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Achebe’s Greatest Novel, 50 Years On
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.