FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Achebe’s Greatest Novel, 50 Years On

by

I purchased my first copy of Chinua Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, at a CMS (Church Mission School) Bookstore in 1964, in Onitsha, in Eastern Nigeria, a few weeks after the novel was published in England.  I was at the end of my two years of teaching English as a Peace Corps Volunteer and had read both of Achebe’s earlier novels (Things Fall Apart, 1958, and its sequel, No Longer at Ease, 1959) while I was still in training before I was sent to Africa.  Fifty years after the publication of Arrow of God, much has happened.  Achebe died a year ago but at least he lived to see the fiftieth anniversary and the celebrations of Things Fall Apart.  Few writers live to celebrate their books five decades later.

Nigeria has changed dramatically, mostly by becoming a petrol state and a kleptocracy, notorious throughout much of the world for its 419 (advance payment) scam.  What a loss, what an obliteration of the expectations for the country I observed when I arrived in 1962.  Achebe was so upset by the dismal country Nigeria has become (exacerbated by a lengthy period of coups and military rule) that he turned down national honors and chose to live in the United States.  Other Nigerian writers have felt much the same; their image of the country in recent novels is anything but flattering.  In fact, it is often downright chilling.  In spite of a ridiculous novel called Little Bee, people do not take their vacations in Nigeria.  Nor has the country made it particularly easy to get a visa.

But, first, a note about Things Fall Apart, the great African novel.  For years I’ve called it the archetypal African novel because of the central and debilitating incident described in the story: the initial arrival of Europeans in an African village, something that happened to all African villages at one time or another.  Achebe’s time frame is late in the sequence, during the 1890s, because of the remoteness of the village.  But all African communities underwent a similar destabilizing experience.  That’s the archetypal situation.  But the novel’s greatness is also that, with Things Fall Apart, Achebe brought light to the African continent, forever obliterating Joseph Conrad’s image of darkness and primitivism.  No longer could the continent be looked at the same as it had been for decades after the publication of Heart of Darkness (1899).  For me, these two aspects of Achebe’s novel assert its greatness, though the novel’s enormous popularity (not initially, but during the past thirty years) have contributed to its stature.

Arrow of God is quite a different kettle. It’s Achebe’s most complex novel, with his most complicated characters, especially Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, and a more extensive array of characters than in any of his other novels.  Moreover, the conflict is largely internal—within Igbo culture itself—not with the external force of the white man’s religion, though Christianity is there to absorb the change once Ezeulu fails to reconcile the needs of his people and their village and his pride and obstinacy have been provoked.  The novel is also Achebe’s richest use of language and metaphor, drawn from the complexities of spoken Igbo and the oral tradition.  This latter statement does not mean, however, that when Arrow of God was first published that it was greeted with praise or even understanding by Western literary critics.  Notice, for example, Ronald Christ’s confusion about Achebe’s novel in his review of Arrow of God in The New York Times Book Review (Dec. 12, 1967).

As chief priest of Ulu, one of Ezeulu’s duties is to set the calendar for sacred festivals, particularly the harvesting of yams.  He does this by saving thirteen yams after the yearly harvest and eating one at the end of each of the moon’s cycles.  After the thirteenth moon has been called by him, the festival and the harvest of yams take place.  For those unfamiliar with the West African yam, these are not the equivalent of Western sweet potatoes but tubers that can often weigh ten or twelve pounds or more.  They are carefully stored so that they last throughout the dry season, thus providing food throughout the calendar year.  Yams were traditionally the stable of a family’s diet in the years before refrigeration and still a major West African food.  When Ezeulu is called to Government Hill by the District Officer and because of a misunderstanding placed in jail for a lengthy period of time, he cannot continue the activity of announcing the new moon. Or, so he rationalizes.  That can only be done when he is in the midst of his people. But the novel suggests that Ezeulu is also vindictive, refusing to budge in his decision-making because of slights he believes he has received from some of his people.  When Ezeulu does not call the sighting of the thirteenth moon, his villagers fear that their yam crop will rot in the ground.

Ezeulu’s flaw is his refusal to negotiate, to listen to the opinions of his people, to change with the times.  There has never been a previous occasion when the Chief Priest was exiled from his village.  His peers expect him to be flexible, to accommodate in the face of what clearly has become a new world because of the British and their government representatives.  In these days of so many autocratic leaders around the world, it is possible to argue that the problem in Arrow of God is a leader (Ezeulu) afraid of transparency. As Achebe would say if he were commenting on his own character, a man who fails to listen to his people’s opinions will spend the rest of his life in darkness.  A man who refuses to heed his people’s needs will discover mushrooms growing from his ears.

Arrow of God is a wondrous novel, every bit as relevant today as the day it was published, as well as during its time frame in the 1910s.  Achebe opened up the African continent in a way no imperial government and its representatives ever did or could.  He wrestled his continent’s heritage back to its people.  No ease feat.

Chinua Achebe: Arrow of God

Random House, 230 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  His books include The Emergence of African Fiction.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail