This review was written on March 20, 2013
Some stories are indelibly marked in the memories of its readers. Some stories are prelude to the history and the memories are pre-empted. These are not mere stories. They transcend the present; relive the past and trace a future that eerily matches the real life incidents about to occur – though such a future would have remained unknown even to the author of the story.
Chinua Achebe had unknowingly foretold coup in Nigeria – as if a prophet had emerged to warn the African people that times ahead are strewn with shattered dreams, despair and more importantly, struggle.
This work of Achebe mirrored the following incidents in Nigeria which became a sinister playground for counter coups through the year of 1966. The short time gap between the publication of the book and coup (not military coup as depicted in the novel) led to serious aspersions, of bearing foreknowledge of the impending coup, being laid on Achebe. However, in the novel the name of the country is nowhere mentioned. This may thus be understood that Achebe may very well be drawing upon his experience from coups in other African nations.
Irrespective of this peculiarity rendered to the novel one would be delighted to listen to the original voice from Africa. Achebe, being from the land about which he can yarn out extraordinarily yet common story, blesses the narrative with unconventional credibility – impossible without making the narrator admit at the very outset of the novel that the Man of the People was indeed a man of the people.
No one can deny that Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, MP, was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense.
The natural flow in the narrative does engage the reader well. However, it has a strong memory to aide it in establishing itself as credulous to a stranger reader (at least it was so for me who was till now immensely ignorant of the African politics in turbulent 60s). The climax of the novel reiterates and reaffirms the position of Nanga as the Man of the People.
The protagonist (if I dare to place the Man of the People as an antagonist here), Odili Samalu, of the story is a teacher at the Grammar School in Anata. Nanga is visiting the school to address the staff and the villagers. Political undercurrents were soon to rise as strong tides that will upturn lives around it. In the first chapter (yes the novel is in chapters and I was amazed at how it aided my memory in keeping track of the developments in the story) itself, Odili makes clear that he bore hatred towards Nanga. Such was not the situation some 16 years back when Nanga was his teacher until when he plunged into politics and was chosen to the Parliament. His rise to forefront of the politics in the country came (from back-bench of Parliament) in form of failure of coffee-based economy which was leveraged by the Prime Minister and “Men of the People” to oust the reformist ministers by alleging them of conspiracy against the country in connivance with the Western world.
Soon the beans were spilled and truth came out (though no-one in the country cared to listen as they had given in to the idea that how could anyone getting the juicy morsel, as good fortune, not enjoy it). Odili took up the job of a teacher to avoid stooping down to lick a Big Man’s foot. However, his pursuit for higher studies landed him with Nanga at his palatial residence. Meanwhile, Odili fell in passionate love for Elsie. While Odili remained unimpressed by the filthy wealth accumulated by Nanga (now Minister of Culture), Elsie went to bed with Nanga in presence of Odili – to the hurtful humiliation of Odili who then pledged himself to avenge the disgrace he suffered at hands of his love for unimpressive wealth of his arch-enemy.
Odili’s audacity to have spat at Nanga while walking out on him led to Nanga’s sinister yet silent revenge dragging Odili’s father into it. Added to this loss was his later discovery of how dangerously he misunderstood Samalu senior.
Odili debased Elsie in his thoughts but his revenge was directed against Nanga. An eye for an eye – that is the form his vengeance took. Odili decided to snatch away Edna (to-be parlour wife of Nanga) from Nanga. Odili fails at this too as he is unable to keep the motive intact in face of lure of politics and love for Edna. The personal struggle at work in Odili’s mind was like a tripod – three legs being unrequited love, toxicity of revenge and lust. There was an invisible braided axis of this tripod – politics, corruption and power.
Achebe has lent the hot setting of the story a blow from his blacksmith’s hammer reshaping the already extruded beam of history. Odili’s tripod destabilized (was destined so given the nebulous nature of his political aspirations) and this sacrifice of an individual was not to go in vain. Unprecedented developments had to interfere with the plans of everyone who craved for the ‘national cake’ or those who wished to replace the corrupt political groups.
The richness and honesty in the narrative is more than sufficient to completely discount the sporadic and belaboured metaphors. I feel one has to anyway discount these flight of thoughts that shape up in the mind of an author who has levitated to take a macro view of a nation in post-colonial strife for political space among the self-assumed power constituents. My favourite of such a metaphor is:
She had been like a dust particle in the high atmosphere around which the water vapour of my thinking formed its globule of rain.
It gives me a breather in an intense emotional story.
Dialogues are natural. Though the lavish use of pidgin makes it difficult for a reader, who is ignorant of the local culture and dialect, to bind his attention to the flow of the novel it does enrich the potency of the story.
The vantage point for Africans from where they could assess their people, themselves and their future in a country mired in post-colonial reshuffle of power positions had been changed on publication of this novel. Achebe had not only already established himself as a major voice in furthering African history, culture, its struggle to survive amidst the chaos and to fill the vacuum left by the white men by the time this novel was published he had now shown the much needed mirror to the people of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. He had exhibited to them the undercurrents of power play that were being played at the cost of the people. The illusion of ‘A Man of the People’ needed dispelling and Achebe had enabled the Nigerians and fellow Africans to accept their disillusionment and march ahead.
By the end of writing this review I happened to open the wiki page for Chinua Achebe. He died at ripe age of 82 on March 21, 2013 in USA. And I wonder how many of the people who came across his works (dominated by essays, criticisms, political commentary, reflections and poems in last two decades while his fiction and lengthy works stopped way back in late 1980s) observed the passing away of the Man of the People.