Chinua Achebe, “Arrow of God” (1964) – This is the end of what they used to call Chinua Achebe’s “African Trilogy.” This isn’t really an adequate descriptor of the three books (“Things Fall Apart,” “No Longer At Ease,” and “Arrow of God”); they take place in a specific part of Africa (Nigeria, and mostly the Igbo parts in the southeast), Achebe wrote more books set in Africa, it’s not like there aren’t other African trilogies, etc. What “The African Trilogy” stands as an adequate descriptor for is the way in which Achebe, and his first three novels in particular, broke through to white readers in a way that African literature never had before the early nineteen-sixties.
It also helps that Achebe had real talent. He’s equally at home in describing Igbo village life, British colonial administration, and the people whose lives occurred uncomfortably between the two. “Arrow of God” might be my favorite of the trilogy. Here he tells the story of Ezeulu, high priest of the main god of an Igbo village during the period between the world wars. Ezeulu is in the familiar “African Trilogy” position, trapped between village life and “modernity” as represented by the British. But Achebe also resists facile dichotomies. Like any great tragedy, Ezeulu also makes his own bed with his pride and conviction that he can control events.
Being my kind of nerd, I really love Achebe’s depictions of Igbo society. Never didactic, he throws you into the deep end of Igbo complexities. The British never liked the Igbo (save for some missionaries who liked their relative openness to Christianity) in no small part because Igbo culture resisted the sort of informational/governmental grid any colonizer needs to throw over the people it oppresses. The British felt (rightly or wrongly) they “had a handle” on the Muslim societies in the north of Nigeria, or for that matter, the Zulus or the Afrikaaners they fought in South Africa. They might fight, but the British understood fighting. They really couldn’t wrap their minds around the way Igbo did hierarchy. It’s not to say they didn’t have hierarchy- they had plenty, and Ezeulu was near the top, locally. But these hierarchies were flexible and overlapping and could be dissolved and reformed relatively easily, and with seemingly very little loss of authenticity to the hierarchies thus transformed.
Case in point in this book- Ezeulu’s god, Ulu. As far as I can tell from this book and a few others, in Igbo tradition, the Igbo raise their own gods. Sometimes, they memorialize (or catalyze?) important events- a war, a famine, the life of someone important. Ulu is the civic god of the village federation where Ezeulu lives, a sometimes-uneasy alliance got together to ward off attacks from another village and sealed by the raising of the god Ulu. Ezeulu is in charge of the rites that affirm this god and lives in a big compound with his two wives and many children who he terrorizes with his outsized personality.
That the Igbo could raise new gods to honor events within historical memory mystified the British some, but could be filed under various racist rubrics. What really threw the colonial overlords was Igbo governance. Not only was there no central leadership to the ethnicity as a whole, but even most of the villages didn’t have a single recognized leader. “What are Africans without a chief?” you can almost hear them crying out, and so under once-legendary colonial administrator Frederick Lugard, the British simply found important (or just self-important) men in each Igbo village and appointed a chief, someone they could talk to and channel orders through. Predictably, this didn’t work well. Among other things, the Igbo were as flexible in terms of village structure as they were in religion, and formed and reformed villages and confederations as suited their needs, with the British always trying to catch up.
None of this is to imply the Igbo were some anarchist society, except maybe in the sense “anarchist” sometimes translates out to “lots and lots of meetings.” The villages, confederations, clans, religious societies et al of Igboland are forever disputing internally and externally, in the telling of historians, ethnographers, and writers like Achebe. If the British were less racist, they’d probably see the Igbo way of doing things as not too dissimilar from their favorites, the ancient Greeks. There’s a great emphasis on performing public good for public glory to accrue to one’s village, one’s lineage, oneself. War, wealth, and worship are the main ways to do that.
Ezeulu competes in this world of rivalries in a haughty and sometimes off-handed fashion. He’s already pretty high up when the book starts. But his unyielding stubbornness and conviction that old ways are best doesn’t help him. Rivals in the village get it to go to war over Ezeulu’s objections, and when the British put a stop to it, these rivals make Ezeulu out to be a stooge for the whites. His kids are scattered in different directions, some dissolute on palm wine, some looking for other ways out, some just scared. He sends one son to learn the ways of the British, including Christianity, but the son gets in too deep and causes some major problems. The British offer Ezeulu one of their made-up chiefdoms and he scores some points back home by refusing it, but by then, it’s too late. He tried to regain control over the villages by delaying a key harvest festival, but that only makes things worse. No one is going back to the old ways.
All of this is related in fine, crisp prose. Achebe weaves together Igbo dialect, rich in allusion and aphorisms, with the modernist prose that probably helped him get through the door of the Anglo critical establishment. I’m curious to read his subsequent books, including the one that got him in trouble with the Nigerian government and began his long exile, and his work on the Biafra War, which saw that government (with the help of the British) brutalize the Igbo people. ****’