No Longer at Ease hits several marks at once. It is an exemplary tragedy, a brilliant novella and a noteworthy member of the canon of post-colonial literature. All good reasons for why you should not start and stop reading Chinua Achebe with his famous Things Fall Apart.
Obi Okonkwo is returning to Nigeria having completed his studies in England where he was able to travel on a scholarship. As the best student in the province, he was an obvious choice to receive the scholarship. His promise made him a local celebrity and the gathering held before he left was bigger than most weddings. Returning confident, principled and head-strong, Obi is determined to change Nigeria. As a student he wrote a paper arguing that Nigeria’s problems won’t be solved until a younger generation replaces the corrupt older one.
But Obi is also proud of his country, people and culture. He certainly does not want to transform Nigeria into a European state, to complete the work more liberal colonists had in mind. He wants a country both proud and strong in its adherence to democratic principles and in its unique cultural identity.
Obi does not know much about women though. Onboard the ship with him is Clara – a woman he had met in London. Clara does not seem to particularly like Obi but, with a little encouragement and a lot of awkwardness, Obi manages to tell her how he feels.
Arriving to a warm reception in Nigeria, Obi is craving Nigerian food but no good restaurant serves it. While out he sees Sam Okoli – the popular, young and handsome Minister of State – and spots Clara getting out of his car.
Obi’s mission to reform Nigeria is off to a rocky start. He is angrily offended at his job interview when asked if he is seeking the job in order to receive bribes. As he witnesses corruption in the state, exploitation by the church and the worst consequences from traditional beliefs, he is only more determined to be a pioneer, to break precedents and live as an example.
‘What an Augean stable!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Where does one begin? With the masses? Educate the masses?’ He shook his head. ‘Not a chance there. It would take centuries. A handful of men at the top. Or even one man with vision – an enlightened dictator. People are scared of the word nowadays. But what kind of democracy can exist side by side with so much corruption and ignorance?’
His early efforts only seems to land others into trouble. His friends ask him to be more understanding, more realistic, about how society functions. That the country is not ready for radical change.
With a short temper and inflexible personal standards, Obi seems destined to sacrifice the prosperous future everyone hoped for him to be a martyr for his cause. He would probably be satisfied with that fate. The one complication is his desire to impress the woman he has fallen for.
No Longer at Ease is part of Chinua Achebe’s African Trilogy which began with his famous Things Fall Apart. Although published second, No Longer at Ease is chronologically third in the trilogy and I read it after Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. The shortest of the three, No Longer at Ease is plotted like a Greek tragedy. Like the prophecy of Oedipus, we are introduced to details of Obi’s downfall in the first chapter and the story from there is of how such a promising and idealistic young man could succumb to such a fate, one he himself is known to deplore.
Achebe’s genius in these novellas is his delivery. The making of all great novellas is to tell a larger story briefly without the reader feeling as if anything was omitted. Achebe achieves this brilliantly in Things Fall Apart but less so in Arrow of God, which has the feel of a larger story being constrained or focused. But No Longer at Ease, which is less than 140 pages, also excels in providing the reader with an appreciation of the complexity of the issues in the story in a book one could read in a day.
The African Trilogy is not a novel series in the traditional sense of containing the same characters within an overarching story. Rather it is a trilogy in theme, with three separate stories and characters showing three periods in the evolution of colonial Africa. Being chronologically third, in No Longer at Ease we see the progress of the themes of the other two novels in the trilogy. The Christian Church, which provided a welcome alternative to the native culture for those who were made outcasts from it while asking for little in return, has begun to exploit its converts. The Church’s contrast to the unjust aspects of the indigenous culture, which was a strong part of its early appeal, seems to have had little impact as those aspects endure. Perhaps because the church no longer sees any direct benefit in quashing them.
Colonial coexistence is now well established in No Longer at Ease. The period of instability and uncertainty of a culture in transition has passed. A major conflict of the early novels – the protagonist’s attempts to resist unwelcome change – is therefore absent. This is made abundantly clear from the first chapter, where people give opinions and advice mixing Christian and African proverbs and scripture.
‘I am against people reaping where they have not sown. But we have a saying that if you want to eat a toad you should look for a fat and juicy one.’
Instead, we have a protagonist whose ambition is to affect change against a stabilised status quo. Obi’s struggle is not about traditional religion versus Christianity, or black versus white, but of a fight for the liberal values his English education has instilled in him against the corruption and injustice – whatever the source – that he sees all around him. Though he is proud to champion his culture, he will not for those which are at odds with those values.
‘I don’t think it matters. We are Christians.’ This had some effect, nothing startling though. Only a little pause and a slightly softer tone.
‘We are Christians,’ he said. ‘But that is no reason to marry an osu.’
‘The Bible says that in Christ there are no bound or free.’
‘My son,’ said Okonkwo, ‘I understand what you say. But this thing is deeper than you think.’
‘What is this thing? Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man osu, a thing given to idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children for ever. But have we not seen the light of the Gospel?’ Obi used the very words that his father might have used in talking to his heathen kinsmen.
There was a long silence. […]
‘Osu is like the leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children unto the third and fourth generations will curse your memory. It is not for myself I speak; my days are few. You will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children. Who will marry your daughters? Whose daughters will your sons marry? Think of that, my son. We are Christians, but we cannot marry our own daughters.’
‘But all this is going to change. In ten years things will be quite different to what they are now.’
The old man shook his head sadly but said no more. Obi repeated his points again. What made an osu different from other men and women? Nothing but the ignorance of their forefathers. Why should they, who had seen the light of the Gospel, remain in that ignorance?
He slept very little that night.
Like the other novel’s protagonists though, Obi’s tragic fate shows the reader the futility of the individual man against forces much larger than he is. Unlike the protagonists of the other novels, one feels that Obi had choices. Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart is not introspective and his tragic fate seems a natural consequence of his nature in difficult times. Ezeulu in Arrow of God puts much more thought into his words and actions. His outcome progresses from strict adherence to his principles. But in Obi we see a character flawed in his personality and in his actions which go against his principles. This forces the reader to wonder if his fate was really futile. Could he have avoided it if he had chosen differently? Or is his choice an illusion, no different to asking him to be someone else? Free will or not is he just as much a victim of circumstance as the others?
No Longer at Ease is an excellent novella. It has the classic format of a tragedy and teases the reader with messages for its much larger post-colonial context. Like Arrow of God, it gives plenty of reasons for why you should not stop reading Achebe after experiencing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart.