Monday, August 16, 2010

Points of Convergence between No Longer At Ease and Fragments


Usually, I try to review novels and not to compare them. However, there comes a time when one cannot run away from a topic, a call, no matter how one tries. This topic had been in my head ever since I reviewed Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease (on September 30, 2009). I dreamt about it, talked about, did everything but obey this call. The only way to prevent an incubus from attacking you is to remain un-asleep, no? Well, that might not even suffice but I know that the only way to obey a call is to respond to it. Finito! So today, in this very post, I respond to this call.

No one can challenge the achievements of Ayi Kwei Armah and Chinua Achebe. Even though these two literary giants of African descent may disagree at the academic level, their literary works stated here tend to converge at several points, and diverge at some. This issue has bothered me for so long and I refrained from writing about it, mainly because as a untrained essayist and a first-ladder novice in academic-literature, I find it unfit to discuss similarities and differences among great works by such great novelist, who are themselves subjects of research. For instance, last week a friend of mine asked me where he could get the complete works of Ayi Kwei Armah for someone who was doing a PhD work on this author. So one could easily see that I, who haven't obtained any formal learning in literature, am not the right person to do this work. However, I would go on to provide my opinion, no matter how hollow it would be, still knowing that it wouldn't be taken so serious by the cognoscenti.

No Long at Ease tells the story of Obi Okonkwo after his academic sojourn in the UK. Arriving in his homeland Nigeria, his community, who had contributed to his education whilst in Europe, expected that he would do enough to pay back the money spent on his education and also to help the children of the people who financially helped him. However, wanting to distance himself from all corruptible tendencies, Obi Okonkwo found himself on the wrong side of his people who thought that the young man has become proud and so wasn't showing the necessary respect demanded by his elders. 

Fragments also talked about Baako after he arrived in Ghana after his academic sojourn in the UK. In Ghana, his parents wanted to see the characteristics of a 'been-to'--someone who had just arrived from abroad--in him. They wanted to see the big houses, the big cars, the big jobs and all. They wanted to be associated with the big money that would be flowing from him. Women just wanted to be close to him because of his 'been-to' status.

Points of Convergence
Societal Values: In both of these novels we find that the values of society are different from those of the new arrivals. Thus, whereas Baako and Obi came back with knowledge and enthusiasm to reform and transform their societies, with energy and zeal to improve the lot of the country in the development direction, the society they belonged to were more materialistic and egoistic. They wanted to reap the benefits on a more personal basis. These latter characteristics was to mark the gradual deterioration of societal values and norms from a non-materialistic, value-laden objectives to one that would eventually lead to corruption and corruptible behaviours. Thus, ones standing in society gradually evolved, or more correctly--if judgement is allowed--devolved from ones intelligence, wisdom and honesty to wealth--exhibiting the utility property of transitivity (the more the better). Judging from the periods that these books were written and published (1960 for No Longer at Ease and 1969 for Fragments), it is not far-fetched to state that they represented the point in time were looting and corruptible behaviours of the government became the symbol of African democracy and militancy. 

What then could have been the cause of this drastic change in societal values? Colonisation? Greed? If greed from where? One fact is that, even today those 'lucky few' who find themselves in government and remain clean from all corruption are looked down upon if they return from service without those 'big' cars, houses and constant travels. Ones own family is wont to desert you for not helping them out, for not being corrupt, though they wouldn't say it directly. On the other hand, this same society, which praised the wealthy, would condemn you if the laws catch up with you and justice is executed. In the end, it looks as if society is saying is that 'steal, but don't be caught'. 

Another question that begs to be answered is this: 'Is the individual's values greater that the collective value of society?'

Individual Choices: Whereas both Baako and Obi Okonkwo were faced with similar challenges, each took it differently. Obi Okonkwo, realising that being honest does not pay the bills, quickly gave in to the unbearable pressures of corruption. He fell, debase himself and became the man his people wanted to see, one who drove big cars and lived in big houses. However, steel-willed Baako fought society boot for boot, thought for thought and in the end lost. His loss ended him a bed in solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward as his singular mind could not match society's pressure. Though differently, in their end there is convergence. Both Obi Okonkwo and Baako lost the battle, both ended up in solitary confinement, one in a cell the other in a ward.

In conclusion, I would say that these aren't the only parallels between the two novels but are those I wanted to point out. 

6 comments:

  1. I haven't read Fragments, it sounds interesting. I see the parallel too in the stories. My question would be beyond the scope of the books. Where is and how do you find the middle ground? Africa, it's a hard place.

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  2. Very interesting. I haven't read Fragments either, though I really enjoyed No Longer at Ease so I'll be on the lookout for it. Interesting that you say in the end the lessons are to 'Steal, but don't be caught." I'll have to come back to this after reading it!

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  3. @Amy... I wanted to say that is what perhaps society wants us to do... because whichever side you take they have some problems with you....

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  4. Ahhh makes sense Nana. Good point :)

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