This is the classic story of Nigerian village life. Parts one and two are in the years before colonial rule. In part three there is friction as the Christian missionaries arrive and, soon after, the colonial police.
But is it really about that? Or is it about Okonkwo? The story traces his life. As a young man he is a famous wrestler and a three-wived farmer who strives as hard as he can to eradicate the memory of his father who was a lazy man and a musician. Okonkwo is man as macho as they make. He conforms to the customs of the tribe; his ambition is to be one of the big men. But somehow, things never quite go right for him. There is one dreadful season when his crops fail. He has problems with sons and daughters. He is forced to move his family away from his village. And in the end, of course, the rapid social changes engulf him and, for him at least, things fall apart.
It is a fascinating and tender portrait of village life. People are people. There is a lovely moment when a young girl is crying because she has broken a water pot and her mother promises to buy her a new one. What the mother doesn't know is that when the pot fell and broke the girl giggled but then decided she had to pretend to cry or she'd get into trouble. There are many little details like this.
It feels as real as it can be. This means that it doesn't seem to be guided by any message. Things just happen, one after another. In western story-telling conventions, the wicked deed that Okonkwo does would be the cause of his tragedy, like in Macbeth (though without the wifely influence). But in this story the retribution is left to the Gods, as in Greek stories. This means that the bad things that happen to Okonkwo, which come after he has done something bad, seem to be the result of bad luck. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps a secular European like myself cannot hope to understand that it is the gods who are exacting revenge.
I don't want to make too much of this but this doesn't fit the western novel tradition. The novel assumes that there is a point to what is being written. The characters have character arcs; the bad things they do return to haunt them and the good things will be rewarded. The story has a similar arc. This tale doesn't seem to work on that level. It is more a social history of the village than anything I can understand as a novel.
I also expected that there would be a greater contrast between the innocent villagers and the terrible effects of white society. It is true that the Nigerian village life seems ordered and settled; there is no suggestion that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only mistake the villagers make is in being too nice when the missionaries arrive to build their church. But there are many ways in which one can see the arrival of colonial society is an improvement. It brings trade and this brings wealth. The first people recruited by the church are those who, seemingly through no fault of their own, are outcasts from village society; it also rescues the newborn twins who are traditionally abandoned in the forest. There is a great deal of superstition in the village, much seems pointless and some malevolent. The society is very heavily patriarchal and women have a very subordinate role. Of course I am judging all these things from my own encultured and limited viewpoint. Nevertheless, to this reader it made the apparent arbitrariness of the plot more forced.
Perhaps this isn't really a novel, more an ethnography.
The unflowery style of the prose reminded me of the first two chapters of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
Many of the great lines seem to be proverbs and “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (p 6):
- “He always said that whenever he saw a dead man's mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one lifetime.” (p 4)
- “the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.” (p 7)
- “the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” (p 20)
- “you will never hear. You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing.” (p 62)
- “a man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.” (p 107)
- “it was like beginning life anew without the vigour and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age.” (p 114)
- “what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” (p 123)
- “Never make an early morning appointment with a man who has just married a new wife.” (p 124)
- “The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.” (p 129)
- “When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing.” (p 140)
- “when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet up opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions.” (p 163)
February 2018; 183 pages