Friday, May 24, 2013

In Memory of Chinua Achebe

After hearing that Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, famous for writing “Things Fall Apart”, passed away in March I picked up “No Longer at Ease”, the sequel to that classic novel. “No Longer at Ease” tells the story of Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist from “Things Fall Apart”. Obi is an excellent student, and receives a scholarship to study at Oxford. After earning a degree in English, he returns to Nigeria to work as a civil servant in Lagos, and has a difficult time navigating the deeply corrupt colonial government without becoming entrenched in it. Meanwhile, it is revealed to him that his girlfriend comes from a cursed lineage, and that if he were to marry her he would incur the wrath of his family. Eventually, both his romantic and careeristic endeavors collapse. Obi begins taking bribes- in the form of cash or sexual favors- and is eventually caught and jailed. At his sentencing, the judge says: “I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this.” Hearing this, “Treacherous tears came into Obi’s eyes. He brought out a white handkerchief and rubbed his face. But he did it as people do when they wipe sweat.” Achebe’s portrayal of Obi as a tragic figure is very subtle, but it sheds light on issues surrounding race, political idealism and other topics.

                The climax of the novel centers around two tragedies. Obi’s mother dies and his girlfriend, Clara, leaves him, disappearing from his life after a botched abortion. Obi experiences a definite shift in his mental state after these events. Prior to them, his life was permeated by dissatisfaction and frustration with both the outdated practices of his family and villagers and the arbitrary practices of the colonizing forces. His literary training, in a sense, backfired because once he left the ivory tower his only use for poetry was as a private respite from his disappointment, not as a tool for him to make sense of the colonial state he was frustrated by. After them, he experiences what Achebe calls “the peace that passeth all understanding”. He experiences his mother’s death not as an excruciating reminder of his estrangement from his family and culture, but as a severing of himself from his family and culture. His identity as a Nigerian fades away, his anguish collapses under the weight of its own inscrutability. He recognizes that time heals his wounds not mercifully, but indifferently. This leads Obi to begin living at the dreamlike pace of colonized Lagos (Nigeria’s capital city), taking bribes from parents worried about their children’s success, because he knows that the system is broken anyway. The formerly unthinkable act of taking bribes becomes sanitized, not reassuringly, but indifferently.

                The book deals with issues of race only in passing. After Obi’s conviction, his supervisor offers his opinion as to why Obi took bribes, “The African is corrupt through and through… over countless centuries the African has been the victim of the worst climate in the world and of every imaginable disease. Hardly his fault. But he has been sapped mentally and physically. We brought him western education but what use is it to him?” Rather than deal with Obi’s particular case, he blames inherent African inferiority and backs up his claim with pseudoscience.  His colleagues are uneasy about this explanation, but the matter soon passes. Colonized Africans are seen as a blank slate for the diffusion of western values, but because they are unreceptive to them, they merely serve as inferior “others” who can affirm western authority. This line of thought has been heavily pursued by literary theorists like Homi Bhabha, and it applies to “No Longer at Ease”. Obi stands between western ideals of “education” and “progress” and the aphorisms of his people. The value of his education is rendered moot when he returns to work in a corruption-riddled government, and the allegories of his people lose their explanatory power when age-old curses become antiquated and unreasonable rather than solemn.  When the ideals of two peoples clash, they don’t merge into a more perfect whole, they come crashing down to the earth and are lost in the cosmopolitan bustle.  He wants to marry Clara, but since she comes from a cursed lineage he can’t… their marriage would make his assimilation into a “civilized” western culture more expedient, but he finds the superficiality of that culture repugnant. The Marxist adage that abstraction is interpersonally actualized as estrangement and indifference is powerfully realized here. There is a disparity between the solemnity with which his mother threatens- if he goes through with his marriage- to commit suicide, and with which the judge deploys big words like “education” and “promise”, and the superficiality of her threat and the content of his words. This disparity is a result of the colonial presence. “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. And that is not the only illusion we have…” Events that, when they occurred within a single culture, had attached to them an element of metaphorical beauty and a veneer of eternity, are reduced to blank facts of the events or experiences themselves. Why? The fundamental illusion—that of racial difference—absorbs other illusions, which may have been harmless, and ambivalently contextualizes them in a new, oppressive framework.  The aphorisms of his people may make Obi feel nostalgic, but now that the dreams of his people center around filling a role in the colonial government that is the instrument of their own oppression, having dreams or ideals at all becomes suspect.

                “No Longer at Ease” has many lessons to teach today’s activists. Near the novel’s end, Achebe writes: “The impatient idealist says: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.’ But such a place does not exist.” Political disappointment seeks a pedestal from which to voice its discontent—to make its discontent feel as true as the debunked ideals and aphorisms that gave birth to it felt. Achebe continues, “We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace. The most horrible sight in the world cannot put out the eye.” Obi attempts to go with the earth at its own pace by fading into the corrupt folly of his surroundings; in doing this, he finds comfort but loses himself (when he is arrested for taking bribes, he speaks to the police officer in a voice he “scarcely recognizes as his own”). At his sentencing, he cries tears not of moral shame but of inconsolable dejection. Of course, the white men surrounding him in the court room assume that he is crying out of moral shame, and they can, their values being affirmed, continue enjoying the game. Chinua Achebe never sought a place to stand but, with his deft portrayal of the anonymous despair of assimilated Africans, moved the earth nonetheless.

Dedicated to the memory of Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

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