- Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Form
In his enigmatic preface to the second edition of Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe warns us that authors should not play favorites with their own creations. By even raising the question of his favorite novel in a preface to one of them, Achebe hints at an answer; but more important in our current context is that if authors should not be expected to play favorites with their creations, critics were at one time expected to do nothing else. That time has passed unlamented, but a return to a now-demystified vocation of aesthetic judgment does not have to be conservative, and part of what I would like to take this occasion to do is to argue for Arrow of God—which, perhaps because of its relative length and intricacy, has been overshadowed by the thematically similar book whose anniversary has brought us together in this issue of RAL—as the richest and most suggestive of Achebe’s novels, which is to say one of the richest and most suggestive novels of the twentieth century.
Sadly, there is insufficient space to attempt anything like an adequate reading of the novel here; but if such a reading were to be attempted, it would show how Achebe makes a singular experience reverberate across space and time to map out a relation to world history that, while remaining singular and inassimilable to any readymade universal values, is designed nonetheless to reverberate in each of us.1 Instead of proceeding through a reading of the text, then, I will essay a purely formal approach to the novel in order to suggest that prior to any specific content, Arrow of God already has a politics, and that Achebe achieves this politics through two generic revolutions. In the current context it is probably unnecessary to point once again to the epoch-marking significance of Things Fall Apart, whose form only seems natural today because of its tremendous influence and success. Arrow of God marks a radicalization and perfection of this form, whose outlines I would like to clarify.
The first formal revolution carried out by Arrow of God is within a genre we might call the “village novel,” a genre that predates Achebe in the postcolonial world by a generation, and that we can represent in a Nigerian context with Onuora Nzekwu’s Wand of Noble Wood and Things Fall Apart itself. The key to Achebe’s revolution is the rigorous suppression of the ethnographic voice. The simplest way to explain what is meant by the ethnographic voice would simply be to point to G. T. Basden’s Niger Ibos, which Achebe has named on more than one occasion, along with Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as a spur [End Page 87] to his early work. Our displeasure in reading Niger Ibos today derives from the poverty and cynicism of Basden’s interpretations of Igbo society; history has been just in that it is hard to imagine a reason to read Basden today except through an interest in Achebe. But the ethnographic voice itself need not be cynical or unsympathetic; the ethnographic voice is, rather, what happens when one succumbs to the temptation to interpret at all. Let us consider the famous moment in Things Fall Apart where the narrator turns to the reader and explains the behavior of Okonkwo’s wives when confronted with their husband transformed into a masked spirit: How can they not know it is Okonkwo behind the mask? (Things Fall Apart 79). On one hand, this passage is a direct reaction to the ethnographic voice in Basden, who reduces the masked societies to a kind of prank played on noninitiates (see Niger Ibos 366–76). On the other hand, Achebe continues to use the ethnographic voice, breaking the boundaries of narrative immanence in order to offer an interpretation. True, we recall that in this passage Achebe refuses to speak directly for Okonkwo’s wives, rather couching the narrator’s interpretation in the conditional (“If they thought these things . . . ,” 79). Nonetheless, the introduction of the ethnographic voice introduces a rift within the narrative fabric. On one hand, we...