I’ve only read a few of Achebe’s vast list of published works but this would rank up there as my favorite fiction read by him so far. I can see why it is the one that he has re-read the most (as he says in the introduction). Although this is the third in his famous African Trilogy (Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease being the first two) I find it the best – and if I were to fit it in chronologically I think it would fit better as the second book.
This book follows Ezuela, the Chief Priest in Umuaro and the collection of six villages which work together as one. He is trying to maintain the practices they have always followed and being challenged by a minor priest and richer man in one of the other villages. He is walking a fine line between being friends with the white man and between upholding the cultures of the village – and this results in an interesting chain of events as described in this novel!
The book tackles the struggle between tradition and change from both the side of the Nigerians and of the British colonial administration. Even the British administrators on the ground in the small area are shown as having thoughts against the policies, of thinking the policies are terrible and contribute to and create problems rather than solving them. Captain Winterbottom says on page 59:
This was what British administration was doing among the Ibos, making a dozen mushroom kings grow where there was none before.
In this regard I found the book a fresh change – it isn’t always that you see those in the administration admitting how terrible their policies are! The disconnect that was shown between those on the ground and head offices was interesting and showed how policies end up becoming corrupted and useless, and also why more and more problems were created. This isn’t to say that colonialization would or could have been better with better policies, but just that even among the side in the clear wrong there is bad and there is worse, and that even when trying to do something “good” it was invariably done badly.
The biggest theme that I saw running through the book on both sides of the story was that of misunderstanding. Both the residents of Umuaro and the British had their own customs and neither understood or cared to learn about the other. This resulted in many arguments where none was necessary – for example with things as simple as greetings. Both cultures have their own formula and each thinks the other is rude. Ezuela is punished by the British for doing what, if they knew the whole story, should make him lauded (i.e. actually talking to his people and getting their opinion), but instead he is punished for being ‘rude’.
Ezuela was a truly fascinating character. In one sense he is modest and claims he does nothing on his own, he is just the mouthpiece or arrow of the god. In another he is proud and haughty and needs to punish those around him who don’t listen to him. I loved following his actions and seeing where his scheming (if it could be called that) would take him next. In one sense I expected what his answer would be to the British but in another I was still surprised. From page 175:
It might be thought foolish for a man to spit out a morsel which fortune had placed in his mouth but in certain circumstances such a man compelled respect.
His real fault, I felt, was in relying too much on the fact that half of his thoughts were supposed to be Ulu’s. In this way he could pretend that everything that he did had higher motives and that it wasn’t really his decision. He allows his role as Chief Priest to take over more significance than perhaps it should have, allowing it to be the explanation for things that he did without any higher authority behind it.
Overall, a fascinating book that I will certainly be reading again. If you read only one book by Achebe I would recommend this one – though I reserve the right to amend that statement after reading more of his works!