By BEATRICE AND SOLOMON OJEHONMON
As Nigeria and the world mourn the passing away of Professor Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s foremost literary icon and one of the best literary icons in the world, the debate rages on as to why he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his most popular book, Things Fall Apart, during his illustrious lifetime.
The classic novel was published in 1958 and it became an instant success. It has been translated into over 50 languages and has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. It is indisputably the best known book ever written by a black man of African origin, and was the first archetypal African novel to be written in contemporary English vogue.
So far, only four African writers have won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature award: Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka in 1986, Egypt’s Nagib Mahfouz in 1988, and South African’s duo of Nadine Gordimer and Jim Coetzee in 1991 and 2003, respectively.
Many notable scholars, literary critics and authors have pondered on why the committee overseeing the Nobel Prize for Literature has denied the godfather of Africa’s literature the golden prize, and the debate has become increasingly fierce following the death of the literary icon. Most believe, or rather hope, it will happen soon enough.
There must be an authentic reason, of course, why Professor Chinua Achebe was denied the Nobel Prize for his novel, Things Fall Apart. This article aims to offer a critical analysis, devoid of all prejudices, to this sizzling debate. First of all, let’s take a peek at the intrinsic parts of the novel itself.
Things Fall Apart was set in pre-colonial Nigeria in a small village called Iguedo in the district of Umuofia. Okonkwo, the protagonist in the story, was a hard-working, brave and well-respected warrior, whose only internal devil was the fear of being considered weak by his people. He had a fiery temper and used his fists when angry.
As part payment for killing a woman from Umuofia, the people of Mbaino, a neighbouring village, offered the boy Ikemefuna to Umuofia, and he was entrusted to Okonkwo’s care. Three years later, Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna with his own hands, in spite of being warned by the oracle not to take part in the killing of the boy who called him “father”, and had become an integral part of his household.
Later, at the funeral rite of one of the elders of the clan, Ezeudu, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally went off and killed a young boy, who also happened to be the son of Ezeudu. Okonkwo and his family were banished for seven years. They went to Mbanta, Okonkwo’s mother’s village.
While in Mbanta, the white missionaries came with their strange religion, and later, a form of government. Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, who felt angry and dejected that his father murdered Ikemefuna, ran away from home to join the new religion. Okonkwo was frustrated that Mbanta could not repel the white men, and believed his own people of Umuofia wouldn’t have acted so cowardly. He longed to return home.
However, on his return to Umuofia, after the seven years had elapsed, Okonkwo realised that things were even worse at home. Umuofia had largely abandoned the old ways and were tending more towards the white man’s religion and fancy trade. He felt betrayed and isolated.
But when a convert of the new religion assaulted a masquerade during a traditional function, the people of Umuofia once again rediscovered their mettle and burnt down the white man’s church. Okonkwo and five other elders of the clan were arrested, beaten up and humiliated. They were released only after Umuofia paid a fine of 250 bags of cowries to the colonizers.
The next morning after their release, a general meeting was called at the market place. Five messengers of the white settlers rudely interrupted the gathering and demanded that the meeting be called off at once. In anger, Okonkwo beheaded the lead messenger, while the other four escaped unhurt.
If Okonkwo had hoped to start a revolution against the colonizers by killing the messenger, he was bitterly disappointed as he realized that, by allowing the other four messengers to escape, the people of Umuofia had no intention of joining him. They had lost their guts. Okonkwo’s clan had become weak and cowardly. There would be no fighting against the colonizers. The once powerful and aggressive people of Umuofia had lamely resigned themselves to being slaves under the white intruders in their own land.
Okonkwo quietly left the meeting place.
At this point, a million writers would have concluded this story differently. There are a thousand and one ways to wrap up this story aside what Professor Chinua Achebe did but we will only outline a few here.
Least palatable of all, after Okonkwo left the meeting place, he would have given himself up to the white settlers. He would have been tried in a kangaroo court, either sentenced to life imprisonment or be executed by firing squad. Okonkwo would have become a venerated martyr or, if imprisoned, would have later become a frontrunner in the fight for independence, like Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
Or would have armed him with cutlasses, bow and arrows, guns or whatever weapons of warfare were available at that period. Okonkwo would have started a one-man war against the white men. He would have killed quite a number of the colonizers and their cohorts before being killed, or captured and publicly executed.
Or Okonkwo would have run into the forest to organize guerrilla warfare against the white settlers. We sincerely hope that a few hundred men in the whole of the region would have been brave enough to join him. Anyway, since Things Fall Apart is a fictional depiction, at least a thousand warriors would have joined his revolutionary force. They would have mounted a persistent and bloody, even if futile, campaign. Okonkwo would have met his death or be captured during one of these wars.
Or make him run deep into the evil forest where the rivers were inhabited by evil spirits and man-eating crocodiles and alligators, where ghouls paraded the grounds looking for human blood to suck, and where every corner presented with one evil or the other. Because of what he stood for, Okonkwo would have been granted immunity, a demigod, to be revered and worshipped by his people. The white men and their allies wouldn’t have had the guts to pursue him into the core of the evil forest. Those who did would have suffered terrible deaths in the hands of evil forces and strange-looking animals.
We could go on and on along these lines, but it was at this junction that Professor Chinua Achebe showed his astuteness and ingenuity that made him a force to be reckoned with in the literary world today. Yes, he didn’t play it the one thousand and one ways other writers would have played it. Instead, after Okonkwo left the meeting place, Professor Chinua Achebe made him fasten a rope round the branch of a tree at the back of his compound and simply hung himself.
For all his courage, strength, ruthlessness and rigidity, Okonkwo, largely depicted in the book as an epitome of African’s finest and bravest, took the most cowardly way out when he came against the white colonizers. He committed suicide by hanging himself, an anticlimax if anything, as it was sudden, shocking, unexpected, and sharply contrasted with Okonkwo’s character and all that he stood for.
The significance of the manner of his death couldn’t be over-emphasized. Okonkwo didn’t die of old age, diseases or snake bites. The gods did not strike him down for desecrating the land by beating up his wife during the holy week, or for killing Ikemefuna and the son of Ezeudu. He wasn’t even killed in a battle. Instead, Okonkwo died by hanging himself, for opposing our colonial masters.
In spite of the merits of the story, Okonkwo hanging himself when he went against the colonizers was the nub that made Things Fall Apart the most famous and successful book ever written by a black man: the reason being that, by making Okonkwo to hang himself, the late Professor Chinua Achebe unwittingly played the novel into the hands of our colonial masters. Not even in their wildest dream would they have imagined such an ending to a story like Things Fall Apart, and it being written by a black man made it all bliss. Simply put, in spite of our bravery, our rich culture and all, if and when we go against the westerners, we should go hang ourselves. The novel also echoed the popular western axiom: go hang yourself. How our colonial masters would have loved the story!
So, the novel, Things Fall Apart, represents the most powerful political statement ever made by any book: mess up with the white colonizers, oppose them in any way: politically, economically or culturally, and without any fuss “go hang yourself”. Suffice to say that if Professor Chinua Achebe had finished off Okonkwo by any other means other than getting him to hang himself and having him buried like a dog, the book would certainly not be enjoying the huge international success and popularity it has today.
Of course, our colonial masters are not going to allow Africa and the rest of the world to forget the novel in a hurry. In spite of the fact that the world has largely moved on from that dark era of her history, and the time which has elapsed since the publication of the book, they kept promoting the story, forcing it down our throats, even compelling schools abroad to adopt the novel as part of their curriculum. Yes, nobody must forever forget that Africa’s hypothetical bravest man hung himself when he went against the white settlers, and that if you have any notion of opposing them in anyway, please emulate Okonkwo’s noble gesture and hang yourself.
My seven-year-old daughter recently read an abridged version of Things Fall Apart. Frustration written all over her young face, she groused that she couldn’t fathom why Okonkwo had to hang himself at the end of the story. I couldn’t give her a good enough reason myself. Only Professor Chinua Achebe would have been able to answer that question satisfactorily. Perhaps he was trying to vent his own frustration that, unlike the Red Indians of native America and the Aboriginal natives of Australia, who fought the white intruders with all they have got, even using “juju”, Africans conceded too easily to colonial governance. But our colonial masters obviously saw the story in a different way and used the novel to propagate their own agenda. Unfortunately, we swallowed everything they told us hook, line and sinker such that nobody really bothered to ask the late literary maestro why he concluded the story in such a bizarre manner. Even now, most critics piously avoid that gray area of Okonkwo’s spineless demise in their analysis of Things Fall Apart, and, unless Professor Achebe wrote it down somewhere, we may never know the real reason behind his killing off Okonkwo so cowardly.
The Nobel Prize in Literature committee consists of selected Swedish scholars. It is a highly secretive committee and nobody actually knows who an individual member is. They are not known colonial masters and are mostly apolitical when it comes to global affairs. They are probably only prominent today as the custodians of the Nobel Prize. The award committee must have been aware of Professor Chinua Achebe and his novel, Things Fall Apart. They must have brainstormed over the novel but, unfortunately, because of differences in ideology and values, sadly failed to decipher the political significance in the novel and, even if they did, they obviously do not believe it merited the Nobel Prize. Suffice to say that if it were our colonial masters dishing out the award, Professor Chinua Achebe would have been a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature a long time ago, and probably be receiving the award every alternate year, if not every year. But the Swedish scholars apparently saw more merit in Professor Wole Soyinka’s works than Things Fall Apart of Professor Chinua Achebe.
For his other books and articles, his stance against the corrupt military Governments of Nigeria, his other outstanding achievements and all that he stood for, Professor Chinua Achebe certainly over-merit being awarded the Nobel Prize but, in all honesty, not for Things Fall Apart. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, our former colonial masters are canvassing the award only for Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but the Swedish Academy is refusing to be conned into promoting their imperialistic agenda.
Like most Nigerians and the rest of the world, we sincerely hope and pray that Professor Chinua Achebe be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature post-humously. But, for this to happen, the late literary icon’s other books and achievements must be touted for the award rather than Things Fall Apart.
Dr. and Barr. [Mrs] Solomon Ojehonmon are authors of The Last Methuselah and The Black Omen respectively, available on Amazon and will be launched in Nigeria later in the year. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org