Text Formation Through Expansions and Conversions

For the analysis of narratives, Riffaterre (1979:405) proposes a model based on a minimal sentence or a matrix that undergoes transformations, complicating as it progresses, until it attains the maximal level, which is the narrative itself. The transformations are mainly of two kinds: expansions and conversions. The first “means that every component of the matrix generates a form more complex than itself”. Such a component he calls a ‘generator’ and the outcome of the operation, the ‘transform’. The second element, conversion, “means that the text is generated by the simultaneous modification of the same factor in every semantically relevant component of the matrix”.

In its search for matrices, Riffaterre’s model employs established stereotypes in the social discourse outside the work, the existence of which the text acknowledges through citations (Kristeva 1980:46). However, the adaptation here seeks evidence within the text itself. Achebe’s texts, especially his proverbs, quote copiously from Igbo social discourse. Proverb translation in this chapter is therefore concerned with a process internal to the text itself. Broadly, it is balanced between the two senses of the word identified by Paul Ricoeur (2006:11): first, “the strict sense of the transfer of a spoken message from one language to another”, whereas the second sense is “synonymous with the interpretation of any meaningful whole within the same speech community”. In the latter sense, according to George Steiner (1975:11), “to understand is to translate”. Translation thus involves carrying across from one linguistic level to another, from the level of a frozen proverbial discourse in Igbo to a story in English, an ordered arrangement of incidents making up “a single, whole, and complete action, with beginning, middle, and end” (Aristotle 1995, chapter 23). This means that the frozen discourse is animated, becoming the soul, as it were, of a story. In demonstrating the existence of an underlying proverbial text in Achebe’s novels, and the relationship of this proverbial text to the connected sequence of incidents making up “a single, whole, and complete action”, this study draws on the insight of Michael Riffaterre that a story has an identifiable minimal form. However, that minimal sentence in Achebe’s practice is not outside the narrative to be speculatively demonstrated. Rather, Achebe’s free drawing from the frozen discourse of the proverbial tradition affords him access to structures that can be endlessly transformed by expansions and conversions. It is therefore possible to construct from this a structural model based on one single “principle of organization” (Brooks 1949:153), in which the novel finds unity.

Using Riffaterre’s model, one follows the writer moving through conversions and expansions to higher and more complex levels until the highest level, where the story becomes fully developed. However, there is no evidence of Achebe proceeding in that way to develop his stories. Translation to higher levels is rather a structural model, and yields the hierarchical format into which a story can be analysed, moving from the surface configuration, burrowing deeper and deeper into the work in search of a matrix that serves as the “principle of organization” (Brooks 1949:153), in which the novel finds unity.

When a Man’s Chi Says Yes

Although Riffaterre (1979:406) says that “matrices cannot be found in the text itself”, Achebe’s narrator is not only aware of the kernel statement at the core of Things fall apart, but also directly plays on that kernel. The initial citation of the proverb about a man’s chi concurring to his yes (onye ktve, hi ya ektue), is expanded at the first statement:

The Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

(Achebe 1958:8)

Okonkwo is a man who has said yes-, his chi and his clan also concur. This saying yes is an allusion to past actions involving physical and mental strength, fearlessness, self-reliance and perseverance. These have already been narrated; they include the great wrestling match in which Amalinze the Cat is thrown by Okonkwo, his embarking on share-cropping for a yam-farming career and throwing “himself into it like one possessed” (Achebe 1958:5), and finally being entrusted with Ikemefuna, exacted from Mbaino as part-payment for the murder of Udo’s wife. In short, he had made such outstanding progress in pursuit of all the markings of success in Umuofia that he had been entrusted with Umuofia’s demand for reparation to Mbaino. The saying of yes has therefore undergone transformations, expanding into the specific incidents enumerated, and moreover, converting fight in the opening paragraph from a linguistic representation of a sport and cutting down a mature bush for yam cropping to higher planes of discourseincluding debate, where Okonkwo often falters and tends to fall back on physical action. Throwing himself into physical exertions like one possessed is the transform of saying “yes very strongly”. For its own part, the yes of his chi is in the success attending these endeavours. Thus his clan, which “judged a man by the work of his hands”, signified its confirmation that his yes is irrefutable and to be gainsaid at great peril by assigning him tasks to be done in its name. The mission to Mbaino is high endorsement. At the same time, it is the conversion of the emblematic feature of a clan that “judged a man by the work of his hands” into action performance. Hence at the textual level Okonkwo’s life is meaningful, a meaningfulness captured in the proverb, “when a man says yes his chi says yes also”. That is the rationality that

Proverb Translation to the Realm of the Story 181 runs through this individual’s life and history, as well as his circumstances and events that make up that history—the “story existents”, as Seymour Chatman (1980:19) calls them. But it is in fact a life in two parts: the same proverb through expansion and conversion unfolds to provide the key to the meaningfulness of the whole narrative.

The proverb first appears within the narrative act in interpreting the career of the man, which had reached a highpoint in serving as Umuofia’s “proud and imperious emissary of war” (1958:4). Other high points include representing his village as one of the nine egwugwu that administer judgement in Umuofia. In the first part of the story, he moves from success to success, but this is not just a series of happy and important events unfolding around, and enhancing, his profile in the social space: he is basking in the glory of a man whose chi has signified approval of his own self-affirmation. His saying yes has generated a snowball effect, and the incidents experienced are both the effect and the evidence. In other words, “when a man says yes his chi says yes also,” which is by constitution frozen discourse, has come alive in the history of Okonkwo: in the personal achievements and social recognitions he receives, we see what it means that one’s chi has “agreed” to one’s yes.

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