- The Politics of Interpretation:The Novels of Chinua Achebe
With varying degrees of emphasis, all of Chinua Achebe's novels to date explore the use and abuse of power by those who wield it. In Things Fall Apart, for example, Okonkwo exercises absolute power in his household through a combination of implacable will and brute force. It is both ironic and psychologically convincing that the tyrant at home finds the impact of the white man's religion and military power sufficiently oppressive and disruptive of traditional norms to make him want to take up arms to defend himself and his clan. The protagonist who will not bend is, in the end, broken by antagonistic forces far greater than he. Okonkwo's grandson, Obi, faces different choices and challenges in No Longer at Ease. On the eve of Nigeria's political independence, Obi finds himself thrust into a position of power and responsibility. He is a member of the new elite, senior Civil Servants who are taking over positions hitherto reserved for Europeans. Will Obi abuse his newly-acquired power? Will he, for example, take advantage of a young woman before recommending her to the Scholarship Board? Is he going to take bribes for services rendered? These are some of the questions that engage the reader's attention as Obi's story unfolds. [End Page 459]
In the opening chapter of Achebe's third novel, Arrow of God, we find the Chief Priest, Ezeulu, considering "the immensity of his power over the years and the crops and, therefore, over the people [of Umuaro]" (3). When the Chief Priest tests the limits of that power, he learns that "no man however great [is] greater than his people" (230). The abuse of a people's trust and the misuse of power lead to a coup in the next novel, A Man of the People. And in his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe suggests that postcolonial military dictatorships have the unenviable reputation for institutionalizing the abuse of power. Thus far, I have been treading on familiar ground. References to the downfall of a proud man (Okonkwo), a corruptible Civil Servant (Obi), a headstrong Chief Priest (Ezeulu), a demagogue (Nanga), or a dictator (His Excellency) feature prominently in books and essays on Achebe's "understanding of the complexity of historical processes" (Ravenscroft, qtd. in McEwan 31), his "theme . . . of tradition versus change" (Palmer 64), "the vivid picture" the novelist is said to provide "of I[g]bo society" (Carroll 36), and the sensitive artist's indictment of postcolonial excesses. This paper focuses attention on what has not always been obvious to critics—that Achebe's concern with the question of power, his fascination with both tradition and change, and his rendition of religious and cultural conflicts have never been divorced from his keen interest in the politics of literary interpretation. We note, in this connection, that Achebe's interest in interpretation is shared by the older generation of African writers (like Wole Soyinka, with particular reference to The Interpreters) as well as the younger generation (like Ben Okri, author of The Landscapes Within).
A dramatic confrontation in the Twenty-Second chapter of Things Fall Apart yields inferences that are relevant to our discussion. At an annual ceremony held in honor of the earth goddess, Enoch, an overzealous convert to the Christian faith, commits "one of the greatest crimes a man could commit" against the clan, namely, "to unmask an egwugwu [a titled elder who impersonates an ancestral spirit] in public" (171). Having reduced Enoch's "compound . . . to a desolate heap" (173), a group of egwugwu proceeds to the church to confront the Reverend James Smith and his interpreter, Okeke:
Ajofia . . . the leading egwugwu of Umuofia . . . addressed Mr. Smith . . .
"Tell the white man that we will not do him any harm," he said to the interpreter. . . . "But this shrine which he built must be destroyed. . . . It has bred untold abominations and we have come to put an end to it. . . ."
Mr. Smith said to his interpreter: "Tell them to go away from here. This is the house of God and I will not live to see it desecrated."
Okeke interpreted wisely...