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The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe

The African Trilogy (1988)

by Chinua Achebe

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English (6)  Italian (1)  All languages (7)
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Things Fall Apart
Okonkwo, the son of the village wastrel, is determined to be strong, and as unlike his lazy and drunken father as possible. He makes a name for himself among the Igbo as a champion wrestler, and then by tenacious hard work amasses wealth and three wives. He is a mighty warrior. But his tragic Aristotelian flaw is his overwhelming fear that he will be seen as weak or “womanish,” and therefore worthless like his parent. The result is that he bullies his wives, children, and neighbors. His desire to be seen as strong, often overwhelms his better judgement, and he fears apology as a sign of weakness.

Achebe’s tragedy has three acts. In the first Okonkwo fear results in giving a death blow to a hostage from another village, who looks up to him as a protective father figure. In the second fate takes a hand. He is banished from his village for seven years because of the accidental death of young man, when Okonkwo’s firearm explodes. In the third he returns to his native village to find it infiltrated with white men and their absurd religion. Even worse his son has converted to Christianity, a weak, womanish system of belief. Okonkwo’s failure to raise a rebellion against these invaders leads to his ultimate downfall and disgrace.
No Longer at Ease
Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Things Fall Apart was chosen by his village’s Progressive Union to go to England and become a lawyer. To this end they have extended him a scholarship loan to be paid back when he returns to Nigeria a success. But things do not go as planned. He did not study law, instead he becomes an English major. This does not prevent him from gaining a senior position in the colonial civil service. It’s position of social importance and good pay. It also means access to easy credit, and offers of a bribe in exchange for favorable treatment. The first time he is offered a bribe, Obi is morally outraged, and put the offender out on the street immediately. Unfortunately, the offers will continue.

But Obi has another problem that he has not anticipated. On the voyage home he is delighted to find as a fellow passenger Clara. Clara is a Nigerian beauty that he met briefly at a dance in England, and he becomes hopelessly infatuated with her. His affection is returned, but Clara warns him that she is osu, a descendant of someone pledged as a servant to one of the traditional Igbo gods, and therefore in a caste that cannot marry anyone but another osu. Obi protests that this is heathen and outmoded. This is the 1950s and he is a Christian; no one should care about this. Again unfortunately, when he arrives in Lagos, and when he travels home to his village, he encounters a lot of people, including his Christian father, who do care and care very much.

Achebe’s use of language, English, Igbo, and pidgin is brilliant. This is a tragedy told with verve and humor as well as pathos. More compact than its predecessor, told in just over a hundred pages, Obi’s downfall and fate is told in the very first chapter, and his tragic flaws and steps down primrose path detailed in the next eighteen. But Achebe portrays much more than Obi’s own strong will that leads to his downfall. The mixed messages and conflicting expectations coming from his peers, his girlfriend, his scholarship sponsors, his parent’s strong Christian beliefs, his own Christian beliefs, the traditional beliefs of his villagers, and the expressly low expectations of him held by his colonial English supervisor that form a perfect storm of emotional unrest that completely surrounds and isolates him in his downfall.
Arrow of God
Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, has an important duty. He watches for the new moon, and when it arrives his announcement of the event sets the calendar for his people. Ulu, the supreme deity of the six Igbo villages of Umuaro will back up his pronouncements should it ever become necessary.

The residents of Umuaro are living in British Nigeria in the early twentieth century. British trade has been growing in the area since the early nineteenth century and with the turn of the twentieth century what is now Nigeria became a protectorate of its government. Nominally the Ibo are subjects of the British Empire and are expected to follow the white man’s law, and encouraged to participate in his religion.

Ezeulu is suspicious of Christianity, but wary of the white man’s power, he sends one of his sons to the English school to learn about it. He, like many, is suspicious of the wisdom of these new masters. They do such bizarre things! Oddly enough, Captain T. K. Winterbottom, the British administrator in the area has a high regard for Ezeulu’s character, and attempts to appoint him to a position in the local government to counter the influence of some other corrupt local officials, but cultural misunderstandings and Ezeulu’s own pride leads to his undoing.

This tragic novel, infused with realistic touches of humor, displays Achebe’s masterful control of language, brilliant characterization and first-hand knowledge of both sides of the cultural clashes that disrupted people in his land of birth. ( )
  MaowangVater | Dec 4, 2016 |
All are classics and I was delighted to find the three novels in one volume -- I first read Achebe in an African Literature course in college back in the late 60s. Wonderful to revisit them and to also find a book containing a collection of his poems. Highly recommended. ( )
  Jcambridge | Jan 4, 2015 |
This trilogy has cast such a spell on me that I can't decide what to read next! I will discuss each novel in turn, but first I want to write more generally about Achebe's accomplishments. For in these books he has combined compelling characters, clever plotting, and deep insight into the strengths and weaknesses of traditional Igbo culture, religion, and government with a piercing look at how British colonialism managed to devastate these traditions and how these traditions in some cases adapted to colonialism. His key characters are flawed, often tragically, and he reveals their flaws with compassion. In her introduction to the Everyman's Library edition I read, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her debt to Achebe, but also describes his writing as "a Nigerian English and often, more specifically, an Igbo English." I am not entirely sure what she means by this, as nothing jumped out at me as not the English I am used to, unless she is referring to the many proverbs which fill the conversation of the characters and which are used to illustrate the points they wish to make without expressing them directly.

Things Fall Apart
The most famous of Achebe's works, this novel focuses on Okonkwo, a farmer in a precolonial Igbo village who, reacting to what he perceived as his father's failure and weakness, rules his household of several wives with a heavy hand and always takes an aggressive stand when the elders of the village meet to determine, by conversation and consensus, what the village should do to meet the challenges it faces. He was a famous wrestler in his youth, and longs for the warlike times of old. After one of these meetings of the elders, a young boy from a neighboring village is brought to live in Okonkwu's compound as partial payment from the village for the murder of the wife of a man in Okonkwu's village (the other payment is a young virgin from the neighboring village to replace the man's wife). This boy becomes part of the family, but then the spirits that rule the village demand a further penalty that becomes part of Okonkwu's psychological burden. The spirits and the gods definitely rule the village, through their priests and priestesses (who are more or less ordinary villagers the rest of the time), and the scenes with them, along with the scenes of the elders meeting and reaching decisions, together create a vivid portrait of what traditional Igbo life was like. Okonkwu's inability to control his aggression eventually leads him to be exiled from the village for seven years, and when he finally returns things have changed, because the British have arrived, first exerting their influence through religion, with missionaries building churches and attempting to convert the Africans. Indeed, one of Okonkwu's sons, to his dismay, becomes a Christian convert. Later, the administrators, backed up by the army, arrive; too late, the villagers try to rebel, and tragedy ensues.

This is just a broad outline of what is an endlessly fascinating novel. Achebe has deep compassion for Okonkwu's flaws, and for both the beauty and the flaws of Igbo culture. (In her introduction, Adichie remarks that one of Achebe's accomplishments was to demonstrate just how inaccurate and racist European portrayals of Africa were.) It was, of course, a patriarchal society, and if I have one complaint it is how secondary the female characters are in this novel.

No Longer at Ease
In this novel, Okonkwu's grandson Obi -- the son of the son who became a Christian and then an official in the church -- has studied in England and returned to take up a post as a senior clerk in the Lagos government just slightly before independence. The elders of his town, through an organization they have in Lagos, financed Obi's studies in England (although he is supposed to pay them back from his earnings); in fact he is the first person from the town to have this opportunity and, as such, he is expected to return to the village occasionally and act as a returning hero. But the reader knows from the first pages of the novel that Obi is on trial for bribery (while his British bosses wonder how a young man of "such promise" could fall so low); the rest of the book fills in how he got to that point. For Obi is betwixt and between in many ways. He was expected to study law, but studied English instead. He receives various perks (like a car!) along with what seems like a good salary, but has expenses that eat it up: familial and traditional ones like repaying his scholarship, paying for doctors for his mother, and supporting a brother's school expenses, but also those related to living in a city including, unexpectedly, insurance for his car. He falls in love with a girl, but there are traditional constraints to his ability to marry her and, despite the almost always good advice of a friend from his village, Obi is surprised when his father, who after all is a Christian, still believes in some Igbo religious traditions. For me, this was the weakest of the three novels, but I still felt sorry for Obi who, although weak in some ways, is caught between the present and the past, the traditions and the colonial bureaucracy.

Arrow of God
For me, this was the most remarkable of the three novels, capturing the meaning of Igbo religious practices and the strength of village and personal relationships while at the same time illustrating the rift that white colonial rule created in those traditional structures. It takes place in the period between the first two novels, when British political administration had been established in Nigeria, and focuses on Ezeulu, half man, half spirit, the Chief Priest of Ulu, who is the chief god of a loose alliance of six villages. Ezeulu takes his religious obligations very seriously, and is mostly respected in his village, but several people are opposed to him because, during a prior dispute with another village, he told the truth to the local British administrator, Captain Winterbottom, who then praised him, and thus he is accused of having a friend who is a white man. In addition, he has various issues with his wives and his children, one of whom he sent to study with the British. The novel, which includes sections told from the perspective of Winterbottom and his colleagues, dramatically and insightfully illustrates the clash between two completely different civilizations which completely fail to understand each other. To the British, Africa is hot and uncomfortable and the people are stupid if not savages; to the Africans, the British have no awareness of the importance of family relationships, traditional customs, and spiritual obligations. Of course, the British have the army behind them so the clash is unequal.

Ezeulo is a complex, thoughtful man who can ever so slightly see that perhaps some accommodation to the white man would be useful; however, he draws the line by refusing to accept a position they want him to take. Ultimately, the weight of his spiritual beliefs leads to a conflict with the people that ends in a loss of power, and tragedy. I found this novel utterly compelling in its portrayal of a man, his deeply held beliefs, and the impact of colonialism on a traditional culture.
5 vote rebeccanyc | Feb 23, 2014 |
THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe

Okonkwo is an emotionally stilted African tribesman. He beats his wives, confounds (and beats) his children, has taken human skulls in intertribal warfare. He has what we in the West would call massive gender hangups. Every act of his life is about reaffirming his manliness and shunning womanliness. He has no feminine side. He has no education. He is inarticulate. He is a brute. What Achebe gives us here is what any writer worth their salt gives to his readers: a look at a world completely outside the bounds of the reader's experience. In this world there is nothing but the clan. There is no police authority, no government, no tax agency, and so on. Important decisions are made by the clansmen collectively, with certain more highly ranking individuals having a disproportionate say in what is to be done. For example, when a clanswoman is killed in another village, it is decided that unless the other village wants war it must provide a young virgin (given to the man who lost his wife), and a young man. This young man, Ikemefuna, is taken by Okonkwo into his compound until the tribe determines what is to become of him. He is a bright young man. The entire household comes to value him. For Okonkwo's elder son, Nwoye, Ikemefuna becomes a valued older brother. Even the vindictive Okonkwo comes to like the boy. He spends three years in Okonkwo's house. Then it is determined by tribal authority that he must be killed. He is, what, 17? He is taken deep into the forest by the clansmen and cut down with machetes. He calls to Okonkwo in his death throes: "My father, they are killing me." Okonkwo, who has so far hung in the back of the crowd, runs up, unsheathes his own machete and joins in the slaughter. The primitive logic here being that someone had to die to avenge the dead woman, and a young man is of greater value than a woman. Women, in fact, are chattel in this culture. The clan's "rules" can be appalling. Twins are considered evil and are routinely killed, left to die of exposure in what is known as the Evil Forest. Child mortality is very high. To deal with the trauma of child mortality the clan has developed a myth: It is believed that some women whose children repeatedly die are in fact bearing what is known as ogbanje. The glossary in the back of this edition of THINGS FALL APART defines an ogbanje as "a changeling; a child who repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn." When the child dies, if it is suspected of being an ogbanje, the tribal shaman multilates its body before tossing it into the Evil Forest. If the woman later bears a child with the same mutilations, then the suspicion of the ogbanje is confirmed. So, massive is the ignorance here that it takes the breath away. There is universal inarticulateness, and no form of written language. People act out in the most appalling way. The reader does come to think of the Igbo here as a primitive and bestial people. But then the white man comes. And the white man, the colonizer, British in this case, brings with him his religion, his government, his law and most notably his readiness to condemn the clan cosmogony as pure evil, a product of the devil. The Brits waste little time instilling their superior thought in the clansmen. The reader is torn. Are the tribespeople better off losing their indigenous culture to imperialist usurpers? That would certainly mean less disease for them, reduced infant mortality, an increased rational understanding of certain natural phenonmena they would otherwise mythologize. It's clear there's much to be gained from the white man. But in the end the tribespeople can't pick and choose. They have Western culture thrust down their throats. It is, in the end, what amounts to a wholesale cultural annihilation of the Igbo by the whites. The Igbo try to strike back by burning down the Christian church. This reader found this scene a wonderful moment of the old tribal resolve reasserting itself. But Okonkwo and the men who do it are arrested by the colonizers. They are jailed. During their incarceration they are beaten, starved, not treated with the respect their tribal status warrants. They are released only when the tribe pays a ransom. The next morning they meet to decide what is to be done. During the meeting, five of the white man's native (and pusillanimous) clerks arrive to tell the Igbo that they must break up their meeting. In his frustration Okonkwo lashes out and kills a clerk. But his clansmen do not respond by killing the other four clerks, who escape. I don't want to reveal the end. Suffice it to say though that Okonkwo, in an act of desperation, undertakes an act that is the negation of all he has ever believed in and stood for, no matter how problematic that might be viewed. It's a devastating moment driving home some of the points earlier expressed here. The book is gripping. It carries the reader along with a seeming effortlessness and never lags. It's a beautiful book and, I think, a great one.
  Brasidas | Jan 17, 2010 |
great book, very african, great story line.
  tetteh | May 12, 2009 |
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Collects three of the author's novels, all inspired by the tragedies faced by the Igbo people during the European colonization of Africa.

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