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Critical Insights: Things Fall Apart
An Adequate Revolution:
Achebe Writing Africa Anew
By Thomas Jay Lynn
Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse—to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. . . . For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul. . . . I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them. —Chinua Achebe, "The Novelist as Teacher" (71-72)
Chinua Achebe's seminal contribution not only to African, English, and world literature but also to a generational shift in African and international perceptions of Africa is tied to his multifaceted use and representation of language. At both ends of the Nigerian author's first novel, Things Fall Apart, for example, are passages that foreground the role of language and that resonate within and beyond the confines of the book: a passage near the beginning evokes "the art of conversation" among the traditional Igbo people from whom Achebe descends, while in the novel's concluding passage a British officer contemplates writing a book about "the pacification" of various West African peoples. Whereas in the concluding scene Achebe represents Western modes of thinking and writing about Africa, the earlier scene introduces the linguistic methods by which he will challenge these modes. What Achebe's treatment of language in these and other passages affirms is the profound integrity of an African society; what it supports is the ongoing restructuring of a global vision of Africa.
As soon as he has discovered and given orders for the handling of the lifeless body of Okonkwo, the novel's protagonist, the unnamed British District Commissioner reflects on the book he is writing and the title that he already has in mind for it--The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Okonkwo's suicide of course raises many questions in the minds of readers, but this scene also raises important concerns about the District Commissioner, who is partly responsible for precipitating Okonkwo's death, and his prospective book. Having followed the arc of Okonkwo's life over the course of an entire novel, a reader may be struck by the limited scope the officer proposes to give Okonkwo. He tells himself:
The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. (208-09)
Although the District Commissioner's book would be nonfiction, the way in which he proposes to treat his subject is suggestive of the features of European fiction about Africa that prompted Achebe to write Things Fall Apart in the first place.
A word about this literary background is in order before returning to the officer. In British literature of the colonial period, individual Africans--their inner lives and psychic complexities--were rarely explored. Rather, when they did appear in fiction set in Africa, they were routinely employed as secondary or background figures, adding piquancy to the African adventures of Europeans. As Jonathan Peters states, "Notions about a mysterious Africa . . . had held on for centuries and had been made popular in the colonial period through novelists like [Sir Henry Rider] Haggard, [Joseph] Conrad, and [Joyce] Cary" (15). The connection between adventurous travel and a fanciful notion of Africa is reflected in the dissemination by European "travel books" of "prejudices and myths about Africa" (Ezenwa-Ohaeto 44). As for novelists, focusing sustained psychological attention on individual Africans would spoil the mystery, and, in any case, one can scarcely escape the conclusion that these and other European writers considered Africans to be not interesting enough for focused interrogation. Haggard's enormously popular novel King's Solomon's Mines (1885) includes dramatic scenes that hinge on African mysteries that fatefully draw European characters, and, although it does attempt to give certain Africans occasional prominence and dignity, it invariably falls back on denigrating stereotypes of their mental qualities. In addition, the language barrier discouraged Europeans from creating penetrating dramatizations of the lives of Africans.
In "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (1975), which has had the greatest impact of any Achebe essay, the author shows the connection between, on the one hand, the habitual European view of Africans as lacking a human status equal to their own and, on the other, the ways in which the language barrier prevented Europeans from making more truthful presentations of Africans and justified their demeaning attitudes towards them. Joseph Conrad's widely read novella Heart of Darkness (1899) ostensibly sympathizes with the plight of Africans under the cruel colonial yoke, but, as Achebe indicates, by associating Africans with animalistic and savage imagery and by depriving them of anything approaching a profound or subtle language, it denies them a humanity equivalent to that of Europeans. Though Conrad was exceptionally proficient in European languages, he likely would not have had the training to render African dialogue credibly. But in Heart of Darkness the narrator, Marlow, does not concede that his lack of knowledge of an African language is a significant hindrance to his communication with Africans or is the reason that what Africans say to each other goes unreported. Rather, Africans appear to be the ones who are linguistically deficient, and this partly suggests that their thought patterns are shallow. Conrad's readers, and possibly Conrad himself, would not have been troubled by such distortions, since they would have been camouflaged by the already prevalent belief that African languages and views were rudimentary. In his essay on Heart of Darkness, Achebe elucidates Conrad's slanted treatment of African language and his resulting degradation of Africans:
It is clearly not part of Conrad's purpose to confer language on the "rudimentary souls" of Africa. In place of speech they made "a violent babble of uncouth sounds." They "exchanged short grunting phrases" even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy. . . . Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind [the mind of the story's Mr. Kurtz]? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. (8, 12)
Achebe's critique of Heart of Darkness can help inform our understanding of the final passage of Things Fall Apart, in which the District Commissioner anticipates his paragraph about Okonkwo and reveals attitudes about Africans that will underlie the book he plans to write.
One may ask why "`one of the greatest men of Umuofia'" (208) is worth only a paragraph in the book. From the District Commissioner's perspective, a more probing treatment of a "primitive" mind would require unnecessary "details." Another question concerns the quality of insight that the book might be expected to demonstrate given, among other factors, the language barrier. Undoubtedly, the officer will have to rely on an interpreter, as he does in his dealings with people of Umuofia (193), despite the evident limitation of this method: "The Commissioner did not understand what Obierika [Okonkwo's best friend] meant when he said, `Perhaps your men will help us'" (207). But since a man in his position might think of African languages as rudimentary, an interpreter would likely seem sufficient to him. Indeed, the narrative reveals a dismissive quality in the officer's attitude toward African speech: his initial reaction to that consequential remark by Obierika is to think, "One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words" (206). Especially since his lack of understanding has helped bring about Okonkwo's death, we may ask, finally, why the District Commissioner feels qualified to write about Okonkwo at all. The officer sees African societies as inferior and sees himself as an emissary of an enlightened nation: "`We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy'" (194). He could well believe, therefore, that he has the capacity to understand "these people." As Achebe writes in the essay "Colonialist Criticism," "To the colonialist mind it was always of the utmost importance to be able to say: `I know my natives,' a claim which implied . . . that the native was really quite simple" (71).
Haggard and Conrad, of course, were not the only prominent Western novelists to translate their experiences of colonial Africa into fiction. The Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary, for example, published Mister Johnson in 1939. This novel is an exception to numerous other British colonial novels in that it revolves around an African, specifically the Nigerian title character. For Achebe, however, it only contributed to his awareness of the inadequacy of European representations of Africa. He has said that his reading of Mister Johnson was a factor that played an influential role in the eventual composition of Things Fall Apart:
I was quite certain that I was going to try my hand at writing, and one of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary's novel set in Nigeria, Mister Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture . . . and so I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside. (Interview 4; see also "Named" 38)
Cary's protagonist, Johnson, a local agent for British colonial concerns, is juvenile and unscrupulous, and simply on the basis of his characterization one understands why Achebe would think a different story was needed. But also Achebe's remark that "perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside" indicates that a crucial ingredient for a different story would be a teller who knew intimately an African society and its language.
But to discover an even fuller picture of the social and political currents related to language that motivated Achebe to embark on his first novel, one may turn to No Longer at Ease (1960), the sequel to Things Fall Apart, which is set in the 1950s and which Achebe originally meant to be part of the same volume as Things Fall Apart. Overlapping themes still bind the two novels, and No Longer at Ease rewards readers of Things Fall Apart. Its protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, is the grandson of the original Okonkwo; he earns an English degree at an English university and returns to modern Lagos, assuming a post in the British civil service of the late colonial period. Yet Obi still remembers a particularly painful experience he had in England involving African language: "When he had to speak in English with a Nigerian student from another tribe he lowered his voice. It was humiliating to have to speak to one's country man in a foreign language, especially in the presence of the proud owners of that language. They would naturally assume that one had no language of one's own" (57). Of course Obi knows the linguistic reality is altogether different, that the Igbo language and conversation of his birthplace, Umuofia, is rich and exquisitely nuanced, and this awareness touches him with particular force when he returns to Umuofia for the first time after his university studies: "He wished they [the proud owners of English] were here today to see. Let them come to Umuofia now and listen to the talk of men who made a great art of conversation. Let them come and see men and women and children who knew how to live, whose joy of life had not yet been killed by those who claimed to teach other nations how to live" (57).
Obi's reflections are replicated in a sense by Achebe himself at the conclusion of his Heart of Darkness essay. In the novel, Obi feels the sting of having his language judged by a proud people who are ignorant of it, but he finds at least a partial remedy in affirming to himself the value of his language and the people who speak it. In the essay, Achebe writes of an American newspaper article that, while using the word "language" to refer to Western languages such as Spanish and Italian, uses the word "dialects" to refer to the languages of India and Nigeria. He contends that "this is quite comparable to Conrad withholding of language from his rudimentary souls. Language is too grand for these chaps; let's give them dialects!" Achebe continues, "In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress" (19). Obi Okonkwo recalls the humiliation that English ignorance of African language causes him, but he also finds a remedy in language, and a parallel notion is suggested at this point in the Heart of Darkness essay: "Violence is done. . . . words . . . the very tools of possible redress." Furthermore, in light of Achebe's own experience with Conrad, Cary, and other European authors who, when he was younger, had made it impossible for him to identify with African characters, who took him over to "the side of the white man" in opposition to "the savages [who] were after him" (qtd. in Gikandi, Reading 6), Things Fall Apart, too, may be regarded as a means of using language to heal damage caused by the West's ignorance of African language and society.
Not only does Achebe's narrator invoke much of the same phrase early in Things Fall Apart--"Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly" (7)--that is placed in Obi's thoughts in its sequel, but also the entire Things Fall Apart passage that includes the phrase, like most of the book, shares the spirit of Obi's celebratory response to hearing the language of his hometown. This passage tells of an encounter between a prosperous man named Okoye and Okonkwo's father, Unoka, who is a financial "failure" (6). Okoye seeks repayment of a loan he made to Unoka, who has no intention of repaying it. The verbal parrying between the two is both rich and subtle, employing a range of rhetorical flourishes and maneuvers:
"Thank you for the kola. You may have heard of the title I intend to take shortly."
Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing. He laughed loud and long and his voice rang out clear as the ogene, and tears stood in his eyes. His visitor was amazed, and sat speechless.
Pointing to groups of markings on the wall of his hut, Unoka tells Okoye:
"Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is on hundred cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first." And he took another pinch of snuff, as if that was paying the big debts first. Okoye rolled his goatskin and departed. (7-8)
Part of what a reader notices in this exchange is its varied texture, which, even more than fifty years after Things Fall Apart's first publication, seems natural, fresh, and distinctive. Throughout the novel Achebe introduces untranslated Igbo words and phrases, translated Igbo speech and idioms, and traditional Igbo oral art such as proverbs, folktales, and songs. These devices, some of which are on display in the conversation between Okoye and Unoka, have since helped shape the form of African literature (Gikandi, "Invention" xvii). Here and elsewhere in the novel, the Igbo language is rendered in a "cadenced, proverb-laden style . . . rich in images drawn from traditional rural life" (Riddy 151; see also Jones, on whom Riddy draws for this observation). Oyekan Owomoyela indicates that, indeed, "traditional African discourse tends to rely to a considerable degree on proverbs," and also suggests that the dignified cadence in which Achebe represents Igbo speech in his early novels arises from his preference for relatively simple words derived from Anglo-Saxon (358-59). This method, too, is evident in the exchange above.
On the most general level, however, the method of Things Fall Apart is that of a modern novel that, along with Achebe's other early novels, was created, as Simon Gikandi observes,
in response to a set of modern texts, most notably Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which African "barbarism" was represented as the opposite of the logic of modern civilization. Since he was educated within the tradition of European modernism, Achebe's goal was to use realism to make African cultures visible while using the ideology and techniques of modernism to counter the colonial novel [on] its own terrain. (Foreword xiv)
If Conrad's portrayal of African "barbarism" partly relied on distortions of African language, it also gained traction because of the common Western stereotypes of Africans as savage and violent. Marlow's narration supports these stereotypes by indicating that some of the Africans of his novel are cannibals, having others shoot arrows from a jungle bank (from which a deadly spear is also used), and implicating some in "unspeakable rites" (albeit the European Mr. Kurtz plays an authorizing role in the attack from the bank and the "rites") (50). To be sure, Achebe counters these stereotypes in the form of the novel, but the most effective particular tool that he employs is dialogue. This is glimpsed in the exchange between Okoye and Unoka. Although the former wants the loan repaid so that he might take the prestigious and expensive Idemili title, he does not verbally, much less physically, assault or coerce Unoka. He deploys mostly indirect verbal gestures and, in response, so does Unoka. The loan is not repaid, but no threats are offered; the exchange itself seems to disperse potentially destructive forces, and Okoye leaves.
A thorough consideration of Things Fall Apart leads to this conclusion: far more time and effort are expended by Igbo society on peacekeeping than on violence, and the level of violence that is committed by the Umuofians and their neighbors pales in comparison to the level of peace they maintain. Certainly violence occurs--it is part of the success of the novel that Achebe does not overlook it or disguise its nature (though some may feel that he leans rather too far in the direction of candor in the matter). The story speaks of various acts of violence that occur over numerous years in the Igbo region in which the story is set: people there murder a woman, ritually kill a young man in compensation for that murder, abandon infant twins, murder a missionary, unmask an egwugwu, burn down a church, and (in the case of two different men) beat wives; Okonkwo himself beats two wives and a child, murders a colonial messenger, and commits suicide. There is also reference to "two inter-tribal wars" of an earlier period, in which "incredible prowess" was displayed by Okonkwo, who killed a total of five men as a warrior (8, 10). Yet a variety of restrictions are imposed on the use of violence, though the scope of this discussion precludes their full description. The killing of Ikemefuna, the young man who is given to Umuofia by Mbaino in the aftermath of the murder of the Umuofian woman, appears to be part of a compensation for the spilling of innocent blood. This compensation, which is the outcome of a verbal exchange between the two towns, circumvents a war that would have occasioned a far higher level of bloodshed. In fact, though Umuofia is skilled in warfare and feared by all the surrounding towns, it observes a strict code designed to avoid war: "It never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its oracle. . . . Their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame" (12; emphasis in original). Okonkwo's impulsive violence, which causes his demise, is repeatedly condemned by leaders of Umuofia. The penultimate case of that violence, his sudden beheading of the District Commissioner's messenger, is partly a call to revolt against British-led abuses against Umuofia, but no Umuofian supports him.
The words of Umuofians are in fact the vehicle by which Achebe answers the claims by European writers that Africans are physically savage and verbally undeveloped. The words that encourage peace, that stem violence, occur in some form of dialogue. Though from the beginning of the novel Achebe's narrator connects Okonkwo's violent temper to a failure of language--"And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists" (4)--even Okonkwo finds that when no work is at hand, "talking was the next best" (69). Two other instances of dialogue cultivating peace are significant. One occurs at the egwugwu ceremony, in which village leaders wearing ancestral masks adjudicate disputes. The one to which the novel gives full attention is that between Mgbafo and her husband, Uzowulu, who beats her. Mgbafo has run away from her marriage to live with her brothers, and Uzowulu wants the brothers to return either his wife or the bride-price he gave to their family. A remark that underscores both the value placed on dialogue and the connection between dialogue and peacekeeping is made by the egwugwu leader when Uzowulu concludes his testimony: "`Your words are good. . . . Let us hear Odukwe [Mgbafo's brother]. His words may also be good'" (90). But while Achebe's Umuofians cultivate dialogue and peace, they are not idyllically peaceful in word or deed; analogous to the demands that Umuofia makes of Abame to avoid war, Odukwe proposes that Uzowulu resolve the standoff verbally but also threatens violence if Uzowulu resumes his beating of Mgbafo (which is called "madness"): "`If . . . Uzowulu should recover from his madness and . . . beg his wife to return she will do so on the understanding that if he ever beats her again we shall cut off his genitals for him'" (92). Nevertheless, for the moment, peace prevails and words facilitate it: the egwugwu decree that Uzowulu, in addition to bringing his brother-in-laws wine, must speak to Mgbafo, must "`beg your wife to return to you. It is not bravery when a man fights with a woman'" (93).
The arrival of Christian missionaries and British colonial administrators to the region shakes Umuofia to its foundation, but the first British missionary to live among Umuofians, Mr. Brown, is explicitly a conversationalist and tolerant toward non-Christians. Through an interpreter, he holds long talks about religion with Akunna, one of the "great men" and a nonconvert (179). In the view of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, true dialogue allows for the productive interactions of different cultures. Although it must be conceded that Bakhtin is probably not considering so great a difference in power orders as that between colonizer and colonized, he finds that in "a dialogic encounter of two cultures . . . [the two] are mutually enriched" (qtd. in Morson and Emerson 56). In this vein, Achebe's narrator indicates that, while neither Akunna nor Mr. Brown "succeeded in converting the other . . . they learned more about their different beliefs" (179). More to the point, during Mr. Brown's tenure Umuofia enjoys peace between members of the traditional religion and Christian converts. Brown's successor, on the other hand, Mr. Smith, far from engaging in dialogue, takes a Manichaean approach to the encounter between the traditional and newly arrived religions of Umuofia: "He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness" (184). It is precisely this approach that discourages conversation and accommodation and that leads to religious outrages against both groups: the unmasking of an egwugwu and the burning of the local church. The latter incurs the violent intervention of the District Commissioner.
Yet greater violence occurs earlier in the novel, with the arrival of the first missionary in the region, and, in this case, too, the outburst is associated with an absence of a common language. A lost missionary encounters some people of Abame who have never seen a European, who do not understand him, and who come to fear the European onslaught that he portends. They murder him, and some weeks later the town of Abame is virtually wiped out by a savage British reprisal. The incident is based on a similar one that occurred in 1905 when British forces massacred the people of Ahiara as retribution for the death of a missionary. What may be noted here is that the missionary does try to communicate with the people he encounters in Abame, but he is not understood; rather, they take him to represent a serious threat: "Their Oracle . . . told them that the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them" (138). Not all speech succeeds in bridging the gap between cultures or holding off an overwhelming force. In this case, the failure of communication is shared, and the death of the missionary is the responsibility of the people of Abame, while the massacre that follows represents a level of violence not seen elsewhere in the novel.
One form of speech in Things Fall Apart actually encourages violence, a form that parodies dialogue: the language of deceit. It appears in a cautionary and etiological folktale (narrated by Okonkwo's second wife, Ekwefi, to her daughter, Ezinma) about the "eloquent" Tortoise, who beguiles the initially suspicious birds into helping him appropriate most of a feast that was meant for them. Finding that they have been deceived by Tortoise's "sweet tongue," the birds reclaim the feathers they had given him, and Tortoise falls to the earth, cracking his shell when he crashes against the hard things that cover his compound (96-99). With false words Tortoise disarms the birds, then betrays them, and this pattern arises again toward the end of the novel when the District Commissioner sends "his sweet-tongued messenger" to invite Okonkwo and the other leaders of Umuofia to a peaceful dialogue (a "palaver") (193). When he "receive[s] them politely" they literally disarm (193). But all the fair words have been part of the trap he sets for the men, and, shortly after they are handcuffed, the proposed dialogue turns into the Commissioner's monologue of condescension and coercion: "We shall not do you any harm . . . if only you agree to cooperate with us. We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy" (194). Monologue, then, is the speech of violence, which is further confirmed when the Commissioner's aids treat the leaders brutally after he leaves (194-95). This is the treachery that is a catalyst for Okonkwo's murder of one of the Commissioner's officers--perhaps, indeed, the one possessing the "sweet tongue" (204).
In an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart, Hillel Italie refers to it as "a triumph of contradictions." Though Italie does not mention it, one of the contradictions, or at any rate one of the paradoxes, of the novel is that, while it deploys an array of devices and creative brilliance to validate African language and culture, it is nevertheless a novel written in English. Not long after Things Fall Apart was first published, an important and extensive debate, in which Achebe has occasionally participated, began over whether a literary work can be legitimately African if it is written in a colonial language. Though the present essay does not fully explore this debate, it may be suggested that what Achebe asserted long ago about the usefulness of writing in such a language in the postcolonial context still merits consideration. In one essay, for example, "The African Writer and the English Language," he affirms the value that English has in reaching a wide audience in Nigeria, in which a large number of African languages are spoken yet in which none has as widespread currency as English. He observes that, for the same reason, a colonial language is useful for communicating beyond a nation's boundaries: "The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together we can have a manageable number of languages to talk in--English, French, Arabic" (95). What does seem fair to say is that Things Fall Apart is a masterful novel that has reached a very large audience in Nigeria, Africa, and the world and that in the process has influenced generations of other African writers. Although in the view of many Things Fall Apart and other fictional works by Achebe fall short because they do not enrich or sufficiently validate an African language, his intention has been to mount an "adequate" response to distorted portrayals of African language and society, to devise a literary method for conveying that response, and to celebrate the dignity of African people and their cultures. In these endeavors he has been more than successful.
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