Achebe: ‘whatever you are is never enough’

A bit more about Chinua Achebe. I followed straight on from ‘A Man of the People’ to ‘Anthills of the Savannah’, in which after a twenty-year break from writing novels, Achebe returned to the same questions of power and government but with an altogether more profound vision of what it means to be human.

He has much to say about the nature of being African, of African politics, about the role of traditional societies, the changing role of women in those societies, the reality of friendship, the reality of love, the ways to cope with death and the corrosive nature of power.

All that is enough to make ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ a wonderful novel. But what struck me most forcibly when I first read this novel more than two decades ago and again in 2011 is the way that Achebe embraces contradiction and complexity in his characters.

And that’s not an easy thing to do in a book about the reality of power and the power of idealism; it would be too simple for an author to take sides. But none of the central characters is easily defined. The increasingly dangerous dictator is still ‘Sam’ to his friends and himself a victim of circumstances. Beatrice refuses attempts by others (and the author) to portray her as an African goddess. The saintly hero has played his role in supporting the dictatorship.

So what? To be human is to contradict yourself, but it’s remarkable how rarely literary characters are allowed to contradict themselves so readily and so often and it’s a sign of a truly great artist that he feels comfortable with that contradiction.

Achebe brings it to life in the chaotic person of the crusading newspaper editor, Ikem Osodi, doomed to a tragic confrontation with his old friend-turned-despot.

Trying to explain to himself and Beatrice why he poses a threat to the regime, Ikem quotes Walt Whitman’s famous lines on all this as a kind of credo: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ And he expands on that by saying,

Contradictions if well understood and managed can spark off the fires of invention. Orthodoxy whether of the right or left is the graveyard of creativity.

It’s this free thinking that makes Ikem so uncontrollable, so dangerous to the regime and so inspiring to others. The student leader Emmanuel learns from Ikem

… that we may accept a limitation on our actions but never, under no circumstances, must we accept restrictions on our thinking.

He learns that from a speech Ikem gives to a student rally after his editorial voice has been silenced. But if those students were expecting a straightforward anti-government message from a leading dissident, they find themselves shocked and discomforted by a contrarian who’s as willing to attack their complicity as the military regime’s oppression.

Whatever his audience is, he must be try not to be. If they fancy themselves radical, he fancies himself conservative; if they propound right-wing tenets he unleashes revolution! It is not that he has ever sat down to reason it out and plant it; it just seems to happen that way. But he is aware of it – after the event, so to say, and can even offer some kind of explanation if you asked to do so: namely that whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something however small from the other to make you whole and save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.

Many in the polarised political world I inhabit could benefit from adopting this approach and, in truth, I know many others who do ‘find a way to accept something however small from the other’. But whether in politics or in the ‘real world’, I can’t think of many better guiding principles.

One thought on “Achebe: ‘whatever you are is never enough’

  1. I first read Things Fall Apart (on Ned Thomas’ course, UCW Aberystwyth) in the 70’s. It made a profound impression on me that still lasts – the granting of dignity to the Ibo culture despite the paradoxical necessity to use the conqueror’s language and literary form of expression; the dual themes of the growth of a man and a nation, both constrained and enriched by tradition. The paradox of the inspiring future Okonkwo dreams for and the weakness that inevitably brings him down. It said much to me at the time about ancient and modern Wales.

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