Monday, December 21, 2009

5 for / 4 against



Taking a cue from Sean at Just a Jeep Guy I'm going to provide 5 good things and 5 bad things about the books that I just finished and want to review. "Finished" is a loose term for Arrow of God, I have 40 pages to go, but not having yet read the ending, I feel like I can give you a better review without having to worry about revealing the end.

5 For:
1) An amazing book about Ezeule the Chief Priest of Ulu of the village of Umuaro. The book has many levels, some of it a straight forward tale of Ezeule and his fellow villagers, his family and their interactions with the white colonial administration, but woven with Igbo history, ritual, tales, songs.

2) Achebe adopts (and this might be my untrained ear) two styles of writing: one is the voice of Ezeulu and Umuaro - it is very ritualistic (and kind of choppy at first) but hypnotizing full of sayings that seem very much like Buddhist koans that twist the brain. It also reminds me of Greek Tragedy with the occasional long monologue and chorus. The second is the voice of the white colonial administration, Captain Winterbottom and Tony Clarke: polished, English, regular, government.

3) Ezeulu is not (so far) a tragic character like Okonkwo (from Things Fall Apart). At first I thought he would be: Ezeulu is so set in his ways and believes that the white Capt. Winterbottom (or Wintabota, as he is called by Ezeulu) is his friend, and that they're relationship is based on some sort of understanding between the two as equals, but this is obviously not the case, and my heart kept pounding for the moment when this would become clear to Ezeulu - and in 40 pages, it still might. Ezeulu thinks he's is a fish swimming soundly with another fish - not knowing that more than likely Winterbottom and the colonial powers are piranhas waiting to strike.

4) There are a lot of sayings involving the penis: "Unless the penis dies young it will surely eat bearded meat."

5) The book seems very biblical in its scope and scale. You can feel the power of the writing on every page.

4 Against:

1) Things Fall Apart is to Arrow of God, what Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes is to almost everything else she ever produced: it could have benefitted greatly from editing. The wikipedia article on Chinua Achebe discusses how Achebe edited Things Fall Apart cutting away whole sections. It was probably this cutting away down to the bare bones of the story that has made it such an accessible classic. Though Arrow of God is a great book, it can be difficult to read.

2) There are a lot of sayings involving the penis. I know I put this in the For catagory too, but whereas it was kind of neat, as are all the sayings, some of which don't make any sense or aren't explained - and I don't think they have to be explained - it is a bit off-putting. I am not Igbo. I have never been to Africa and definitely not to Nigeria. I have more in common with the British government than I do with the villages of Umuaro - I don't need these sayings explained to me, but so much of the conversation between Ezeulu and his people revolve around these sayings.

I should say they are off-putting at first: eventually you can start interpreting based on the context of the conversation.

3) If you have any knowledge of the history of white governments in Africa, you know this book potentially will end badly, giving the entire novel, no matter how beautiful the moment, a looming shadow at its future edge. It's like a horror novel in that respect and can be rather stressful to keep going through.

4) Another off-putting aspect is the way Ezeulu treats his family, especially his wives - he can be verbally abusive and physically intimidating. But once again this is a cultural aspect that rubs more against my feminism than anything else.

** I could do only 4 against, and I probably could have stopped at number 2. I've been surprised at how easily I put down the Harry Potter and came back to Arrow of God. It is an amazing read, and like the best of mythologies (i.e. the Bible, Bulfinch, D'Aulaire, Gaiman's Sandman series) pulls you into this web of interrelated stories that give the main story such an overwhelming richness. It makes the main arc so much more real and painful and intense and immediate to read.

"It is praiseworthy to be brave and fearless, my son, but sometimes it is better to be a coward. We often stand in the compound of a coward to point at the ruins where a brave man used to live. The man who has never submitted to anything will soon submit to the burial mat." (I can't remember what page this is on.)

"Nweke Ukpaka spoke next. 'What a man does not know is greater than he. Those of us who want Unachukwu to go away forget that none of us can say come in the white man's language. We should listen to his advice. If we go to our elders and tell them that we shall no longer work on the white man's road, what do we expect them to do? Will our fathers take up hoes and matchets and go out to work themselves while we site at home? I know that many of us want to fight the white man. But only a foolish man can go after a leopard with his bare hands. The white man is like a hot soup and we must take him slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl. Umuaro was here before the white man came from his own land to seek us out. We did not ask him to visit us; he is neither our kinsman nor our in-law. We did not steal his goat or his fowl; we did not take his land or his wife. In no way whatever have we done him wrong. And yet he has come to make trouble for us. All we know is that our ofo is held high between us and him. The stranger will not kill his host with his visit; when he goes may he not go with a swollen back. I know that the white man does not wish Umuaro well. that is why we must hold our ofo by him and give him no cause to say that we did this or failed to do that. For if we give him cause he will rejoice. Why? Because the very house he has been seeking ways of pulling down has caught fire of its own will. For this reason we shall go on working on his road; and when we finish we shall ask him if he has more work for us. But in dealing with a man who thinks you a fool it is good sometimes to remind him that you know what he knows but has chosen to appear foolish for the sake of peace..." (105-106)

3 comments:

Steven Anthony said...

interesting, thanx for sharing

Sean said...

Wow...I'm honored that you like my idea enough to use for your book reviews.

You book reviews always amaze me and here you're comparing books, something I couldn't even attempt.

Well done.

Kyle said...

JP, I love that you are using Sean's format for your book review. Excellent! I read his first book and loved it for its' truth. I'm not sure I'm in the frame of mind to tackle "Arrow of God" right now. Thanks for the great book review.