After last month, when I didn’t get the photo of the books I’d picked and Ysr tried to illustrate it with covers from other editions, I’ve tried to locate the correct covers for each of these books. This one, I’m afraid, eluded me. Our copy’s too old. In fact, it’s a schools edition from the 60s. I can’t imagine a book such as this being in a school library these days. This novel is brutal. Had it been any longer it would be intolerably grim.
It’s two interlocking stories. One is how one member of a community, Okwonko, tries to overcome the shame his dissolute father brought on the family and to assert himself as a patriarch. Wrestling a lion helps, but he is so afraid of seeming weak that he makes several wrong moves. People die as a result. The other story is how, while he is serving his exile, the Europeans come and convert the Igbo townsfolk. The first missionary is sympathetic and tries to learn as much as he teaches, but is replaced by a zealot who antagonises the hold-outs. Once again, Okwokwo has to choose between seeming weak and listening to the Oracles who advise caution.
What emerged in the recent obituaries for the author is the paradox that emerging from being colonised was, for Achebe, almost a completion of the absorption of Western values. Coming to London he saw the Europeans not as monsters or demi-gods but as people who’d almost sorted out their internal problems unaided, an example to developing nations as much as a problem for them. In using a title from Yeats he was clearly indicating that he was straddling both sides of the story, showing it from Okwonkwo’s perspective and treating the Earth Mother and Oracles as just as real as cowrie shells but not entirely siding with the capital-R Romantic notion of the Noble Savage as a repository of all the right values. Moreover, the missionaries gave Nigeria the ability to tell their stories in English, to reach a worldwide audience, and ground their claims for independence in the Enlightenment rhetoric of universal values and rights. Achebe uses all the opportunities afforded by the novel as a form to show an unsympathetic character from the inside and depict a way of life that was receding beyond even memory in the 1950s. As a result, he became Africa’s first literary star, paving the way for novelists, playwrights and poets from an entire continent to be taken seriously and judged on their merits rather than as exotic blooms. His death just under a year ago, was front-page news and an occasion for national mourning and reflection much as Mandela’s was for South Africa.
By Tat Wood