Book: Things Fall Apart

It’s a bit of a coincidence that I read this right after Oliver Twist. I suppose part of that is that they both take place in the Victorian period: one is written by a colonizer and one from the perspective of the colonized. The central coincidence is in language. The final chapter of Things Fall Apart has language as one of its central themes:

“The Commissioner did not understand what Obierika meant when he said, ‘Perhaps your men will help us.’ One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.” And later: “The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

While it weaves in and out of folk story, image, and metaphor–especially food metaphors–Achebe’s language is plain and precise. This is just especially noticeable right after finishing something by Dickens. Both have their beauties, and Dickens floridity isn’t less clear by being so. Different forms of clarity serve different purposes.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the commissioner’s annoyance at Igbo superfluity arises from a different understanding of what it means to be superfluous. Extended speeches as well as formalized interchanges, even if left unquoted directly, feature prominently. At a session of the egwugwu, if I can use the term “session” in such a distinct legal context, the plaintiff makes his speech and is told “Your words are good. Let us hear Odukwe. His words may also be good.”

Similarly, the session is filled with formulaic words the set the terms of the interaction: the masked egwugwu refer to the parties of the lawsuit as “The body of [name].”

Spirits always addressed humans as “bodies.” Uzowulu bent down and touched the earth with his right hand as a sign of submission.
“Our father, my hand has touched the ground,” he said.
“Uzowulu’s body, do you know me?” asked the spirit.
“How can I know you, father? You are beyond our knowledge.”

There the exchange ends, but it is repeated several times as a part of the ritual. This kind of ritual speech is well-documented in all cultures (or all that I know of). The classic recent example is justice John Roberts redoing President Obama’s oath of office the next day because he had changed the wording during the inauguration.

Various forms of talking around an issue–I should really say, talking about an issue in a way that seems circumlocutory if you understand talking about an issue to be a literal process–also pepper the novel. When Okonkwo thanks Obierika for supporting him during his exile, the exchange is as follows:

“Who knows what may happen tomorrow? Perhaps green men will come to our clan and shoot us.”
“God will not permit it,” said Okonkwo. “I do not know how to thank you.”
“I can tell you,” said Obierika. “Kill one of your sons for me.”
“That will not be enough,” said Okonkwo.
“Then kill yourself,” said Obierika.
“Forgive me,” said Okonkwo, smiling. “I shall not talk about thanking you any more.”

Putting aside the subtle interaction between this exchange and the real events of the novel, for it serves a plot purpose as well, you could translate this exchange into unsuperfluous by, “thank you,” “don’t mention it,” but that means hardly the same thing. The circumlocution lends both meaning and sincerity to the exchange. Okonkwo’s gratitude may be the emotional substance that underpins the dialog, but it is the dialog itself that forges his relationship to Obierika. Okonkwo cannot, at least not yet, repay Obierika in kind–that is, in action–so he must repay in words.

But as I say in contrasting with Dickens, such speech-rituals stand out from the narration, which is spare and unadorned. Achebe doesn’t spend time offering us psychology or lengthy description. He doesn’t give the kind of long editorials Dickens might. (Again this comparison is coincidental. I have no reason to compare the two of them other than the fact that I just read some Dickens.)

But this leaves space for the book’s rhymes to breathe. I think these were some of my favorite moments. They’re all over the place. They may be long stretches apart or only pages from each other, but the book has a way of, well, rhyming.

On page 60:

“Sometimes I wish I had not taken the ozo title,” said Obierika. “It wounds my heart to see these young men killing palm trees in the name of tapping … I don’t know how we got that law. In many other clans a man of title is not forbidden to climb the palm tree. Here we say he cannot climb the tall tree but he can tap the short ones standing on the ground. It is like Dimaragana, who would not lend his knife for cutting up dog-meat because the dog was taboo to him, but offered to use his teeth.”

On only page 63:

“That wine is the work of a good tapper,” said Okonkwo.
The young suitor, whose name was Ibe, smiled broadly and said to his father: “Do you hear that?” He then said to the others: “He will never admit that I am a good tapper.”
“He tapped three of my best palm trees to death,” said his father, Ukegbu.
“That was about five years ago,” said Ibe, who had begun to pour out the wine, “before I learned how to tap.”

I could mention many more: the terror of the moonless night and the moonless night in which Okonkwo and Ekwefi follow priestess Chielo into the night out of worry for Ezinma; the images of fire and ash; frozen raindrops as “the nuts of the water of heaven” and the ever-present kola nut as part of the hosting ritual. The text has a kind of poetry in its clarity. It is effortless and entrancing.

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