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“He does not understand our customs”: Narrating orality and empire in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart
Jarica Linn Wattsa a University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA Online publication date: 27 January 2010

To cite this Article Watts, Jarica Linn(2010) '“He does not understand our customs”: Narrating orality and empire in

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart', Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 46: 1, 65 — 75 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/17449850903478189 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449850903478189

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Achebe composes his work in the language of the colonizer. arguing that earlier critics have failed to account fully for two fundamental principles in Achebe’s narrative: the myriad phrases that are repeated throughout the first part of the work.informaworld. remain virtually unexplored. articulates the way in which Chinua Achebe’s narrative technique manifests the colonized subject’s anxieties. Achebe preserves Igbo speech culture by constructing a “fabricated reality” that suggests the timelessness of oral literature amid the struggle for control of the means of communication.com . critics have discussed Things Fall Apart in terms of its rhetorical strategies. Achebe’s work.edu Jarica 0 100000February 46 2010 &Article OriginalofFrancis 1744-9855 (print)/1744-9863 JournalandPostcolonial 10.sgm TaylorLinnWatts 2010 Writing Francis Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 This article delineates different strains of Achebe’s narrative technique in Things Fall Apart. and that this leads to a palpable failure. 1. 46.watts@utah. orality. from oral to print culture. iyi-uwa. Keywords: Chinua Achebe. USA jarica.1080/17449850903478189 http://www. the poetic volta. tribal customs. Drawing on Achebe’s assertion that “anyone seeking an insight into [the Igbo] world must seek it along their own way”. Things Fall Apart 191). However. that takes place between parts one and two of the novel. and its exploration of narrative in relation to print/oral cultures and nonliterate/literate societies. egwugwu. but integrates folklore. No. reshapes and recontextualizes the language of the colonizer – and the implicit power structures within it – in a specifically hybridized form of English.). the European colonizers have neglected to engage with African culture. the hybrid Igbo/English translator in Things Fall Apart (1958). With these words. Salt Lake City.Journal of Postcolonial Writing Vol. proverbs. noting the way in which Achebe integrates the literary elements of both African and European narration.watts@utah. narrative technique. etc. The conclusion uses Wolfgang Huchbruck’s term “textual otherness” to argue against critics who maintain that the shift from communal to urban life. much like the hybrid border language of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. just as we do not understand his. February 2010. means the destruction of traditional culture.1080/17449850903478189(online) RJPW_A_448194. the novel’s reflection upon the relationship between original language and “new” language. Okeke. and the formative shift. Things Fall Apart. One could even argue that by infusing the text with traditional Igbo words and phrases (obi. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways” (Achebe. For decades. 65–75 “He does not understand our customs”: Narrating orality and empire in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart Jarica Linn Watts* University of Utah. Achebe deprivileges and mocks the colonizing perspective that can only make sense of African customs in terms of the European conflation of print and the public spheres. the article shows that in the novel’s final section.edu ISSN 1744-9855 print/ISSN 1744-9863 online © 2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10. repetition. Bringing such issues to the fore allows one to read Things Fall Apart as a work that successfully connects history and culture to *Email: jarica. discursive practices “We cannot leave the matter in his [the white man’s] hands because he does not understand our customs. and the performance of oral storytelling in order to evoke Igbo tradition and to force the reader to acknowledge the story he tells on his own terms.

Ferris surmises.66 J. Rather. To paraphrase the work of Abdul JanMohamed in his essay “Sophisticated Primitivism”. commenting that “the patterning and repetition in Achebe’s novel are characteristics of the self-conscious artistry of oral narrative performance. This is masterfully done through the repetition of particular phrases in the oral sphere that bring to mind the cultural customs of the Igbo. I am not comfortable with the assertion that Achebe’s text aims to reinscribe the cultural traditions of the Igbo people (Ferris 27). To contextualize my position. I will provide a succinct summary of the critical discourse surrounding narrative and linguistic strategy in Achebe’s text. Nevertheless. In fact the text never allows for a space in which Igbo traditions. argues that the proverbs “serve as keys to an understanding of [Achebe’s] novels because he uses them [ … ] to sound and reiterate themes. particularly oral language. (27) This sweeping statement overlooks the fact that much African literature shows no influence of – and often has little to do with – colonialism and the struggle for independence. determining that neither is affected as a society transforms from an oral to a print culture. while it is obvious that Things Fall Apart conveys “the full horror of colonialism”. In this vein. my own argument parallels that of scholars such as Austin Shelton. is rife with the tension between the language of the colonizer and that of the colonized.L. for example. Achebe uses the language of the work to preserve Igbo culture. For that reason it is hardly surprising that much has been written concerning the novel’s narrative strategies and attention to proverbial expressions. He must describe the full horror of colonialism and its threat to the progress of humanity. where plot moves by repetition and predictability” (245). and to focus on the values of the society he is portraying” (3). in a way that grants a measure of power to the otherwise powerless colonial subject. are replaced by the conquering hands of the white man. Watts original language. on the other hand. B. the role of the African writer is twofold. Furthermore. as such. at the formal level Things Fall Apart is a syncretic combination of traditional oral narrative structures and the structures of western novels (21). that readers must judge all African literature in terms of the struggle for colonial independence: Writing in the wake of colonialism and its cultural de-Africanization. which examines traditional African folklore and conversational expressions. While I concur with the latter part of Doob’s claim. somewhat problematically. Rather. I read Achebe’s text as a work that Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 . McCarthy’s analysis successfully breaks the code of Achebe’s “simple mode of narration and equally simple prose style” by carefully analyzing the repetitive structures in the narrator’s words and expressions (243). after all. who study traditional African literature as a means of interpreting the effects of cultural contact on the colonized country. particularly oral traditions. Eugene McCarthy’s analysis. as the novel tragically depicts an African past dislocated by colonizing white missionaries. properly characterizes the rhythmical structure in Things Fall Apart. Matip are quick to characterize Things Fall Apart as a work in which Achebe attempts to return “Africa” to its indigenous peoples. In this way. it seems clear that not all African works can be judged in the terms that Ferris sets out. and he must help resurrect the cultural traditions of his people. Doob argues that folklore serves to add a new dimension of communication to an already hybrid society. Bernth Lindfors. the novel. critics are correct in paying strict attention to the systems of language Achebe employs to depict the text’s non-English cultural community. Also appropriate to the discussion of linguistic and narrative strategy in Things Fall Apart is Leonard Doob’s book Communication in Africa. William Ferris notes that critics such as B. to sharpen characterization. to clarify conflict.

(161. anyone seeking an insight into their world must seek it along their own way. Unlike Cartey’s analysis. he does this by removing Igbo speech customs from the novel as soon as the narrator begins to trace the inexorable advance of the colonizing Europeans in the second and third parts. solid drops of frozen water which the people called ‘the nuts of the water of heaven’” (cited in Cartey 102). the myriad phrases that are repeated throughout the first part of the work. Achebe’s reliance on oral narrative strategies may not be as easy to categorize as previously thought. the uttered phrase becomes inextricable from the moment of its expression – a moment. that “implies a physically present [speaker] and audience. Tannen notes several criteria used to identify repetition. emphasis added) It is important to discern from Achebe’s account that. What will become increasingly evident is that while literary scholars continue to read Things Fall Apart as a primary postcolonial text. it was in large. In order to represent the oral aspects of pre-colonial Igbo culture on the printed page.Journal of Postcolonial Writing 67 repeatedly hints at modern African society as one disrupted and transformed by contact with the European colonizer. event. then reaching back to repeat and expand. and proverbs. which he refers to as “inner imagery” (97). He does this primarily because oral customs lack the materiality of the printed page. my own reading will focus on instances of almost exact repetition. in some instances. in which similar phrases are used to describe fundamentally different aspects of the novel or unrelated scenes. While I acknowledge the usefulness of these critical interpretations. or character. that takes place between parts one and two of the novel. noting that: Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closely argued system of thought to explain the universe and the place of man in it. according to Jonathan Greenberg. “Each time the utterance is repeated. moving onward again. She notes that. Eugene McCarthy takes this idea up in relation to Things Fall Apart. the theme of the story [ … ] is developed. in passages such as: “When the rain finally came. the poetic volta. Central to this discussion of speech patterns and repetition is Deborah Tannen’s study in linguistics. in which repetitions may range “from exact repetition (the same words uttered in the same rhythmic pattern) to paraphrase (similar ideas in different words)” (54). Some of these ways are folk tales [and] proverbs. and while scholars have correctly identified a variety of narrative strategies within Things Fall Apart. prior to colonization. as the colonizing white men attempt to transform Igbo culture from a non-literate to a literate society. Nwoye believes Christianity to be “like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth” (104). To illustrate this . preferring the metaphor of myth and poetry. arguing that “once a name or event is introduced [Achebe] proceeds by moving forward. a specific community situated in space and time” (5). Achebe embeds in his novel – and continually repeats – certain phrases. the Igbo’s linguistic and communication strategies existed primarily in the realm of the spoken word. Wilfred Cartey’s analysis of Things Fall Apart discusses this latter category of paraphrase. As mentioned previously. slightly changed in meaning as well as form” (59). and the formative shift. Similarly. in which he comments on the language of his people. Deborah Tannen also elaborates on the role that repetition has on its “listenership” (59). That is to say. This point becomes important when the novel is read in conjunction with Achebe’s 1974 essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology”. which examines the role of repetition in speech and public discourses. Talking Voices. accumulating detail and elaborating” (245). It is this type of oral community that Achebe seeks to preserve for the Igbo people. folk tales. including “a scale of fixity in form”. their analyses fail to account for two fundamental principles: namely. often used in quick succession to describe the same scene. B.

While I do not disagree with McCarthy’s analysis. Thus. (3) According to McCarthy’s interpretation. Achebe’s narrator declares: “A deathly silence descended on Okonkwo’s compound” (58). for example. ‘Amalinze the Cat’. The text reads: Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. or idea” (59). and. “No information is added. Okonkwo’s hostage-turned-son. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten. in which Achebe’s narrator introduces readers to Igbo culture through a variety of episodes in which Okonkwo. McCarthy provides a close reading of the novel’s opening paragraph in terms of “backlooping”. “‘well known’ advances to ‘fame’ and to ‘honour. then carries it forward with new information’” (245). “they argued for a short while and fell into silence again” (59). In an attempt to characterize the somber atmosphere that precedes the boy’s death. Moreover. governs his household through his dominant position as family patriarch. I maintain that the repetitive phrases serve simply to highlight the difference between the spoken and the printed sphere. we are told that Ogbuefi bellowed “Umuofia kwenu” a fifth time “and the crowd yelled in answer” (11). “Umuofia kwenu” four times over (10). idioms. proverbs. from Umuofia to Mbaino. the clan’s most “powerful orator” (10). the novel’s first instance of repetitive phrasing occurs when Ogbuefi Ezeugo. and no perceptible contribution is made to the development of a story. As the third-person narrator conveys the story of Okonkwo’s life.L. the African oral rather than the English “literary” tradition. the protagonist. in other instances. my own reading aligns with Tannen’s assertion that. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. A few lines later. Achebe employs Igbo orality to characterize Okonkwo’s wives and children. Ogbuefi attempts to rally the tribe by bellowing the chant. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. placing particular emphasis on the novel’s first section.” Five lines Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 . as they continue their journey. strict repetition are invoked to transport the story into the oral sphere. The trinity of repetitions used to explain Ikemefuna’s character is finally complete as the clansmen arrive at the scene of the slaughter. we are told that “all was silent” and that “silence fell upon” the clansmen as they approached the appointed place of execution (58). above all. theme. On each occasion. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. Speaking of Ikemefuna.68 J. demonstrates the performative nature of the Igbo’s spoken culture. This same sentiment is echoed three chapters later when the narrator remarks that: “the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him” (52). speaking to the grieving Okonkwo. It is not until the clansmen are about to slay Ikemefuna that a repetitive statement is employed to discuss him for a second time. Do not bear a hand in his death. As the novel progresses. as the clansmen travel to carry out the death sentence. a resounding “Yaa!” from the crowd of “ten thousand men” meets the bellicose request (10). this paragraph’s oral expression becomes evident “when Achebe’s narrator repeats a phrase. to borrow Walter Ong’s term (qtd in McCarthy 245). the narrator tells readers that: “They [the clansmen] seemed to forget all about him as soon as they had taken the decision” that he should live with Okonkwo (27). Lines later. Most notably. Watts point. Seeking recompense for one of the Umuofia’s murdered daughters. Ogbuefi Ezeudu. I will now focus my attention on the function of orality within Things Fall Apart. remarks: “The boy calls you father. Locating some of these ideas in Achebe’s text.’ just as ‘It was this man that Okonkwo threw’ repeats what has gone before and underlines its importance” (245).

we see repetition dispersed throughout the account of the child’s illness. ‘That boy calls you father. burning forehead. “She had lived so long that perhaps she had decided to stay” (80). Ogbuefi then declares the same proclamation: “I want you to have nothing to do with [the death]. the narrator quips: “Ezinma. Given the plethora of repetitive phrases throughout Part One of the novel. also repeated three times. she prayed a thousand times” (85). “She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry” – the child Ezinma is rarely mentioned without a repetitive phrase (40. Okonkwo follows both demands that Ezinma “sit like a woman” with the rebuke: “She should have been a boy”. the masked egwugwu Evil Forest proceeds as follows: Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 .Journal of Postcolonial Writing 69 later. the narrator tells readers in Chapter 9. Achebe continues to make use of repetitive phrasing when the “famous” clansman Okagbue. Following the death of Ikemefuna. Evil Forest. And later in the scene. Okonkwo’s second wife. sits down before Okonkwo “and stretched her legs in front of her” like a woman (63). Ekwefi. clearly. “As she knelt by [Ezinma]. it is during the time of Ezinma’s illness that the concerned Ekwefi “knelt beside the sick child. occasionally feeling with her palm the wet. asks three times in three pages: “Where did you bury your iyi-uwa?” (80. the narrator comments: “He [Okonkwo] never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl” (172). Okonkwo himself observes for the final time. and again. ‘Bear no hand in his death’” (121). are also characterized through repetitive phrases. feeling with her palm the wet. Quite markedly. When Okonkwo enters Ekwefi’s hut and prepares to dine on the meal prepared by Ekwefi and Ezinma. and their fragile daughter. Addressing the crowd. It is not until Okonkwo recalls the chilling murder in Chapter 13 that the remark appears for a third time: “A cold shiver ran down Okonkwo’s back as he remembered the last time the old man had visited him. Following her illness. a repetition in form. He calls you his father” (57). attempting to save the child’s life and dispel her “evil” by locating her “iyiuwa”. called her mother [Ekwefi] by her name” (40). 66). Ekwefi’s desperate hope that the child not follow her nine siblings to the grave is. Even his eventual exile is not enough to dislodge his longing for another son. the child. 109). Here. Ezinma. the child responds to the final inquiry with the twice-repeated phrase: “It is here” (82). Further. of their elder brother. In quick succession. Ekwefi. “I wish she were a boy” (173). whom he is “specially fond of”. 82). “If Ezinma had been a boy [ … ]” (64. it is notable that a framing device. As the reader is first introduced to Ezinma. Much like Ikemefuna. anxious for her father to eat. attending to the duties of the home. the section closes with a chant from the masked egwugwu. opens and closes the section.’ he had said. as her father and other grownup people did” (76). he chides the child: “Sit like a woman! [ … ] Ezinma brought her two legs together and stretched them in front of her” (44). Nwoye. Just as Ogbuefi Ezeugo demonstrates the performative nature of the Igbo’s spoken culture in the novel’s opening chant. like her husband’s declaration. “the great abomination”. Ekwefi replies: “Perhaps she has come to stay [ … ] I think she will stay” (48). Seven phrases – more than those used for any other character – are repeated throughout the four chapters (Chapters 5–9) that chart the development of Ezinma’s character. “She should have been a boy”. Afterward. It should be noted that while repetitive phrasing is employed only once for Ekwefi – Okonkwo “was too poor to pay her bride-price”. It is only when the family is preparing for the child’s assumed death that the phrase repeats itself: “[Ezinma] called her [mother] by her name. Watching the daughter. unlike most children. in a communal hearing meant to determine the fate of the wife-beating Uzowulu. When Chielo asks how the child is growing. While gathering his remaining children together to rebuke the Christian conversion. burning forehead” (76).

” replied Okukwe. and faith in them is temporarily restored.” he said. punishment).” he said. in which British missionaries colonize the village of . Greenberg continues: At times. as the above-mentioned exchange is consolidated in the closing lines of Chapter 10. and the ways in which their beliefs in the meanings of events are tested and changed” (22). “Uzowulu’s body. from] story to novel” (22. The point. I greet you. father? You are beyond our knowledge. “How can I know you. emphasis in original) While my own reading certainly agrees with the assertion that “overall narrative coherence is obliterated” in Part Three of the novel. according to Greenberg. The guilty Okukwe addresses Odukwe: Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 “Odukwe’s body. touching the earth. “Uzowulu’s body. it seems to me that this transition has less to do with the loss of shared wisdom and experience. “Do you know me?” “No man can know you. (93) In a final act of repetition.” replied Odukwe. do you know me?” asked the spirit. “Our father. myth. such as folklore. and proverb.70 J. It is telling that once the colonizing white man enters the novel in Parts Two and Three. Greenberg astutely identifies a series of events in Part Three of the novel that test whether the Igbo gods will protect their people as they move from a traditional way of life toward modernity. Okonkwo’s necessary exile and the loss of his tribal heritage dictate the novel’s final sections.” he said. I salute you.” Uzowulu replied. my hand has touched the ground. the narrative dramatically abandons such play with repetition in the oral sphere. my hand has touched the ground. prohibitions) lead to the expected endings (revenge.L. but that it narrates the emergence of a print culture: “Achebe shows the beginning of the end of the Igbo culture by showing the deterioration of the Igbo narrative system. such as the sudden death of Okoli. In his analysis of Achebe in relation to Walter Benjamin.” replied Uzowulu. Watts “Our father. and more to do with the dramatic shift from spoken to written cultures. “My hand is on the ground. Evil Forest again speaks to the crowd: “Uzowulu’s body. father? You are beyond our knowledge. (93) What becomes evident through the infusion of repetition in the Igbo people’s speech patterns is that repetition clearly represents pre-colonial Igbo life in a manner that closely resembles African oral traditions. omens. (23. These telling moments include Okoli’s killing of a sacred python and Enoch’s unmasking of an ancestral spirit. Less and less frequently do beginnings (warnings. Indeed. Jonathan Greenberg identifies this shift in narrative as the moment in which “the novel itself gives us reason to assert that its own story is the story of the very moment of transition from [oral to written. do you know me?” “How can I know you. This is not to say. “is not simply that [the work] is about the arrival of forces of modernization in the form of British missionaries”. What results is a glimpse of a world in which an overall narrative coherence is obliterated. however. that the move away from the Igbo people’s speech customs is fluid in nature. Achebe exemplifies the necessarily repetitive nature of speech. but at other times they do not. as Greenberg suggests. Kiaga when he takes in twin children who had been left to die. the gods do seem to take action. emphasis in original). such as when they fail to kill the African Christian Mr.” (90) After both sides have pleaded their case.

the speech patterns of the Igbo remain preserved. “Anyone seeking an insight into [the Igbo] world must seek it along their own way” (“Chi” 161). (171) And yet Okonkwo’s dismay is quickly overcome by a firm resolve to regain his tribal position upon his return to the land of his ancestors: “He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. the umunna. Poignantly. The only instance of repetition in Part Three is found one line apart. Answering the white man’s question “Which among you is called Okonkwo?”. the repetitive phrases fall away in favor of a narrative strategy intent on depicting Okonkwo’s tragic downfall. This same sentiment is repeated by one of the oldest members of the extended family. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion. the European colonizers of Things Fall Apart have neglected to engage with African culture. He would return with a flourish.Journal of Postcolonial Writing 71 Umuofia. which. Okonkwo’s utter refusal to accept both the white man’s religion and his way of life is played out in the novel’s final repetitive phrase. and regain the seven wasted years” (171). Anxious to preserve his family’s heritage in the face of the colonizing missionaries. In this simple response. in the final lines of Part Two: “We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so” (167). Immediately following the District Commissioner’s demand that the hanging corpse of Okonkwo be removed. the comfortable voice of Achebe’s narrator gives way to the voice of the District Commissioner. but rather in terms of the European conflation between the print and public spheres. According to Greenberg. Indeed. as his narrator refuses to employ repetitive oral customs once the white man enters the scene. the banished Okonkwo is dismayed with the news of Nwoye’s Christian conversion and the realization that his own village is succumbing to the ways of the white man: He [Okonkwo] knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. he was told. of which he has been denied access. as the latter thinks only of his own fame and monetary gain and neglects to look beyond his own blind spot and toward the customs of the Igbo (14). and it is this blatant disregard that leads to a failure so palpable that the only way the District Commissioner can make sense of African customs is not through an understanding of their oral culture. which serves as its own act of repetition in that it mirrors Ezinma’s timid claim “It is here”. For. Achebe again employs repetitive phrasing. Obierika twice replies: “He is not here” (207). At once. toward the novel’s end. when questioned about the burial of her iyi-uwa. to underscore Okonkwo’s desolation and determination in the final paragraphs of Part Two. The section’s play between narrative repetition and personal demise can thus be read as the individual’s response to the complex challenge of contact with a colonizing cultural force “self-righteously bent upon a ‘civilizing’ mission”. Okonkwo states: “I have only called you together because it is good for kinsmen to meet” (166). had gained ground. In fact. Clearly. it becomes obvious that the white man has grossly failed to understand the culture and customs of the Igbo. the tragic tale of Okonkwo concludes with the words of the colonizer: Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 . it is in the District Commissioner’s proposed plan that we can locate Achebe’s voice as he “clearly deprivilege[s]” and “implicitly mock[s]” the District Commissioner’s naïve perspective. As the white man begins to dominate. Tragically. Achebe proves that although the conquering white man may have infiltrated Igbo society. as Achebe reminds readers. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the clan. We thus see this played out in his desire to write a book with the title The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. as Bu-Buakei Jabbi so appropriately remarks (201).

by extension. qtd in Talib 74) Here. as they “have come to see and accept English [ … ] as the language of Igbo literature. written Igbo – like many other African languages – came into being as a result of the Christian missionaries’ desire to translate the Bible into indigenous tongues. at any rate. Watts As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. each from a different location. authorized by repeated editions of the Bible. Yet it seems to me that we cannot oversimplify or easily dismiss the representation Achebe offers regarding the degrading effects of colonialism – particularly its insistence that. Working their way through a particular biblical book or passage. while it may be far too speculative to assume that the book. As one might expect.72 J. the killing of twins). the proposed work will relegate the once-powerful Okonkwo to a sensationalized African Other. as a means of control. native dialects be replaced by what Brian Friel dubs “the King’s good English” (30). further the colonial agenda. He had already chosen the title of the book. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph. when the Christian Missionary Society tackled Igbo. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. the resulting compilation bore no resemblance to any of the six dialects. has the ability to endow the Igbo people with the imaginary belief that they exist in “a league of anonymous equals”. will be reduced to a single paragraph in a book that aims to perpetuate the imperialist-missionary work whose horrific effects the reader has just witnessed” (24). and the end of some of the unacceptable practices of pre-colonial Igbo culture (e. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. a strange hodge-podge with no linguistic elegance. as an emblem of Benedict Anderson’s “Print-capitalism”.” as it was called.g. natural rhythm or oral authenticity. in Achebe’s account. There was so much else to include. It is worth mentioning that such a stance is in tension with what some scholars recognize as Achebe’s profoundly ambivalent attitude toward colonialism. for. According to Ismail Talib’s study The Language of Postcolonial Literatures. Yet this “Union Igbo. Indeed. Every day brought him some new material. each speaking a different dialect. trade. 133). Unfortunately. Christianity. as a consequence. Let me cite Achebe’s own words regarding the standardization of written Igbo by Christian missionaries: Formal. each in turn would provide a translation. Clearly. Quoting from Ernest Emenyonu’s The Rise of the Igbo Novel. Achebe does acknowledge that the processes of colonization brought about education. we see the colonizer introducing written language and committing violence to traditional dialects and their prospects of survival in order to necessitate a full Christian conversion and. as “not all communities consistently view” writing as a “linguistic advance” (73). the story of Okonkwo’s life. which “remains unsolved to this day” had a comprehensive effect [ … ] on the Igbos and their literature in general.” (75) . Talib recognizes the ways in which language is used as a tool of empire-building when he speaks directly to the difficulties of incorporating written language in Achebe’s Africa. its very presence does speak to the introduction of writing among the primarily oral Igbo culture (Anderson 4. the importance of the Commissioner’s project cannot be dismissed. (Achebe. He writes: the effect of “the long-standing controversy over an acceptable orthography”. after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. became the official written form of the language. standardized.L. this shift from an oral to a written culture is plagued with tension. one must be firm in cutting the details. will function as a colonial tool for the District Commissioner. and. they employed a curiously democratic process: they brought together six Igbo converts. Indeed. (208–09) Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 Greenberg gives the reader a summation of this scene: “The novel the reader has just completed.

In other words. and not. On the other hand. end up corrupted into the desire for material greed and predatory conquest. along with Kurtz. after all. My Intended. It is thus appropriate to read Kurtz’s ruin as the result of confronting the hollowness within himself. seems to rebut the long-held African view that “written literature violate[s] one of the most important literary tenets” of success (Talib 73). Certainly this reading seems convincing if one considers Alexandra Lewis’s argument that Things Fall Apart is a postcolonial text that writes back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is tempting to argue that. and unable to adhere to white European convention. As evidenced in the brutality of this statement. and moral relativism” (35. After decades of examining the psychological effects of colonial rule on both the colonizer and the colonized. then. Kurtz’s report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. In these terms. race hatred. as part of its literary essence. with enough time and exposure. Césaire concludes that “colonization works to decivilize the colonizer. violence. so much so that his death is eventually haunted by shadowy images [ … ] – images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously around his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. as a result of exposing “himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle” and having the “darkness [find] him out” (“An Image of Africa” 261). the very notion of writing an Igbo literature. Acknowledging the context of Achebe’s work. to covetousness. however. Kurtz’s report begins with the “argument that we whites [ … ] can exert a power for good practically unbounded” over the savages of the Congo and ends with a creed that speaks to the corrupting power of colonialism: “Exterminate all the brutes!” (50. we might thus be tempted to speculate what effect the colonizing mission will have on the District Commissioner. the desire to bring European greatness to the Igbo people will. in the African scene. to awaken him to buried instincts. my ideas – these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. We might wonder whether the concluding sentiment of The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger will echo the sentiments behind the final cry of Mr. my station. as Achebe argues. to degrade him. an oral quality that will allow for communal transmission. their community. According to Mazisi Kunene’s research. We are told. perhaps The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger will actually call for the destruction of the Igbo before such a rupture can take place. it must maintain. it is difficult not to draw the parallel between the District Commissioner’s desire to write the aforementioned book and Kurtz’s obsessive drive to complete his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. by extension. my career.Journal of Postcolonial Writing 73 Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 Traditionally speaking. If so. in order to be considered successful. from this point of view. would conform to the psychological case studies that Aimé Césaire provides in his groundbreaking work Discourse on Colonialism. greed and corruption begin to conquer Kurtz. perhaps we can recognize in the Commissioner’s print project something that will further dismantle the Igbo’s sense of orality – and. it becomes clear that what began as a religious quest to bring European greatness to the African Congo ends with a total disaffection with the civilizing mission. the only way to eliminate savageness is to exterminate them. as with Kurtz. (67) For. primitive. that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (Heart of Darkness 50). the District Commissioner. or of having to translate “from a spoken to a written culture”. if Kurtz truly believes that the savages are essentially barbaric. emphasis . literature must be able to be “disseminated [ … ] communally” (qtd in Talib 73). 51). to brutalize him in the true sense of the word. Kurtz himself becomes nothing more than a symbol of this estrangement and hostility. In Africa.

applies community-specific linguistic theories to the literatures of postcolonial cultures.L. in this sense.74 J. In short. what is important is that Achebe does not offer readers “a finished life. Borderlands/La Frontera.S. the final call for mass extermination speaks precisely to the animalistic tendencies that Césaire shudders at in those toolong exposed to the colonial venture. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Works cited Achebe. with “nothing to replace it” (34). Gloria. “Chi in Igbo Cosmology. . emphasis in original). 1999. Above all. the “distance/difference between the ‘oral’ and the ‘written’” (134). Achebe preserves Igbo speech culture by constructing a “fabricated reality” that thematizes. Hispanic Literary Heritage Series.” Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Monthly Review. coming forth.] the text’s orality remains open and self-perpetuating. Imagined Communities. New York: Random. which coins the term “textual otherness” to describe a work in which the “fabrication of forms of ‘orality’ always serves to specialize on the page a form of identity that is perceived as different” (134). 1994. San Francisco: Aunt Lute. despite the two alternatives – either assimilation or annihilation – the District Commissioner remains a character who openly refuses to look into the culture and customs of the Igbo people. 1969. Her dissertation. who maintain that the shift from communal to urban life. Reading Achebe’s text in this way is to invite some disagreement from critics. it is this type of cultural rebuff that offers Achebe a way to preserve a sense of cultural power for the colonized. from the District Commissioner – himself a colonial administrator – would actually call. ———. Chinua. as it were. Watts Downloaded By: [University of Montana] At: 18:27 12 September 2010 in original). As this article has shown. from oral to print culture. “colonial activity. It thus seems clear that through a complex system of narrative and linguistic forms. 2000. 1998. 159–75. and perhaps also by guilt. 1991. Things Fall Apart. 251–62. [Rather. In the end. 1975. Benedict. New York: Verso. colonial enterprise. Anderson. Ed. Anzaldúa. means the destruction of traditional culture. a closed book. New York: Anchor. which is forthcoming from Arte Publico’s Recovering the U. “Colonial Language and Postcolonial ‘Linguabridity’”. Aimé. which is based on contempt for the native [ … ] inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it. Cartey.” Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. colonial conquest. Césaire. nation. Notes on contributor Jarica Watts is completing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Utah. Discourse on Colonialism. Whispers from a Continent: The Literature of Contemporary Black Africa. such as William Ferris. Yet such a conjecture is important in that it allows readers to see that. She is the editor of “Abueltio: The Selected Works of Abelardo ‘Lalo’ Delgado”. like Kurtz’s report. Let me instead invoke Wolfgang Huchbruck’s article “I Have Spoken: Fictional ‘Orality’ in Indigenous Fiction”. as part of the story. that the colonizer [ … ] tends objectively to transform himself into an animal” (41. Indeed. ———. a completed narrative [as the District Commissioner’s book would undoubtedly do] [ … ]. Robert Kimbrough. suggesting alternative ways of analyzing the patterns of language usage in postcolonial literature. gesturing beyond itself to an endless supply of shareable experience among the Igbo people” (Greenberg 10). Wilfred. as repetition in the oral sphere is finite and lacks the restrictions of the printed page. New York: Norton. it remains doubtful that such a project of colonial pacification. for the extermination of all colonial natives. and even empire. Achebe suggests the timelessness of orality amid the emergence of print. Spurred on by greed. New York: Doubleday.

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