Three Nigerian novels about changes larger than life.
In this review, I want to share some insights I had when reading two award-winning Nigerian novels: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Chigozie Obioma’s The fishermen. These insights mainly developed from comparing the two recent novels with Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things fall apart. The reason why these three novels touch the heart of so many readers is probably because their core messages are about the difficulties of coping with changing realities, which is a global reality nowadays.
by Bert Leysen
Things fall apart: Okonkwo failed to adapt to the new world
Chinua Achebe has been called ‘father of modern African literature’. In 1958, he published Things fall apart: the story of Okonkwo in the style of a Greek tragedy. Greek tragedies were written in a time of competing city states who held “ἀγών” (“battle/competition”) as their central value – much like the circumstances of pre-colonial Igboland. Igboland was presumably an exception in that regard compared with many places in Africa at that time: most African nations were ruled as kingdoms rather than being fragmented into city states.
Okonkwo was a self-made Igbo man, who had worked hard on his farm to raise a family with three wives and many children. He used to play the role of an egwugwu, a masqueraded ancestor, a privilege only for the elite. His personal success story sounds like ‘the American dream’: accumulating wealth and respect by working hard. That is why he always defended the ancient cultural traditions, even when those traditions made him feel bad. For instance, Okonkwo joined the men of his village in the ritual killing of Ikemefuna, a boy from another village who had lived with Okonkwo’s own family for many years. Although Okonkwo liked the boy, he still killed him: only to not look weak in the eyes of his clan.
Next, the British colonizers entered. For Okonkwo, this was a problem larger than life. The Anglican Church appealed to his oldest son Nwoye for their promise of non-violence – quite the opposite of the killing of Ikemefuna who was like a brother to him. Then the Government claimed the only right to perform violence. Of course this led to a clash. The church was destroyed. As a consequence, Okonkwo was held in prison together with some other elite men, in a humiliating way. When the imprisonment of their elite men led to a village-wide gathering and discussion of what to do next, messengers from the Government arrived in the village again. Before the village had reached consensus, Okonkwo hoped to start a war and killed one of the messengers. His village members did not join him. Okonkwo thus committed suicide.
Had Yeats lived during the current COVID-19 pandemic, he would perhaps have been inspired by the (social) death of one of his (grand)parents in a nursing home.
Inspired by Yeats
The title of Things fall apart is explained by these first four lines of William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming which precedes the main text of the novel:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’
The Second Coming was written in 1919, thus just after World War I. His pregnant wife would have been convalescing of the Spanish flu pandemic when Yeats wrote this poem. Death rates for the Spanish flu were very high among pregnant women. Had Yeats lived during the current COVID-19 pandemic, he would perhaps have been inspired by the (social) death of one of his (grand)parents in a nursing home.
Let us have a look at the rest of the poem, not cited in Things fall apart:
‘The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’
Yeats’ poem expresses the insecure feeling of observing a world losing its centre values, and not knowing yet which other values will become dominant. This was a strong feeling held by many at the end of World War I. And this feeling has come back recently. Lines of this poem are cited more often from 2016 onwards than before, mostly referring to Brexit, President Trump, and the rise of other right wing phenomena. The COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled feelings of insecurity: the feeling that things are falling apart.
You can kill yourself literally, or you can kill your original state of being, cutting yourself off from your original culture.
Ngozi Okonkwo in Adichie’s Americanah
Ifemelu is the I-character in this novel. She uses the social security card of Ngozi Okonkwo to obtain a work permit in the United States of America. This first reference to Things fall apart is an interesting detail, transmitting two ideas at once.
The first idea is that ‘Nigerian immigrants use the name of Okonkwo to build their life abroad.’ They must construct meaning to their new life just as Okonkwo had to construct meaning to his life in a changed world. A clash of cultures is to be overcome whenever someone moves to another place and becomes a foreigner, with the risk of killing himself. You can kill yourself literally, or you can kill your original state of being, cutting yourself off from your original culture. This last theme comes back frequently in Americanah: how immigrants have clearly changed when they return to their country of origin.
The second idea: Ngozi is not only the first name used on the social security card, it is also the second name of the author. This means that the author identifies herself with immigrants. Her own personal story is similar to Ifemelu’s: she grew up in Nigeria and went to live in the U.S. to obtain academic degrees and work there, just like Ifemelu did.
A literal reference to Things fall apart
A second reference to Things fall apart in Americanahis even more obvious than the first one: ‘Foreign behavior? What the fuck are you talking about? Foreign behavior? Have you read Things Fall Apart? Ifemelu asked, wishing she had not told Ranyinudo about Dike.’
Dike is Ifemelu’s cousin, the son of her Aunty Uju and a general of the Nigerian military regime which collapsed in the 1990’s. After things fell apart for Aunty Uju, she managed to rebuild her life. However, she forgot to be proud of her relationship with Dike’s father, and of her country of origin. She ‘killed’ her son by doing so. Aunty Uju focused very much on her medical career in the United States. Perhaps that is the reason why she did not have the energy to raise her son more carefully. She could not talk proudly about Nigeria to her son. She could not reassure her son when he had questions about growing up as a black boy in America. Dike developed serious identity issues about being an African-American, which led to a suicide attempt.
Okonkwo killed himself because he could not see a future that would make him proud of himself as in the old days. Dike tried to kill himself because he could not connect to a past which could make him proud of where he came from.
The falconer in Obioma’s The fishermen
Chigozie Obioma has been called the heir to Chinua Achebe because he also wrote a novel with the structure of a Greek tragedy (among other reasons). The fishermen reminds me of King Oedipus: a family trying to avoid a foretelling of an oracle that they cannot escape. Four young brothers went to fish at a forbidden local river and met a madman who prophesied that the oldest brother Ikenna would be killed by one of his brothers.
Chapter 7 is called The falconer. Guess which poetry lines are cited before the chapter begins:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
After these two cited lines, the next line in the poem would be Things fall apart, which is not written here, but is to be recognized by anyone who read Things fall apartor The second coming before. The first sentence of Chapter 7 is ‘Mother was a falconer: the one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children.’
This mother could not control the life of our sons, even though she tried her best. She could not prevent them from fishing in the forbidden area. She could not prevent them from hearing the prophecy of the madman. Finally, she could not prevent her oldest son from developing an anxious and aggressive character because of this prophecy. For example, Ikenna and the second son Boja used to sleep in the same room. After hearing the prophesy, this room was claimed by Ikenna to be only his, out of fear that one of his brothers would kill him. It is this change of behaviour which led to high tensions between Ikenna and Boja. And it is only quite late in the course of what happened that Mother and Father found out what the secrets of their sons were: the fishing and the prophecy.
Locusts and eagles
Chapter 8 The locusts describes the fight between Ikenna and Boja which led to the killing of Ikenna, and also to the suicide of Boja. The locusts are another reference to Achebe’s Things fall apart. Chapter 8 is the centre of this novel describing how all things fell apart. Everything before chapter 8 merely explains “how did this happen?” and everything after chapter explains how the family coped with the loss of their two eldest sons. The main explanation for what happened must thus be that the parents could not control their children. They did not behave as good falconers, leading the falcons. As said before, Mother was a falconer.
In Chapter 3 The eagle we read: ‘Father was an eagle: The mighty bird that planted his nest high above the rest of his peers, hovering and watching his young eagles, the way a king guards his throne. Our home […] was his cupped eyrie; a place he ruled with a clenched fist. This is why everyone has come to believe that had he not left Akure, our home would not have become vulnerable in the first place, and that the kind of adversity that befell us would not have happened.’ Father left Akure to get a better banking job in a city too far away for daily commute. Prioritising your professional life over your children can lead to tragedies.
So, Father’s excess admiration of the western way of life led to the death of two of his sons. This last interpretation is to be understood as a reference to the Nigerian elite. Many of them either fled the country to look for more prosperous jobs in the western world, or participated in local politics with the main goal of enriching themselves and showing their richness by westernizing as much as possible. Both ways of life separate Nigerian common people from proper guidance by the elite, and led to civil wars in which ‘brothers kill brothers’: Biafra, Boko Haram, ….
Common themes in the three novels
The three novels describe how things fall apart, and how new life emerges from the ruins of the old life – but not without pain.
An important common theme is that people should raise their children well: make them proud of where they come from, and make them feel that they have their own value. Chasing professional values while not paying enough attention to your children is not good.
Hiding your feelings is also not good. In these three novels, hiding bad feelings and “doing like a man” led to killing, or to a suicide (attempt). In times of change, it seems to be more important than ever to express your feelings, to stay mentally sane in the midst of changes.
Two recent Nigerian novels connect in a meaningful way with Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart. Possibly these themes touch to the core of what happens today. Many of us feel that there is a global movement towards new centre values, but we don’t know yet which values will finally be dominant.