The Achievement of Chinua Achebe

Eliot Elifoson/National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution
Chinua Achebe at his house in Enugu, Nigeria, 1959

The genius of Chinua Achebe, like all genius, escapes precise analysis. If we could explain it fully, we could reproduce it, and it is of the nature of genius to be irreproducible. Still, there has been no shortage of attempts to explain his literary achievement, an achievement that starts with the fact that Things Fall Apart (1958), the first of the novels in his “African trilogy” defined a starting point for the modern African novel. There are, as critics are quick to point out, earlier examples of extended narrative written in and about Africa by African writers. Some of them—Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954), to name but two also written by Nigerians—remain eminently worth reading. But place them beside the work of Achebe and you will see that in his writing something magnificent and new was going on.

One reason for this, which often passes without notice, is that Achebe solved a problem that these earlier novels did not. He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.

The voice I am talking about is, first of all, the narrative voice of the novel. Consider the scene, early on, when Okonkwo, a young man whose father has left him no inheritance, has come to ask for the seed yams he needs to begin his career as a farmer. Custom requires a general conversation before Okonkwo can turn to his business, and in the course of it someone tells an amusing story about a palm-wine tapper whose father, like Okonkwo’s, was poor. “Everybody laughed heartily,” Achebe writes, “except Okonkwo, who laughed un- easily because, as the saying goes, an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. Okonkwo remembered his own father.” The point of view here is Igbo, but Achebe has allowed us to inhabit it.

This invocation of shared proverbial wisdom is also found in the direct speech of the characters. Okonkwo’s father, who is always greatly in debt, explains a little earlier in the novel why he cannot repay a loan to a friend who needs his money back. “Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first.” As someone who has struggled over the years to translate proverbs from my father’s Asante language, I know how hard it is to make this proverbial way of speaking, this traditional form of argument, available in English. In these novels, both in the direct speech of Igbo characters and in the voice of the novel itself, we come to understand, appreciate, and accept the naturalness of this mode of speech and of thought. This allows us to enter an unfamiliar world as if it were our own. As James Baldwin put it: “When I read Things Fall Apart which is about…a society the rules of which were a mystery to me, I recognized everybody in it.” It is a mark of Achebe’s success that many of the African writers who followed him took up his way of representing the speech-world of their own societies.

Achebe was always clear that he saw the task of the African writer in his day as providing a counterblast to the misrepresentation of Africa in the European writings about the continent he had studied in his English literature classes in college. What was missing in all of them, he thought, was a recognition of Africans as people with projects—lives  they  were leading, aspirations they were striving for—and a rich existing culture, exemplified in the proverbs and the religious traditions that are threaded through these novels. He was writing, as he often said, against the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In one of his lively polemics against Conrad, Achebe comments on a few sentences from that book:

This passage, which is Conrad at his best, or his worst, according to the reader’s predilection, goes on at some length through “a burst of yells,” “a whirl of black limbs,” “of hands clapping,” “feet stamping,” “bodies swaying,” “eyes rolling,” “black incomprehensible frenzy,” “the prehistoric man himself,” “the night of first ages.” And then Conrad delivers the famous coup de grâce. Were these creatures really human?

Writing in Nigeria at the beginning of a new period of independence, Achebe believed that the writer’s contribution was to give his or her people a usable past, to recover their dignity in the face of a colonial culture that deprived them, in moments like these, of a decent self-respect. He wanted not to deny that colonization had changed his homeland deeply and irrevocably but to claim that, despite all this, there were profound continuities with the precolonial past to draw on.

The Igbo encounter with the British had begun in the 1870s, only three decades before formal colonization. British administration of Nigeria was imposed at the start of the twentieth century and ended with independence in 1960, so Achebe’s birth, in 1930, came almost exactly halfway through the colonial period. In his trilogy, he explores three periods in almost a century of the Anglo-Igbo encounter: the first arrival of the British in Things Fall Apart; the period of established colonial rule around the time of his own birth, in Arrow of God; and the last days of empire in No Longer at Ease, in each case through the eyes of Igbo protagonists.

One central strand of Achebe’s recovery of the past in these novels is an Igbo philosophy that is expressed in a proverb he offered up in No Longer at Ease: “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” Achebe often used this proverb in discussing his work, and he explained its significance once in an interview: “It means there is no one way to anything….If there is one God, fine, there will be others as well…. If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view.” The characters of his novels get into trouble in large measure because they fail to acknowledge this pluralistic vision.

Okonkwo’s crises in Things Fall Apart reflect his rigid adherence to a view of Igbo tradition that fails to recognize its supple flexibility. Though the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial authority plays a part in the novel—and especially in its final denouement—the dramas of his life depend largely on his refusal to recognize the proper place of the feminine virtues, as Igbo tradition conceives them: peace, patience, and gentleness. All these, along with fertility, are attributes of the Earth goddess. And it is an offense against her that begins his tragic descent.

Ezeulu, the Chief Priest who is the main character of Arrow of God, is also inflexible in his pursuit of the commands of Ulu, the god he serves, as he understands them. Here again, though the novel’s final episode involves an encounter between Ezeulu and colonial authority, the central struggle in the book is between two forces within Igbo society, the new Christians and the servants of the old gods. And once again, we can say that Ezeulu falls because he does not recognize that “wherever something stands, something else stands beside it.”

It is only in No Longer at Ease that the opposition between the world of colonialism and older Igbo values takes center stage. Its main character, Obi, is the grandson of Okonkwo. The people of his hometown have banded together to send him to England for an education. When Obi returns to a job in the colonial administration, they expect him to share with them the fruits of his education. His alienation from their world precipitates a series of crises, as he tries to balance his obligations to them with his own, rather different values. But in this novel, too, Achebe represents the duality of Igbo society through the tensions between the new Christianity, represented by his father, and the traditions of Igbo narrative, which he learns from his mother. And Obi falls in the end in part because he sees an either-or in a situation that demands a both-and.

T. S. Eliot (whose poem “The Journey of the Magi” provided the title of No Longer at Ease) once said he doubted “whether a poet or novelist can be universal without being local too.” I can think of no literary work that more persuasively confirms this judgment than Chinua Achebe’s trilogy, which evokes for us the local world of Igboland while exploring themes that are recognizable to us all. Achebe, by inviting us into his world, expands our own.

Adapted from the foreword to Chinua Achebe: The African Trilogy, published in a new edition by Penguin Classics.