No Longer At Ease– Chinua Achebe

Ease

 

Na so dis world be…

Since it has a bearing on my review of Chinua Achebe’s 1960 follow up novel to his monumental first work, Things Fall Apart, I will confess here that my first reaction to reading Thing’s Fall Apart was a shrug of my mind’s shoulders…It struck me then as a tragic story admirably told, but unremarkable. For whatever reason, I had overlooked its subtleties, and Okwonko’s plight did not draw me in. It could have been that I was lulled by the narrative’s calm voice and simple seeming language…

The protagonist of No Longer At Ease, Obi Okwonko is the grandson of  the first novel’s protagonist, Okwonko. The setting has shifted two generations in time and 500 miles away from Okwonkos’ fictional Ibo village of Umuofia to Lagos, Nigeria. It’s third person narrator focused mainly from Obi, unfolds the story in chronological order AFTER the opening chapter. Or to put it another way, the entire narrative is one long flashback after the opening. The first section of the first chapter takes the reader inside a Lagos courtroom where Obi is on trial for bribery, and the third section is a scene where his Ibo kinsmen are holding an emergency meeting of the Umuofia Progressive Union to discuss their position on supporting their ‘prodigal son’. 

Where we then fade back to the Obi Okwonko’s apprenticeship…
Obi ‘has book’, he has been college educated, having been sent to England on a scholarship loan scraped together by the poor townsfolk as part of The Progressive Union, their attempt to give their kinsmen’s son’s and daughter’s a chance for a future in the ever changing society. Obi is outspoken and headstrong, like his grandfather. Attention is made to this by a tribal elder when he returns to his rural village in a hometown-boy-makes-good sort of welcome feast. In a doubly ironic application of biblical scripture that the Ibo repeat as their adherence to the old ways, while also a portent for later events:

“Remark him”, said Odogwu. “He is Oguefi Ogwonko come back. He is Okwonko kpom-kwem, exact, perfect”

Obi’s father cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Dead men do not come back, “ he said.

“I tell you this is Okwonko. As it was in the beginning so it will be in the end.. That is what your religion tell us”

Our hero’s education in the ways of the world of modern Lagos is a painful one. He has taken his degree in English rather than Law against the plans of his Ibo Union. He has widened his cultural perspective and with it, he has developed ideals about how to improve the system of Civil advancement in his Nigeria that is driven by bribery. We get a foretaste of it when a bus he is riding in is pulled over by young military ‘officers’ ostensibly checking the driver’s license. Obi asks the driver why he agreed to pay the bribe, the reply ‘Na so dis world be’…

The novel draws out the complexity of Nigeria’s state of flux, morally, spiritually, and psychologically.  More importantly Achebe manages keep authorial distance in a calm, wise voice…
Obi sees himself as a pioneer for cultural adaptation. His ideals are tested in a city that his Ibo kinsmen have warned him hold temptations too great for him. Achebe does a skillful job of balancing our perspective of the opposing cultural forces at play, examining the very human consequences at the intersection when two culture’s world views misunderstand each other. As in the earlier novel, wrestling is associated subtextually with confrontation on the deeper level, of struggling with old ways. Obi is seen by his clansmen as challenging his chi (personal gods) to personal combat. His clan’s forbearance with him is tested (its important to remember the blood ties here, he is under obligations to meet their expectations as their bright hope), at one point they call him a “Beast O no nation’…. Obi’s moral courage, his dignity of holding to his ideals is challenged by choices he is finally forced to make. He bears the shame and guilt of a betrayer, but he can be only be a betrayer: of either his ideals, or his clan’s tradition.

In moment of epiphany, Obi reflects on his mother and father, and compares his mother as woman who got things done, to his father, who is a man of thought.

These thoughts…seemed to release his spirit. He no longer felt guilt. He, too had died. Beyond death there are no ideals and no humbug, only reality. The impatient idealist says: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth”. But such a place does not exist. We all stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.

What I took away.
A new appreciation for an author and his culture’s struggles. Also an opinion that the two novels complement and resonate off each other, increasing understanding of each.  Achebe’s prose mastery is more apparent when comparing TFA’s adaptation to English the simple music in the language of Ibo’s tribal world,  held against the varied dictions he captured in the characters who came from heterogenous backgrounds of the modern colonial Africa of NLAE. One is struck by Achebe’s amazing ear to depict all.
Achebe does not resort to tricks and ploys so often encountered in contemporary literature. No sensory overload, no heaps of ironic aphorisms here. His muted voice moves at the pace of the earth. His controversial essay on Conrad is a Hot Button topic, and no matter which side of the fence your sensibilities lie on this, it should hopefully not influence a certain Swedish academy….

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2 Comments

Filed under Chinua Achebe

2 responses to “No Longer At Ease– Chinua Achebe

  1. This is a nice blog. Came to you via Times Flow Stemmed. Just one thing though, in your country bubble in the right hand column, you have the continent of Africa included, which seems strange particularly for one who is interested in fiction from specific authors like Achebe. Hope you don’t take this the wrong way! Africa, though, is most definitely not a country!

  2. Randy

    Thanks for the complement. Achebe also carries his country tag Nigeria. I purposely want to tag the African voices I review ( there WILL be others…) with both the continent and their country of origin to facilitate those readers who would like to check into writers from the continent but are unsure of their country. I may do this with Latin American authors, not sure yet tho…

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