Saturday, 14 May 2011

No Longer at Ease

No Longer at Ease - Chinua Achebe

One of the things I am trying to do this year is to fill in some of the more obvious gaps in my reading and Achebe was certainly one of those. In fact my reading of African literature is pretty shallow. I was looking out for Things Fall Apart but having picked up the second book in his trilogy (Arrow of God is the third) I thought I would read this anyway as it was suggested that they were a very loose trilogy and worked well separately.
The (anti)hero of the tale Obi Okonkwo is a graduate returning to Nigeria from England. His degree is seen as his entry ticket for the good life and he talks of how his country can be changed and the endemic corruption excised.
I was reminded of Joyce at times during this book. We get Obi's takes on two of the most influential European books about Africa, Greene's The Heart of the Matter and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This reminds me of Stephen's reading of Hamlet in Ulysses, and indeed The Heart of the Matter and No Longer at Ease would be interesting companion reads.

"'What do you think of The Heart of the Matter?'
'The only sensible novel any European has written on West Africa and one of the best novels I have read.' Obi paused, and then added almost as an afterthought: 'Only it was nearly ruined by the happy ending.'"
skip to...
"'You think that suicide ruins a tragedy,' said the Chairman.
'Yes. Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly for ever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions.'"
We know right form the start that No Longer at Ease will be a tragedy. The start is also the end of the story, with Obi standing in the dock awaiting the result of his trial for corruption. The book tells us how he got there but offers no resolution.
There are other similarities with Ulysses, the dying mother, the alienation from the father, the English cuckoo's laying their colonial eggs, the sense of a battle for the ownership of language and the sense of exile and return. Much of the exile is linguistic and cultural. Proverbs and patois sit side by side with functional and florid English. A speaker is admired because  'He wrote the kind of English they admired if not understood: the kind that filled the mouth, like the proverbial dry meat.' His friend Christopher is described thus: "Whether Christopher spoke good or 'broken' English depended on what he was saying, where he was saying it, to whom and how he wanted to say it."
Obi is very sensitive to being seen as un-Nigerian and has a sense of the value of her culture and traditions, one which is not generally held. 'Do they serve Nigerian food here?' Joseph was surprised at the question. No decent restaurant served Nigerian food.'
He also talks of fighting against many traditions such as one precluding marriage to an osu, such as the woman he loves, Clara. He sees himself and his 'educated' generation as being the ones who will fight corruption. However, he still seems to buy into the expectations of how he should live as one of the educated elite, buying a car and clothes and living in a flat in the right part of town and having very generous working conditions. but when his supervisor and an English co-worker comment on this Obi defends his countrymen.
"'It is not the fault of Nigerians,' said Obi. 'you devised these soft conditions for yourselves when every European was automatically in the senior service and every African automatically in the junior service. Now that a few of us have been admitted into the senior service, you turn round and blame us.'"
The values of his townspeople seem to be made for a different world than the one of the English administrators and the successful Nigerians who move in both worlds have to balance both cultures. Obi's degree was paid for by the community from his home place and they have high expectations of him. One that he will look the part and that they can bathe in the reflected honour and two that he will pay the money back so that further villagers can follow in his footsteps.
The struggle to satisfy both and to fight against the wishes of his family and friends by marrying Clara start to take their toll on Obi.
Suffice to say that there is not a happy ending.

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