June 18, 2008

Achebe and the Great African Novel

From The New Yorker:
Western reviewers praised Achebe’s detailed portrayal of Igbo life, but they said little about the book’s literary qualities. The New York Times repeatedly misspelled Okonkwo’s name and lamented the disappearance of “primitive society.” The Listener complimented Achebe’s “clear and meaty style free of the dandyism often affected by Negro authors.” Others were openly hostile. “How would novelist Achebe like to go back to the mindless times of his grandfather instead of holding the modern job he has in broadcasting in Lagos?” the British journalist Honor Tracy asked. Reviewing Achebe’s third novel, “Arrow of God” (1964), which forms a thematic trilogy with “Things Fall Apart” and its successor, “No Longer at Ease” (1960), another critic disparaged the book’s language as “folk-patter.”
This was a grotesque misreading. In a 1965 essay titled “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe explains that he had no desire to write English in the manner of a native speaker. Rather, an African writer “should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” To demonstrate, he quotes several lines from “Arrow of God.” Ezeulu, the village’s chief priest, is curious to find out about the activities of the new missionaries in the village:
I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.
Achebe then rewrites the passage, preserving its content but stripping its style:
I am sending you as my representative among these people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.
By deploying stock English phrases in unfamiliar ways, Achebe expresses his characters’ estrangement from that language. The phrases that Ezeulu uses—“be my eyes,” “bring home my share”—have no exact equivalents in Achebe’s “translation.” And how great the gap between “my spirit tells me” and “I have a hunch”! In the same essay, Achebe writes that carrying the full weight of African experience requires “a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Or, as he later put it, “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”

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