Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

For the third year in a row, we decided to schedule one book from ABC Radio National's monthly bookclub. In 2014, we discussed Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a dutiful daughter from their European Classics bookclub, and last year it was Hanif Kureishi's The buddha of suburbia from their Subcontinent Classics selection. This year, their theme is African Classics and we chose Chinua Achebe's 1958 Things fall apart. Some had read it before, some had been wanting to read it for a long time, and others had never heard of it, but for all eight present it was a universally popular choice.

Achebe and the book

We talked a little about Achebe's origins, that he was an Igbo who grew up in a cultural "crossroads": his father had joined the missionaries and accepted their education, while his great uncle rejected the missionaries. Growing up, Achebe moved between the two groups, but ultimately he was educated and became one of the modern, progressive young men of his time.

He wrote Things fall apart, partly at least, to present African life and experience from an African rather than a European perspective (such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness). Achebe has said that he saw writing his novel as a "revolution" which could help his society recover from its sense of "denigration". He wrote the book in English, which was a controversial choice, and we briefly discussed the pros and cons. By writing in English, we thought, he appealed to a wider readership and perhaps to those he most wanted to reach, but not writing it in his own language could be seen to contribute to the debasement of his own culture.

We commented that while we hadn't read many African books, we had read Ben Okri's The famished road, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a yellow sun. Adichie, like Achebe, is from the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, while Ben Okri is Urhobo (though his mother was half-Igbo).

Our discussion

We all agreed that Achebe presents an interesting story of people's lives in an African (southeast Nigerian) village - a fascinating window into a world that's gone - but that it was clear that something else was going on underneath. We loved the small details about life in the village, such as the protagonist Okonkwo's compound and his three wives, each in their huts telling their stories to their children.

First edition, Heinemann
The plot is a fairly simple one: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an "ill-fated" man, a "lazy and improvident" man, he had decided that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected "warrior" in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a "man", to never show a "female" side. Male-female dichotomies are an underlying thread in the novel. When things start to go wrong for him, his response is always an aggressive one: if you aren't stepping forward, you are a "woman". This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen, we thought, as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw. His tragedy could be seen to mirror the wider tragedy for African society/culture.

We discussed village life and customs, their gods, their food, and their cultural practices, some of which seemed cruel to our eyes (such as the abandonment of twins, the killing of an innocent person - here, Ikemefuna - as retribution for the sins of others). We noted that not all Igbo villages had the same practices, and that those in the village in which the novel is set, Umuofia, know this. However, it is each village's conventions, beliefs and practices that provide the glue that keeps them together and successful as a community.

We liked the rounded or realistic picture Achebe paints. Okonkwo is presented as the true "conservative", the person who accepts his people's traditions and is not prepared to think about or question them. He regularly ignores the advice of others, is described as “not a man of thought but of action”. However, his good friend Obeirika is more thoughtful. He generally accepts the traditions, but not without some thought and willingness to question them. He is not afraid to show a softer side. Achebe writes after one calamity befalls Okonkwo:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? 

This brought us to the issue of the missionaries. How wrong were they we considered? Wasn't it reasonable to disapprove practices like abandoning twins or killing in retribution, was it wrong that they welcomed the clan's outcasts? We noted that, just as in Umuofian society where we see the contrasting behaviours and attitudes of Okonkwo and Obierika, there are different behaviours and attitudes among the missionaries and other white people. Mr Brown, for example, had an open, co-operative approach while his successor, Mr Smith, took a hard approach. Achebe writes:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.  

So, Achebe, in this book, is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation, but we agreed that his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial mindset. The title of the District Commissioner's planned book "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger" euphemistically describes the colonials' mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as "pacification", and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is "primitive”.

We discussed the language a little too. We enjoyed the proverbs, the imagery, and the folk tales such as the one about the selfish tortoise.


A member shared some questions from the reading group guide at the back of her e-book. One asked about fate versus personal agency. We didn't discuss this at depth but felt that while Okonkwo started by believing he was in control of his life, that he could make himself a great man unlike his father, by the end he was feeling dogged by bad "chi". He ended up without a proper burial, just like his father.

Another question related to the novel's circularity. Most of us hadn't seen it that way, though we agreed that Okonkwo ending up without a proper burial just like his father could be seen as circular. We also discussed the linear aspect to the narrative, the building of calamities and events, and the use of parallels, such as rigid, conservative Okonkwo versus the thoughtful Obierika parallelling the black and white Reverend Smith versus the conciliatory Mr Brown.

Monday, 4 April 2016

In certain circles by Elizabeth Harrower

This month a small group discussed Elizabeth Harrower's In certain circles set in the 1960s/early 70s.  We all enjoyed it although there were one or two issues, especially with the ending that some of us found baffling.

It is an interesting story of how a book written in the 1950s/60s was not published until 2014.  This is the last novel written by Elizabeth Harrower.  You can read more about it in this Guardian review.

In the beginning a few members talked about Harrower’s better known novel called The watch tower.  It has a ‘harrowing’ intensity and members thought there was a similar feeling in In certain circles. The tone also has similarities with Anita Brookner's work possibly.   

One member read the novel as a three-part movement  -- like music -- introduction/story/climax.  The main character is set up for a fall in the first movement. Zoe is a confident young ‘princess’ when the novel begins but through the story, which tells her life from her teenage years through to about 40, she changes in many ways. Her experiences and knowledge of others and her husband’s personality see to it.  There is a highlighting of this knowledge that is to come to Zoe on page 44:

suffering, endurance, were things Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art …

There were many strong and well written aspects of this book   the author’s style, strong characters and her understanding of human nature. We liked the way Harrower describes the relationships between the two sets of siblings – Russell and Zoe, and Anna and Stephen, as young people. Then their relationships when older when they are husband and wife (Zoe and Stephen) and friends, Russell and Anna. 

The character of Stephen was discussed at length. He is a difficult person but he doesn’t realise how much until the ending. We know a lot about Stephen as he is the subject of both Zoe’s and Anna’s thinking.  Zoe and Anna are very human and vulnerable in this stylized version of Sydney in the period. Russell is defined by Zoe and by his wife Lily. He is a man who wants to see social justice for the less well off. We all appreciated Zoe and Russell’s mother – she is good role model for her daughter especially believing that women can do anything. She is emancipated in work but we didn’t think she was socially or domestically – still waiting on the boys in the family even when she knew she wasn’t well.

The ending was the major flaw in the novel most of us thought. A letter written by Anna and later accidentally posted causes havoc unnecessarily and resolves a few issues just a little too easily. When the letter is received by Zoe, immediate angst is felt by the other characters (page 212). We felt it was ‘Hardyesque’ in this twist to the story.  Is this novel really about internal angst? Is it tragic? We didn’t have any answers to these questions.

It is interesting the way each major character has a separate focus – Zoe on Stephen (or herself when young), Anna on Stephen and later her art, Russell on humankind and Lily on her family. Stephen’s focus is on making enough money to support Zoe in the manner to which she was accustomed. (I think he was so damaged by his early life that he can’t think outside that box.)

A major theme is ‘waste’ – as in life or opportunities -- it is often mentioned and bothers the main characters. We are told this when the young Russell and Zoe are spending time with each other – ‘maybe one day people won’t be wasted; talents won’t be wasted’ (page 26).  This is particularly true of Zoe’s wasted life in Stephen’s opinion but in her own opinion as well – her film career was not regarded highly by her husband and he is either jealous of her life in Paris or dismisses it.  By the conclusion, Zoe loses confidence in herself to the extent that she can’t even read Stephen’s moods at times. This tone seems quite dated in today’s society’s mores.

Waste can also be a subject of life in general – ‘the morning hadn’t been wasted, she reflected’  (page 33).

Their occupations take up considerable space in this novel although they all happen ‘offstage’ so there is Anna’s pottery, Lily’s science career, Zoe’s photography and film making which we only hear about indirectly.  Also there is Russell and Stephen’s publishing company (apparently complementing each other nicely in talents for separate parts of the role). As a young man Stephen was a salesman and Anna worked in an office. Zoe couldn’t understand either of these roles for her friends. 

Pity is strong emotion often mentioned in this book. There is pity by the rich kids for Anna and Stephen especially in the beginning of the story but it is also felt by Russell and Zoe’s parents for the orphans. Russell feels pity for people: ‘What have you got against it ?’ he says to Anna, who can’t stand being pitied (p. 132). Russell has never had to be a receiver of pity apparently so can’t understand her reservations.  Their relationship and Russell’s relationship with his wife Lily complicates the intrigue. The final resolution of Russell going off with Anna after a life with Lily certainly surprised most readers. It was a chance of happiness for these two.

The cover of the Text publishing volume quotes from a New York review saying witty, desolate, truth seeking’ – we don’t think it was very witty but we can see some ‘desolation’ in the setting.  When this novel was written Australia was still an isolated place in the world so the story revolves around the interior space of the characters rather than the exterior. However Harrower does portray Sydney Harbour well – and the two houses on the beautiful beach. It is significant that Zoe goes overseas when young as most rich young Australians did in those days to acquire experience. She obtained this opportunity through friends. (See page 59). 

Many of us decided that this author was well worth reading – and we would like to read her short stories and The watch tower.  Elizabeth Harrower is still alive at 88.

(References to the Text publication 2014).