No Longer At Ease (1960)
by Chinua Achebe
Picador Edition, The African Trilogy, from which page numbering comes.
This book is not available in the Penguin Classics range.
Chinua Achebe’s second novel, No Longer at Ease, published in 1960, is a then contemporary story of modern Nigeria. It is a Nigeria of contrasting religions, where modernity is in competition with tradition, a land of political corruption and western night clubs. Into this fray walks Obi Okonkwo, an honest man with an English university education, seeking to improve himself and his country, full of optimism and infused with pride, he knows how life should be. But this is 1950s Lagos, where everyman is out to make a fast buck, and have little concern upon whom they trample. The question Achebe poses is this: how can an honest man survive in this melee? Can there be hope for modern Nigeria?
In his introduction to the 1988 Picador collection, The African Trilogy (that contains Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God), Achebe says of No Longer at Ease, and in response to V S Pritchard’s comment at the end of his review of Things Fall Apart that Achebe’s second novel would be difficult to write:
“No Longer at Ease was the second I wrote and it managed, by that fact perhaps, to inherit all the difficulty the critic had prophesied. I personally consider it as good of its kind as I am capable of fabricating, but I don’t think it has been very well understood. Perhaps it will have better luck now.” (P.10)
Much of Achebe’s difficulty may have been borne of the fact that No Longer at Ease was not the novel he had initially set out to write. He talks in the introduction of originally planning one long novel that would explore three generations of Ibo men, but when that proved too challenging he broke it down into three separate novels. No Longer at Ease was to have been the story of his fathers generation, but as he says,
“The major problem was this: my father’s generation were the very people after all who, no matter how sympathetically one wished to look upon their predicament, did open the door to the white man. But could I, even in the faintest, most indirect, most delicate allusiveness, dare to suggest that my father may have been something… of… a traitor?” (p.10)
So with this second generation skipped, Achebe turned to his own for No Longer at Ease.
The portrait of modern Nigeria that Achebe paints in this novel is not a handsome one. Whereas in Things Fall Apart the Obi tribe had been painted with grace, almost every figure Obi meets in this book is dishonest in some manner. Even the villagers who come to see Obi to help their children gain a university education are not above bribery, and even the children themselves are dishonest, the girls coming to offer sexual favours to ensure a place. This it seems is how Africans are seen so they must act that way. As Mr Green, Obi’s boss in the civil service explains:
“The African is corrupt through and through.” (p.175)
Obi tries to buck the system, to retain his dignity. He sends money home to his family, he repays debts instantly and in full, even if he has time in which to pay them. He falls in love with a bright, educated woman called Clara. Clara, like Obi, is Ibo. Here the first great clash of his life occurs. Clara is osu, an outcast, and in his tribe no one can marry an osu, for it would bring great shame upon his family.
“Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you, my son, not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family.” (p.282)
“But all that is going to change. In ten years things will be quite different to what they are now.” (p.282)
He also argues:
“I don’t think it matters. We are Christians.” (p.281)
For if they are Christian how can old tribal religion hold sway? Here we see the clash how the class between the two religions in Things Fall Apart has finally played out. Though Christianity is the dominant religion, the old ways still hold power. The battle never ended.
But Obi remains indignant, and honest. He will still marry Clara, despite the shame. Only modern Nigeria will not let him. Obi’s financial situation becomes desperate, and he is too proud to ask for money. He economizes:
“In future the water-heater must not be turned on. I will have cold baths. The fridge must be switched off at seven o’clock in the evening and on again at twelve noon.” (p.255)
These absurd money saving exercises reveal a man being undone by his very nature. He must maintain his standing in the community, for the community paid for his English university education to get him into the position he now holds and so he cannot be seen to disappoint, and yet at every turn this life is destroying him.
During the opening of No Longer at Ease we meet Obi on trial. The judge says:
“I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this.” (p.174)
Achebe’s second novel is a deconstruction of how this could have happened, and in it he seems to be saying that it is Africa itself that is to blame, for it does not help itself, it only steals. A damning indictment that won Achebe the Nigerian National Trophy. But perhaps the T. S. Eliot quote that opens the book points to a different reading. From The Journey of the Magi:
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
If Achebe is true in what he states his intention to be, for this work to have been a second, or perhaps a third part of one long narrative, then perhaps the final reading should be that it is not Africa that has destroyed itself, but the fact that it surrendered. That it turned its back on the gods that ruled when we first met the happy, contented people at the start of Things Fall Apart. If they had just held, and not yielded, an honest man in Africa might still be at ease.