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
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
December 01, 2016
Kenneth Surin
Life and Politics in Appalachia
David Swanson
Why Flag Burning Matters
Ray McGovern
Petraeus Redux?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail