Chinua Achebe is a multi award-winning Nigerian writer and one of the most important African authors of all time. He is also the most translated – which is saying something, considering that he writes in English specifically for the purpose of bridging language barriers. His three most widely read novels form a sort of trio that explores Nigerian history during British colonization. By focusing on traditional Igbo culture, the novels provide a very human backdrop for the immense social changes that took place.
Things Fall Apart gives us a peek into Igbo culture during the period leading up to the violent British takeover of southern Nigeria. In addition to portraying the gradual imperial encroachment, it also emphasizes the danger of hyper-masculinity in tribal cultures. Our not entirely lovable protagonist, Okonkwo, does everything in his power to avoid resembling his dad, who is lazy and in debt and spends waaay too much time playing flute. Okonkwo works hard, wrestles even harder, and makes sure to beat his wives every now and then for good measure.
Life gets a lot more complicated when Okonkwo must adopt a boy from a neighboring village and starts to get all kinds of horrible, emasculating, fatherly feelings for him in the years that follow. Nevertheless, when the tribe decides to kill the boy, Okonkwo opts for participating in the murder – so nobody thinks he’s a softie. Things go from bad to worse when Okonkwo makes a bit of a social faux pas and accidentally shoots someone at a funeral. During his seven-year exile, Christian missionaries make their move on the village, symbolically leaving him totally helpless and out of place upon returning to his own home.
The second novel in the series, No Longer at Ease, takes a more contemporary look at Nigerian society. On the brink of Nigerian independence – that is, about sixtyish years after Things Fall Apart – it portrays the corruption and instability stamped indelibly onto society by colonial structures. (You know, just in time for Nigeria to try and do its own thing.) The story follows the blossoming career of Obi Okonkwo, an idealistic young politician who promises himself never, ever, ever! to give in to the bribery and corruption endemic to his country.
We all know how much success literary figures have making negative promises to themselves, but in case you still have hope, throw in a younger brother in need of college tuition, a showy politician’s lifestyle, a loan, a break-in, a forbidden love (no, really – forbidden) with a shunned member of Igbo society, and an expensive/controversial medical procedure. The picture we’re left with is of a social structure that is not only completely at odds with the surrounding culture, but also unequipped to promote the good intentions of individuals.
Arrow of God, the third in Achebe’s series, is sort of an in-between-quel, depicting the decline of Igbo culture during the period between Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Set in the Umuaro region, the story chronicles an Igbo village that is led by priest Ezeulu. Umuaro and the neighboring region of Okperi, led by a wealthy upstart named Nwaka, are on the brink of a war that the colonial British government has kept on ice for five years. While Ezeulu and his people worship the god Ulu, Nwaka supports a lesser god, Idemili – probably just to piss Ezeulu off.
War or no, these five years of resentment have had a devastating effect on the community. People within Umuaro stop trusting each other and, worse yet, Ezeulu and Nwaka’s respective followers begin poisoning one another. In themeantime, Christian missionaries take advantage of the situation by offering an alternative to either side of the feud. Compound this with an unsolicited appointment to the local British government, religious resistance, an arrest, and some sacred yams gone horribly wrong, and you get front-row tickets to the fragmentation of tribal society under colonialism.