Wednesday, August 11, 2010

NO LONGER AT EASE by Chinua Achebe

Just about every list of great African novels includes Chinua Achebe’s 1958 classic, Things Fall Apart (see my review here). Achebe, a Nigerian by birth who now teaches at Brown University, wrote the novel when he was in his 20s. Two years later he published a follow-up novel, No Longer at Ease. The two books should be read together.

Both stories are tragedies: a good man comes to a bad end. His weakness combines with exterior circumstances to bring him down.

The first novel is about Okonkwo, an Ibo village leader around the turn of the 20th century when Britain was turning Nigeria into a colony. No Longer at Ease picks up the story two generations later in the mid 1950s, as Nigeria moves toward independence. Its protagonist is Okonkwo's grandson Obi.

Obi is the son of Isaac Okonkwo, who (in the first book) repudiated his father's ancestral traditions and converted to the colonists’ religion. A recent graduate of a British university, Obi no longer practices Christianity. His passion is for education, achievement, and moral rectitude. Obi wants to clean up Nigeria and, as he tells his friend Christopher, he knows how it should be done:
     "The civil service is corrupt because of these so-called experienced men at the top," said Obi.
     "You don't believe in experience? You think that a chap straight from university should be made a permanent secretary?"
     "I didn't say straight from the university, but even that would be better than filling our top posts with old men who have no intellectual foundations to support their experience."
     "What about the Land Officer jailed last year? He is straight from the university."
     "He is an exception," said Obi. "But take one of these old men. He probably left school thirty years ago in Standard Six. He has worked steadily to the top through bribery--an ordeal by bribery. To him the bribe is natural. He gave it and he expects it. Our people say that if you pay homage to the man on top, others will pay homage to you when it is your turn to be on top. Well, that is what the old men say."
     "What do the young men say, if I may ask?"
     "To most of them bribery is no problem. They come straight to the top without bribing anyone. It's not that they're necessarily better than others, it's simply that they can afford to be virtuous. But even that kind of virtue can become a habit."
Alas, as the reader knows from the very first chapter, Obi will run afoul of the law.

At first everything seems to be going his way. His Western education has qualified him for one of the coveted "European posts" - a senior-level government job usually reserved for white people. He lives in one of the better districts of Lagos. He has a car, a driver, a houseboy, and a woman he loves.

But Obi no longer belongs anywhere.

In many ways he is more like the colonizers than his countrymen. Having spent four years abroad, he sees his country with new eyes, and it looks shabby. He will not grease any palms. He will not allow the tribal council, his father, or ancient customs to dictate his behavior. He is independent and will make his own decisions about education, money, and whom to marry.

His Western leanings tend to isolate him from family and friends. Members of the Umuofia Progressive Union do not understand his clothing, his speaking style, his taste in food, and – especially – his intransigence when they object to his fiancĂ©e. His parents are hurt that he so readily flouts ancient traditions. Eventually Obi walks out on just about his entire support system.

And yet his British employers and associates do not see him as one of themselves (his boss has a visceral dislike for Africans). They do not help him get the practical information he needs to function in their society – information, for example, about insurance and taxes and cash advances.

In the end he is on his own, and no one - not the learned judge, not the British Council man, not even the Nigerian men of Umuofia – can understand why Obi would compromise his principles.

Achebe took the book's title from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi." He quotes these lines in the epigraph:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
For all their faults, it is easy to identify with and even love Okonkwo and Obi. And for those of us who talk glibly of "culture wars," it is eye-opening to look through their eyes at a genuine clash of cultures, one whose repercussions are still being felt sixty years later.

1 comment:

  1. The review couldn't get better than this! I am humbled and was coaxed into reading this book yet another time. I am glad that I came across this review and could really sense what it means being a colonized person and how does one go through the daily torture which forces us out of our own identify that we really attribute to!

    I am thankful of the writer for bringing this to public consumption.

    Kiran Patil
    Bangalore, India