a well-fed white Christ child is obviously a response which Achebe feels to be the right one.

There is no glorification of war in Achebe's poems. There is hardly even a condemnation of the "other" side. Instead, in the midst of numb agony, a finger is pointed back toward that first contact with the West which has been at the heart of much of Achebe's writing. The finger is also pointed across oceans, to England and to Russia. In "Air Raid" Achebe associates Russian MIGS used by the Federal Government with the places of ill omen in Igbo folk belief, the "Evil Forests" where malicious spirits dwell…. And in one of the poems in the last section of the book, "He Loves Me; He Loves Me Not," he mentions the leader of the British government which supplies arms to both the Federal Republic of Nigeria and South Africa…. (pp. 25-7)

This kind of awareness is typical of Achebe. Yet he does not blame it all on the super-powers. In "An 'If' of History" and "Remembrance Day" the burden is shifted back to the society of which Achebe himself is a part. (p. 27)

The next section of Christmas in Biafra, which is called "Poems Not About War," might well have been subtitled: "poems about recovering from war." It chronicles the return of the poet to involvement with his duty to instruct and criticize, proceeding from the tentative words of "Love Song" to the strong assertions of "Answer." In "Love Song" he refers to the time when censorship and repression of the former secessionists are at their strongest and the writers must exercise caution…. (It should be easily seen, however, that his poem about the danger of writing politically dangerous poetry is itself very dangerous politically.)

The voice which speaks in "Answer" is a new and powerful one, however. There is nothing tentative about it when Achebe describes his return to power…. (pp. 27-8)

After ["Beware, Soul Brother"], Achebe returns to the vein of irony which he mines so carefully and so well throughout the book. "NON-Commitment," for example, "celebrates" those "who do nothing," who use "prudence / like a diaphragm." (p. 29)

It should be clear by now that Christmas in Biafra is more than just a book of poems by a novelist. It is accomplished poetry which marks the return to social criticism and literature of one of the most vital voices in English today. These clear, careful lines never deny the complexity of the subjects he writes about or the commitment to society which he feels is an integral part of being a writer. (p. 30)

Since his first novel, Chinua Achebe has been a leader in the growth of that new literature which J. P. Clark, another Nigerian poet, has called "the legacy of Caliban." Thanks to Achebe and men like him, English is no longer merely a Western language expressing Western ideas and ideals. We now have available to us fine works of literature which are also doorways into other cultures, doorways through which we must pass if we wish to truly understand ourselves, our history, and the vast potential for a renewal of the human spirit which non-Western writers can offer. (p. 31)

Joseph Bruchac, "Achebe As Poet" (© copyright 1973 The Curators of the University of Missouri; reprinted by permission of the author), in New Letters, Vol. 40, No. 1, October, 1973, pp. 23-31.

Francis M. Sibley

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[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 society at the turn of the century, before and during the irruption of missionaries and colonizers. The tragic hero, Okonkwo, is a highly respected leader among his own people until the alterations wrought by colonialism make his downfall inevitable—or so a superficial reading would suggest. But a closer examination reveals a fatal flaw in Okonkwo: granted his inability to adjust to colonialism, he is equally unable to adjust to his own society. Thus, his own violations of the mores which form the amalgam of his society contribute as much as do the violations of colonialism toward his downfall.

To understand this, it is necessary to come to grips with the Ibo concept of the chi, or personal god, a concept which Achebe uses frequently. The kind of response his tragic figures give to this concept determines the degree of their respective tragedies. (pp. 360-61)

Achebe's central characters proceed, book by book, towards more and more tragic figures if measured by his theory of tragedy as having practical application in fiction and in life. Okonkwo wrestles with his individual chi. Obi wrestles with the collective chi, an even more formidable adversary. Ezeulu confuses his individual chi with the collective chi and wrestles with the combination. Odili wrestles with neither his individual chi nor the collective chi (he can't find them to wrestle with, anyway), he gets the girl he wants, he retains his self-respect, and he lives most tragically ever after.

Achebe is not asserting a simple tautology to the effect that life is tragedy and tragedy is life. We respond to many of his characters in a variety of ways, but we do not regard them all as tragic figures. Those who best exemplify tragedy in Achebe's novels (prime examples: Obierika and Odili) are those who, open-eyed, accept their role as sippers of wormwood and somehow endure. What is at once tragic and promising is that they do endure, and they do so not by some hedonistic calculus but by a commitment to a moral vision which derives from the very acceptance of the concept of tragedy which it delineates. (p. 372)

Francis M. Sibley, "Tragedy in the Novels of Chinua Achebe," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1975 by Auburn University), Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 359-73.

G. D. Killam

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[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 punishment. And plainly the generality of people do not know.

Uncle Ben, the narrator of the story, "Uncle Ben's Choice', is a splendid fellow…. He tells, retrospectively, the story of the most decisive event of his life, one which took place when he was a young clerk at Umuru working for the Niger Company, of a time when hopes ran high and Ben ran with them…. (p. 100)

[He] has been visited by Mami Wota, the Lady of the River Niger. And by her visit she had offered Uncle Ben wealth and riches…. (pp. 101-02)

Achebe and Uncle Ben tease the river god here, look at local legend and fall, happily here, victim to its influence. Mami Wota casts her spell over them both (and us)….

'The Sacrificial Egg' offers yet another view of the conflict between the generations and the beliefs held by each. This is a superb example of short story writing for in some fifteen hundred words Achebe is able to suggest a locale where traditional practices in terms of belief and daily commerce are maintained yet intensified by contact with Europe, and to suggest the moment at which a young Iboman 'whose education placed him above such superstitious stuff' as belief in the presence of members of the spirit world in the world of the living, through a moment of intense violence and pain is forced to reexamine his beliefs. (p. 102)

Nothing is explained since belief of a religious kind is antipathetic to rational scrutiny. The mystery remains a mystery. But the psychological consequences of the events are left behind and promote feelings of desolation and loss….

['Dead Man's Path'] tells the story of Michael Obi, a young teacher, who sees in his appointment as headmaster to a mission school the chance to introduce modern ideas. Obi's ideas of 'modernity' are fairly superficial and consist in part of tidying up the school yard and arranging it after the manner of European gardens. In doing this he plants across a pathway which leads to a traditional burial ground and when the villagers continue to use the path he plants it more densely and strengthens it with barbed wire. The village priest pays him a visit and tells him that the path must be left open for the use of the villagers. For both Obi and the priest the path is a symbol. (p. 103)

Achebe is impartial here: neither side is supported. Obi, despite his somewhat frivolous attitude and the seeming paucity of his idealism, is never allowed to explain himself. Nor, on the other hand, does the priest question the validity of the religion he expounds. The force of the story lies in its suggestiveness rather than any explicit statement it makes. (p. 104)

'Vengeful Creditor' is the longest and in many ways the most telling of the stories, or at least of those which deal with social problems. For this story creates the atmosphere of a time when a three-month experiment in universal primary education ('free primadu' it was called) was undertaken in Nigeria and how this experiment affected the lives of various representative peoples. The examination of the theme provides Achebe with the opportunity for an amount of wry and ironic comment on the experience and self-interest of supposedly disinterested public bodies…. (p. 107)

'Vengeful Creditor' is a powerful attack on the simplistic, complacent and hypocritical attitudes of a middle-class whose private attitudes and actions belie their public professions and practices.

In 'Civil Peace', Jonathon Iwegbu returns to Enugu after the Civil War has ended and rebuilds his life based on the conversion of his Biafran pounds into twenty Nigerian pounds which are given 'ex gratia' by the Federal Government (called egg rasher, 'since few could manage its proper official name')…. [On] the night of the day he has got his egg rasher he is visited by a band of thieves…. (pp. 108-09)

He loses the 'ex gratia' rewards of peace just as he had lost things in the war, the things he seeks now to re-achieve. And though he says that he can accept his losses in peacetime as he has accepted those in war, that he has survived and that 'Nothing puzzles God!', there is really faint consolation for him and little to distinguish 'civil peace' from civil war.

'Girls at War' spans nearly the whole of the time of the Civil War in Nigeria. When Reginald Nwankwo first meets Gladys it is during the first heady stages of warlike preparation…. When their paths cross a third time some eighteen months later, things in the country have got very bad…. [There is a] background of anxiety and fear and shattered standards against which the major part of the action of the story is played out. So bad in fact have things become that Nwankwo is pilfering precious food stuffs in sizeable quantities, to sustain his own family and this boldly in front of the eyes of many starving people who throw the lies of the slogans of war in his face. (pp. 109-10)

[Gladys has also] become 'a mirror reflecting a society that has gone completely rotten and maggotty at the centre'. Achebe's despair and anger proceed from the falling away of all the fundamental decencies, as the idealism which prompts to serve in the new state is replaced by an entirely self-serving attitude as the new state is battered to bits. 'You girls are really at war, aren't you?' says Nwankwo ironically, observing that Gladys' girl friend will come back from a flight from Libreville 'on an arms plane loaded with shoes, wigs, pants, bras, cosmetics and what have you, which she will sell and make thousands of pounds.' To which Gladys rejoins, 'That is what you men want us to do.'

Nwankwo's responses are as ambiguous as is his understanding of the events in which he is caught up. He is capable of virtually stealing food for his own uses in front of starving people; he is unable to see that Gladys has become what she has become in order to survive, has to become cynical in order to survive. Yet she has a deep need for compassion and understanding; and she can give this too. Nwankwo fails to see the consistency of her behaviour in an inconsistent world whose values have been shattered.

In the end all of the moral speculation is made irrelevant by war. Nwankwo and Gladys have collected a badly maimed soldier on the road and drive him with them to Owerri. A sudden air attack takes place; Nwankwo is wounded and Gladys, seeking to release the car door to free the wounded soldier, loses her life…. (p. 111)

That is what war is about—blood and sweat and tears and maiming and useless death. And ideologies are lost in the wake of its destruction. This story says nothing new about war; there is nothing new to say about war. But it adds to the literature of war in an important way. It will move men to pause.

Achebe says in the Preface to these stories that it came as a shock to him to realize that the first of them was written some twenty years before, that he was not what one of his countrymen described himself as being—a 'voracious writer'—and that a dozen stories was a pretty lean harvest for twenty years of writing. Perhaps he is right in thinking that the harvest is small. But I doubt he should call it lean. For Achebe displays here his full range as a writer…. (p. 112)

Achebe's poems [in Beware, Soul Brother, the original title of Christmas in Biafra,] exploit the intuitive Igbo sense of duality which informs all things. Whatever the thematic content of the poems, they are manifestations in various moods and tones of this 'world-view'…. [Among the notes attached to the poems, we] find such explications as:

The attitude of Igbo people to their gods is sometimes ambivalent. This arises from a world-view which sees the land of the spirits as a territorial extension of the human domain. Each sphere has its functions as well as its privileges in relation to the other. Thus a man is not entirely without authority in dealing with the spirit-world, not entirely at its mercy. The deified spirits of his ancestors look after his welfare; in return he offers them sustenance regularly in the form of sacrifice. In such a reciprocal relationship one is encouraged (within reason) to try and get the better of the bargain.

                                              (p. 115)

Given the nature of these statements on the duality implicit in Igbo cosmology, it is perhaps inevitable that Achebe would turn to and cultivate an ironic approach to writing as a natural blending of the sensitivity shaped by his own culture and sharpened by his reading in and contemplation of the Western tradition in literature. Not all of the poems in the volume reflect this joining of influences. Some of them are simply ironic reflections of a familiar kind on events which admit of such sorts of reflection, as for example the first poem in the volume, '1966' …, where in the indolent present, in 'our thoughtless days', we did not think of the hatred which man could conceive for man…. (p. 116)

There is the same sort of irony in 'The First Shot' … where although the first bullet was sent by an anonymous hand … this first shot which unleashed a holocaust will echo down the corridors of history more loudly than the 'greater noises' which it releases.

Or there is the dark and bitter irony about the Biafran War, in 'An If of History' …, about the legitimacy of secession, the rights and wrongs of it, the moral issues, the identification of hero and villain. The poem is worked out by identifying a series of paradoxes wherein the judgements of recent history in assigning right and wrong guilt and innocence, in making moral judgements about the conduct of war are seen to be wholly relative to current judgements. (pp. 116-17)

[Terrifying] consequences arise out of the casual judgements or determinations which make war on a 'Refugee Mother and Child' and make a mock of the Christian Christmas Scene in Biafra. The war poems are widely allusive—they say and show that war is horrible and that its effects are always seen and experienced most powerfully by the innocent. (p. 117)

But to the familiar statements about death and dying is added the Igbo world-view and with it a new dimension is added to war poetry. Where in the Western view the obeisance paid the dead is dependent on the vitality of the recollection of those left behind (which may be passionate or perfunctory), in Achebe's Igbo poetry the living are not to become complacent in their attitudes. The dead have their own vitality and the living had better beware. (p. 119)

[The 'Poems Not About War', the third section of Beware, Soul Brother, show that] the war is ended but its aftermath shapes the lives of those who grope towards normality. There is confusion and uncertainty and fear, a need to catch and sometimes to hold the breath. Images drawn from nature inform the poems and moral concomitants are suggested as an attempt at finding peace is subsumed by a clamorous world…. (p. 121)

There is wit and humour here; but there is a meditative element as well for thoughts and questions about the nature of religious belief are posed implicitly. This claim may be made for 'Those Gods Are Children' … which exemplifies the view put forward in the Note cited above that the world-view of the Igbo people sees the land of the spirits as a territorial extension of the human domain…. (p. 123)

And finally there is the poem which gives the volume its name, 'Beware, Soul Brother,'… a meditation which elaborates the musings of so many of the poems we have looked at above, especially on the duality of life and death as this is made manifest in the Igbo sensibility, made visible in the masks and the dance; as these beliefs are threatened by 'the Cross', the 'lures of ascension day', the 'day of soporific levitation'; as these are expounded by the 'leaden-footed, tone-deaf passionate only for the entrails of our soil'. The mixture of Christian and non-Christian attitudes suggested in these opposing lines points a way to the need to find one's own way, to find a joy unique to one's own soul.

The poem contains within its forty-five lines the stuff of the novels, describes the process of alienation which has been and is at work to the land. The process continues—as with the novels the poem describes the various stages which are achieved and how the bifurcation goes on as beliefs are submitted to further scrutiny. (pp. 124-25)

The volume possesses an overall unity achieved by the relationship the poem bears to an examination of the speculation on the nature of individual human and extra-human existence as this is determined, directed, described by the relationship of the individual to the consequences of political action and the pressure of religious belief. These latter are determined within an African world-view which is in fact, like the novels and stories, an Igbo-African world-view. The poems reveal the same varieties of style—ranging from the colloquial to the rhetorical; the same range of imagery, derived from both an African and a Christian experience as the novels. (p. 125)

G. D. Killam, in his The Writings of Chinua Achebe (© G. D. Killam 1969; reprinted by permission of Heinemann Educational Books, London, England), revised edition, Heinemann, 1977, 132 p. [the excerpt of Chinua Achebe's work used here was taken from Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (copyright © 1971, 1973, by Chinua Achebe; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc., in Canada by David Bolt Associates), Doubleday, 1973].

Jonathan Peters

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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, however briefly, in A Man of the People. In spite of himself Odili cannot help admiring some of the alluring qualities of Nanga which he himself lacks. (p. 145)

The truth of the matter is that Odili has an admixture of personal ambition and idealism tinged with self-pride. His change of front is dictated by whichever of these forces happens to be in the ascendant. (p. 147)

At the end of the novel the whole political structure of the unnamed African country of A Man of the People—the connections with Nigeria are, however, obvious—is in shambles. Since much of the novel focuses on Odili's personal and political involvement with Chief Nanga, the political reality in the novel largely comes through episodes involving one or other of the two or in Odili's commentary as narrator. At the end of the book it is Odili's moral high-mindedness which gains the upper hand. Casting aside his own meddlesome and ineffectual campaign strategy, he proceeds to castigate the people for their cynicism and hypocrisy…. The concluding paragraphs of the novel also take on an added resonance from the fact that Achebe endorses [Odili's] position, but without any smugness on his part. Odili is no longer "exhilarated … by the heady atmosphere of impending violence" … for he has experienced the unglamorous aspects of violence. Max has been killed. He himself has been brutally manhandled. A period of anarchy has followed the election in which practically all the old politicians, including Chief Nanga, have been voted back to power and ministerial posts in spite of the fact that the elections had been called after their corruption scandals erupted. (p. 148)

Achebe's novel does not attempt to find answers … but it does take up the subject of individual and group responsibility weighed against limiting factors of human nature and human reality. (p. 149)

Odili's revised stand on the obligation of the individual to the group is Achebe's own unchanged interpretation of African cultural progression over the last three generations or so. There was order and peace in the archetypal society of Things Fall Apart before its capitulation to European colonialism. The capitulation was achieved through anarchy, that is, through the break-up of the old value patterns. In spite, however, of the breakdown of established order, life must go on. And it goes on in the succeeding generation until a new disruption again upsets the delicate balance of forces and leads to the chaos at the end of Arrow of God. Anarchy becomes an archetype. Thus the constant flux of values catches Obi Okonkwo off guard as he tries ineffectually to balance claims of materialism and morality in No Longer at Ease. (The fact that he does not belong to any group makes his tragedy a much more personal one than the tragedy of either Okonkwo or Ezeulu.) In A Man of the People, except for the idealism of Odili and Max, the equipoise is completely lost; unbridled and unabashed acquisitiveness leads to social and political upheaval because of its magnitude, its universality, and the total absence of any serious commitment to group values or group interest. (pp. 152-53)

The apocalyptic vision of A Man of the People was fulfilled when, in January 1966, the same month it was published, the first army coup in Nigeria was staged by young army officers. But not even Achebe could have foreseen the betrayals and conflicts that led to civil war, nor the terrible massacres and brutalities that both preceded it and characterized its long duration. The Earth-Mother has again been ravaged. This time, however, the perpetrators are not the legendary men of the white skin with no toes. The fact that white men had been the plunderers under slavery and colonization and that the violence is this time turned inwards on a new and inchoate nation is a sign of the changing facets of history and human relations. In his works Achebe looks beyond the immediate modalities of time, place and particularity to the perennial realities, often painful, occasionally hopeful, in this case frustrating, of human nature and the human condition. It is this feature, above all, that gives his novels their enduring quality and universal appeal. (p. 156)

Jonathan Peters, "'Man of the People': Anarchy As Archetype," in his A Dance of Masks: Senghor, Achebe, Soyinka (© 1978 Three Continents Press), Three Continents Press, 1978, pp. 143-58.

Bruce King

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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 Christianity and the white man. If his purpose is to show the dignity of traditional African culture, his job as a writer is to make the Igbo village as richly textured with manners and mores as any local community in the novels of Jane Austen or George Eliot. Indeed Achebe's Igbo village novels resemble those of Eliot or Thomas Hardy in showing the tragedy of individuals resulting from the clash between their own strength of character and the unstoppable forces of historical change. Achebe's heroes gain their stature by their excessive virtue in attempting to oppose fate. This is in contrast to the rest of the village community, which changes its ways under pressure and which may be said to illustrate the importance of communal survival in Africa. The rigidity with which Okonkwo upholds traditional values makes him heroic, but such excesses bring self-destruction because temperance and the ability to accept change are necessary with the coming of the powerful Europeans.

Things Fall Apart is remarkable for its complexity of technique and vision…. We become aware of the closeness of African village life to the soil, to the movement of the seasons and to the gods who are present in the elements. The tribe has its history, its social divisions, economy, ethics, customs, myth, religion, cosmology, and, most important, its traditional wisdom handed from generation to generation through proverbs. The proverbs, which are the most noticeable feature of Achebe's style, occur mostly in the first part of the novel, before the coming of the white man; they are guides to social and moral behaviour, and represent a kind of wisdom literature. Early in the novel we are told 'Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.' Such proverbs as 'If a child washed his hands he could eat with kings' and 'A man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness' are repositories of social advice. These two proverbs, however, are somewhat contradictory in attitude: one teaches purity in selfhood, the other obedience to those in power. Achebe does not pretend that traditional Igbo culture was totally self-consistent. At various places in the novel it is mentioned that customs important in one village are ignored in the next, and that customs change. Indeed, he wants to show that traditional society was not static. Repugnance at such traditional practices as the killing of twins or the treatment of outcasts made Christianity attractive to many of the villagers. Moreover, Okonkwo, who sees himself as the upholder of traditional values, is himself out of harmony with the village, which has changed considerably during the seven years of his exile. His act of defiance in killing the messenger of the white men is in keeping with his previous excesses and his suicide which follows, is, within tribal custom, a greater crime against his society than that of which he accuses others.

There are two techniques in Things Fall Apart that make the novel seminal to Nigerian literature in the way that Huckleberry Finn is the beginning of modern American fiction. The first characteristic is Achebe's reshaping of English into a Nigerian prose style. The inclusion of Igbo words and the translation of Igbo proverbs into English has often been commented upon. Equally worthy of notice is the modification of Nigerian spoken English to make it into a literary style; diction and word order are often based more upon Nigerian than British usage…. The other characteristic is the change in narration of the novel according to the kind of community it describes. The self-enclosed world of the nine villages in the opening pages is accepted on its own valuation and terms. Although Achebe describes traditional Igbo society for the benefit of the reader, recreating a now lost world, he sees it from the inside, accepting its premises.

There are several different perspectives combined within the first half of the book. Achebe as narrator describes traditional Igbo life to the reader, objectively narrates events, acts as the voice of the community and offers comment on the characters which implies judgement. In other places he indirectly presents the psychology of the characters or allows them their individuality through dramatisation. He rapidly alternates techniques to create a consistency of appearance…. (pp. 66-8)

If the first half of the novel is told from within the psychology of the village, the third part of the novel stylistically reflects the social and psychological changes that have occurred with the coming of the white man. There are fewer proverbs or Igbo words, fewer expressions which appear to be based on Igbo idioms. As the unity of village opinion is lost and division occurs requiring a larger perspective on events, the style becomes more distanced….

In the passage describing various reactions to Okonkwo's suicide there are radical shifts of perspective ranging from Obierika's 'That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia' to the messenger's 'Yes, suh', the latter indicative of the new political order and social hierarchy. (p. 69)

The old values no longer hold, but no stable new set of values has become accepted. It is this problem that underlies Things Fall Apart and that is treated more explicitly in Achebe's second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960).

The story of No Longer at Ease concerns Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the Okonkwo of the first novel, who returns from his studies in England to become a civil servant in Nigeria a few years before the independence…. The novel traces the social forces that turn Obi Okonkwo from an idealist into another corrupt member of the new society that has emerged in modern Africa. After the opening pages describing Obi's trial, the narrative moves back into the past beginning with the decision to send him to England for further education. This is followed by a straightforward narrative description of his economic and social problems after his return to Nigeria. While putting the normal conclusion of the narrative at the beginning of the book is dramatically effective, its main purpose is to make the subsequent events appear determined. It focuses attention on the narrative as a study in social cause and effect; the opening pages of the novel show us a promising young Nigerian on trial in a corrupt society, and the remainder of the story will show what has made him what he is.

The quotation from T. S. Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi' is relevant in suggesting that Obi, like the biblical wise men, is caught between two eras: an older Nigeria with its demands of responsibility towards family and clan, and a modern Nigeria, still unborn, in which individuals live their own life, follow their own conscience, and use their money to pay taxes, electricity bills, run automobiles and choose their own wife. Obi says: 'What is a pioneer? Someone who shows the way. That is what I am doing.' He has the worst of both worlds, the responsibilities of the past and the money economy of the present.

But it is perhaps wrong to view Obi as a fallen hero…. Obi himself warns: 'Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly for ever.' The tragedy in the novel has no real resolution because it began earlier when his father became a Christian, turning against the ways of his father, and thus destroying the cultural unity of the family and village. If No Longer at Ease is a study in the cultural chaos of Nigeria on the eve of independence, it also shows Achebe's nostalgia for an ordered—if imperfect—past, when there was one accepted code of values.

His third novel, Arrow of God (1964), contrasts a strong individual, Ezeulu the Chief Priest of Ulu, with a confused, pliant community…. The main irony of the novel is that Ezeulu had previously been a voice for the acceptance of social change. Ezeulu is the first in the village to send one of his sons to study at the white man's school and to the Christian church. His favourite expression to signify the need to adjust to social change is 'A man must dance the dance prevalent in his time.'

As in Things Fall Apart, we are told that tradition changes and is not static. Tribal facial marks were once customary but are now considered old-fashioned and no longer used. African gods and customs are made for the survival of the clan and are not of transcendent importance in themselves. Ulu, the god for whom Ezeulu is chief priest, was made when previous gods had failed the six villages. If a god fails, he is forgotten or destroyed and another god takes his place.

Ezeulu's tragedy is that he believes his god has told him to punish the villages for being influenced by the priest of the Python god. He sees himself as an arrow of his god scourging the clan. This has made him rigid, and his rigidity necessarily must be rejected by the clan if it is to survive. His excess of will and courage makes him a victim of history. (pp. 71-3)

A theme of [Arrow of God] is the effect of the British policy of indirect rule. Although the intentions are innocent there is, ironically, interference in African ways in the hope of strengthening African self-rule: a corrupt, semi-westernised, English-speaking class (forerunners of the future elite) is created, and old customs are accidentally weakened and destroyed. Mission-educated Africans are appointed chiefs and they use their European-given power to organise vast systems of extortion, taking bribes, creating illegal taxes, and intimidating the villages. The clan has no means of protecting itself against such chiefs created by the Europeans. And to make matters worse, the government is inconsistent and, because of the distance of the bureaucracy from the local scene, irresponsible.

It is probable that the cultural tensions and confusions of Arrow of God, while based on historical fact, reflect the period during which the book was written. It observes the rise of a class of Africans who, working for the state, feel free of tribal ethics, and describes the changes that have occurred in Africa as a result of western education, the Christian religion, and the impersonal apparatus of central government. The novel sets the stage for the drama depicted in No Longer at Ease, showing the long historical process which created Obi Okonkwo and modern Nigeria. The tension between the six villages, their leaders and their priests is not unlike that between tribes in post-independence Nigeria. There is, however, one supposed difference between the past and the present, shown by the statement made several times in the novel that one man cannot go against the clan. Whether the clan is right or wrong—and it is often wrong—it has its social mechanisms of reconciliation, judgement, sanctions and survival; the new national state produced by colonialism, as seen in No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People, has no organic unity, no moral sense, no mechanism of purgation; its values follow from the corrupting powers given the warrant chiefs, messengers and police by the colonial government.

One difference between A Man of the People (1966) and Achebe's previous novels is the use of a first-person narrator, Odili. Whereas the omniscient narrator of the village novels assumed the perspective and sometimes the voice of the community, the use of the first-person narrator is significant of the lack of traditional communal values in the new nation. The conclusion of the novel makes explicit the difference between the traditional society of the past, with its sense of moral obligation, and the new state, with its uncontrolled corruption and lack of ethical sense…. The use of pidgin is revealing. The old moral sayings of the Igbos have no relevance to a nation made up of various tribes and cultures; pidgin, a bastard mixture of African and foreign languages, expresses the individualism, immorality and materialism which have resulted from the colonial period and the independent nation which followed. (pp. 74-6)

The novel is set in a period of growing social tensions which reflect the political crisis in Nigeria after independence. Mention is made of various strikes, rapid inflation, favouritism towards politically loyal villages and political thuggery. British companies pay vast bribes to control the economy and American neo-colonialism arrives in the form of aid, investment, willing white women and anti-communism. A radical Marxist party, supported by an Eastern European nation, is formed and its leader killed on election day. As political thuggery gets out of hand and the government loses control, the army takes over. This, Odili tells us, is no triumph of the people over its corrupt leaders. The people themselves 'had become even more cynical than their leaders and were apathetic into the bargain'. While it would be a mistake to equate Odili with Achebe, it is clear that A Man of the People not only reflects a growing animosity between the Nigerian intellectuals of the mid-sixties and the government, it shows that disillusionment with independence had set in; the desire of the people for western luxuries appeared as corrupt as the government. With increased political and social changes brought about by independence, the ideal of an organic, communal way of life had even more validity, although now it was used in contrast to the new national society. (pp. 76-7)

Bruce King, "Nigeria I: The Beginnings and Achebe," in his The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World (© Bruce King 1980; reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), Macmillan, 1980, pp. 58-77.∗


Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 127)


Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 3)