Thieves Taking Enough for the Owner to Notice

Achebe’s novels share with classical tragedies “the specificity of different textual arrangements” as proverbs and similar frozen discourse are used to argue viewpoints and justify positions or actions taken, thereby placing these narratives “within the general text (culture) of which they are part and which is in turn, part of them” (Kristeva 1980:36). At the same time, as illustrated in the classical drama Antigone, these textual arrangements play up the fault lines in the cultural lifeworld itself (Akwanya 2014).

The fault lines open wide in A man of the people, the end-product of transformations based on the proverb iwe ka onyenwenu ga-ama (a thief taking enough for the owner to notice) as the matrix. As in Things fall apart, the novel includes an episode in which the moral order the proverb speaks to appears to be confirmed. Josiah, whom the people suspect has been ripping them off in his shop, is caught red-handed when he steals a blind man’s stick for a money-spinning charm. This episode is a transform in which the proverb translates to real life. Convinced that “Josiah has taken away enough for the owner to notice” (Achebe 1966:86), they boycott him and ruin his business.

Further transforms systematically expand the narrative. The proverb converts to a revenge sequence in the episode where Eunice shoots Chief Koko after her boyfriend Max is run down and killed by one of Chief Koko’s jeeps. Another revenge sequence unfolds where Chief Nanga ‘steals’ an acquaintance of Odili (the narrator). Odili takes this in the spirit of someone taking enough for the owner to notice, and feels that he has been treated “as no man had a right to treat another”, and his “manhood required that [he] make him pay for his insult in full measure” (Achebe 1966:76). Odili becomes Nanga’s antagonist, with revenge his objective.

The proverbial matrix is further converted to different kinds of actions, some with consequences, others without. For example, Odili’s sleeping with someone’s wife, a potent figuration of the thief figure, is not subjected to the same ethical judgement that he applies to Nanga sleeping with Elsie. There is but the slightest hint of conscience in narrating this incident during their lovemaking:

What I remember clearly was the sudden ringing of the bedside telephone. If someone had tiptoed up the stairs in the dark and stuck a knife in my back it couldn’t have hit me more.

“Don’t move,” commanded Jean, bracing me firmly from below with a surprisingly strong pair of arms. I obeyed.

Then with me and all on her she began to wriggle on her back towards the telephone.

She picked up the receiver and called her name. Had she just taken holy communion and been returning to her pew her manner couldn’t have appeared more calm and relaxed.

(Achebe 1966:52)

A thief taking too much to go unnoticed is what Jean’s husband John may conceivably call Odili’s actions.

Not only is there a series of narrative figurations of the thief-and-the-owner sequence in this novel, but the covering story itself is an expanded version of the sequence. In the clash with Nanga, Odili is in the mood of the owner, fully convinced of the rightness of his cause. But in avenging (humiliated, taken advantage of and abandoned) Elsie against Nanga, Elsie transforms to the living face of a symbol (the Black Mother), a cause to be fought for:

I will return home to her—many centuries have I wandered—And I will make my offering at the feet of my lovely Mother: I will rebuild her house, the holy places they raped and plundered. And I will make it fine with black wood, bronzes and terra-cotta.

I read this last verse over and over again. Poor black mother! Waiting so long for her infant son to come of age and comfort her and repay her for the years of shame and neglect. And the son she has pinned so much hope on turning out to be a Chief Nanga.

“Poor black mother!” I said out aloud.

(Achebe 1966:91)

Odili feels obliged to avenge Elsie, especially against Chief Nanga.

In his fight to unseat Chief Nanga as their constituency’s parliamentary representative, Odili’s tactic is “to ferret out every scandal and blow it up, and maybe someone would get up and say: ‘No, Nanga has taken more than the owner could ignore!”’ However, unlike the Josiah incident where the people need no one to tell them the enormity of what the shopkeeper has done, there is no moral outrage against Nanga, despite a campaign of conscientisation by Odili and his party, and despite Nanga’s blatant use of violence, blackmail and intimidation. That someone might get up and say, “No, Nanga has taken more than the owner could ignore!” is indeed “no more than a hope”.

Odili’s efforts at revenge turn to cunning and subterfuge, and eventual hypocrisy. However, he is not the only hypocrite in a dirty political struggle, as his friend Max enlightens him:

“Oh, forget that. Do you know, Odili, that British Amalgamated has paid out four hundred thousand pounds to P.O.P. to fight this election? Yes, and we also know that the Americans have been even more generous, although we don’t have the figures as yet. Now you tell me how you propose to fight such a dirty war without soiling your hands a little. Just you tell me. Anyway ... if the offer comes again take it. It’s as much your money as his...”

(Achebe 1966:126-127)

His disillusionment about the failure of the ethical life grounded on the notion of the thief taking away enough for the owner to notice is not remedied by the military coup resulting in Nanga’s arrest:

No, the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers. And they had no public reason whatever for doing it. Let’s make no mistake about that.

(Achebe 1966:144)

The Mind at Last at Rest

In No longer at ease (Achebe 1961), Obi Okonkwo is what Mackay (1987:149) describes as a “constricted self... struggling with social conventions and boundaries”, despite the fact that both the traditional system he has come out of and the colonial system he has been drawn into as a senior officer see him as a representative individual (Akwanya 2006). The matrix of the narrative comes from traditional wisdom enshrined in his name. Commenting on the prayer over kola nuts at an emergency meeting summoned to discuss his arrest for bribe-taking, the narrator vouchsafes this information: “Obi Okonkwo was indeed an only palmfruit. His full name was Obiajulu—‘the mind at last is at rest’.” (1961:6)

“The mind at last at rest” (obi ajulu) is frozen discourse which captures something of ancestor worship in the lifeworld of the traditional society of No longer at ease. It signifies that the bearer is a long-awaited male child, without whom the father’s generation is at an end, and with that the hope of sacrificial tribute to the fathers in the ancestral world.

It turns out, however, that with the adult Obi no one’s mind can be at rest. This reversal of expectation is expanded and converted to form the various episodes of the story: his passage with the Umuofia people; the abandonment of pregnant Clara, whom he is forbidden to marry because she is osu; the disappointment of the colonial administration who had counted much on “a young man of great promise” (Achebe 1961:2); and the souring of relations with his sick and aged parents who need his support. He inspires no confidence in any who have anything to do with him, but rather unease and anxiety.

Walking Into the Spikes of the Cactus Fence

In Anthills of the savannah (Achebe 1987:87), characters sleepwalking into “the spikes of the cactus fence” (jiri anya-ura danye n’ogwu) forms the proverbial matrix, which is expanded at several levels from the government’s lack of vision resulting in stagnation, authoritarianism and crisis, to the aspiring but uncoordinated agents of change who clash over perceptions and methods. Beatrice alone does not sleep-walk. Around her, a new society will begin to aggregate post-crisis. Her clarity of vision is announced as the sleepwalking of the three male protagonists results in injury:

“You called me a priestess. No, a prophetess... As a matter of fact I do sometimes feel like Chielo in the novel...”

“It comes and goes, I imagine.”

“Yes. It’s on now. And I see trouble building up for us. It will get to Ikem first.... But after him it will be you. We are all in it, Ikem, you, me and even Him... You and Ikem must quickly patch up this ridiculous thing between you that nobody has ever been able to explain to me.”

(Achebe 1987:114-115)

Beatrice, therefore, is the one who restores perspective. In addition to exercising clear vision, she possesses the writings of the fallen witnesses, and had attempted to mediate their mutual antagonism. She is the one to piece the story together, having survived the catastrophe that overwhelms the presumptive agents of change.

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