Book Review: The African Trilogy

Note: Technically I’ll be reviewing three books here but since they were published in one volume, I’ll be reviewing them as a set.

I’m not exactly sure when I first saw Chinua Achebe’s name. I was researching books to read by authors from cultures other than my own, when it came up on some website or other. It also turned up on the catalogue of my local library, so I decided to give it a whirl. I’d never heard of The African Trilogy until a few weeks ago, and had no idea what it was going to be about when I started reading it, but boy was it worth it. Essentially it covers certain aspects of white colonization and attempts to ‘civilise’ the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria.

Things Fall Apart

Tells the story of Okonkwo, a resident of Umuofia. His father was not a good provider, and in his efforts to avoid his father’s poor reputation, Okonkwo rules his family with an iron fist. He keeps to the old traditions, and rapidly rises through the ranks of his village to become a respected citizen. Just as he is on the brink of attaining the highest title available to him… things fall apart (hence the title).

No Longer at Ease

Some 25 years after Things Fall Apart, we meet Okonkwo’s grandson Obi, who has just been convicted of using his position in the Nigerian civil service to take bribes. The judge at his trial expresses surprise that a man who has been given the opportunities Obi had (including being educated at a university in England) should sink so low. The remainder of the novel leaves the readers in no doubt, following Obi’s travels from Umuofia to the UK, and then to the city of Lagos – and his descent from a young idealist determined to keep his morals to convicted criminal.

Arrow of God

Is concerned with events in the six villages of Umuaro, which are overseen by the same white administration that appeared in Things Fall Apart. Ezeulu (translated literally, the ‘king of ulu’) is high priest of the god Ulu, who was created by the six villages to be their supreme deity after the villages united in war against another nearby clan. This has created some jealousy, particularly from Ezidemili, the high priest of the Royal Python (Idemili) who was formerly the highest deity in their pantheon. Ezeulu understands that his position is largely ceremonial. While he advises the local elders when times demand it, he rarely insists on his advice being followed. The white administrators do not understand this, and feel that Ezeulu should be given a warrant to become Chief of his clan (answering to the colonial government, of course.)

I chose to read this book because I wanted to expand my horizons a little, and experience literature from outside of my little bubble. Reading these novels was like sticking my toe into a pool to test the water and finding myself falling in the deep end. I knew almost nothing about Nigerian history and culture before I read this, so I was completely unprepared for what I learned. The way Achebe describes the Igbo peoples’ lifestyles and beliefs, was… well… there were certain practices that I’m not surprised the colonists wanted to stamp out. That said, there were also times when I found myself shaking my head at the depth of ignorance displayed by the ‘white masters’. Given the long history of British incompetence when it comes to Empire and colonisation (and the mistreatment of the native inhabitants in almost every country they conquered, including here in Australia) I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

As I have little previous experience of African literature, I’m not really sure how to describe the writing style. Was it typically African? I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t like anything I’ve read before. There was a certain amount of repetition, especially when nailing home instructive analogies which had clearly been passed down through the generations. Perhaps this was more pronounced because sometimes these sayings appeared in two – or even all three – of the novels.

Last question – did I enjoy The African Trilogy? Yes, I really did. It took me a little while to get into Things Fall Apart, but once I did I finished it quickly. No Longer at Ease I read in under a day. Arrow of God was the longest part of the trilogy, but still only took me a few days to read. If you, too, are looking to read something different, I would definitely recommend The African Trilogy.

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