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where's his Nobel Prize?
on November 6, 2000
Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the protagonist in Things Fall Apart, is the pride of his Nigerian village, Umuofia. The Ibo villagers pooled their money to send one native son off to England to be educated and Obi was chosen. Now he has returned to a prestigious job with the civil service in Lagos--he's the Administrative Assistant to the Inspector of Schools. He bears the burden of his people's expectations but his exposure to Western culture has distanced him from tribal life and though he is now earning a magnificent living by their standards, he has trouble making ends meet as he tries keeping up with the Joneses in the big city. Borrowing money, he ends up "digging a new pit to fill up an old one." Further complicating matters is his love affair with the lovely Clara, an osu, one of the socio-religious outcasts who also figured prominently in Things Fall Apart.
As financial and romantic pressures continue to mount and his beloved mother sickens and dies, Obi must also deal with temptation, offers of money and sex if he will use his position to assist scholarship applicants. For as long as he can, Obi juggles all of these problems, but gradually they come crashing down on him.
More directly than almost any author I'm aware of, Chinua Achebe faces head on the issues which confront the developing nations in a post-Colonial world. In No Longer At Ease, even as he pokes fun at the remaining English bureaucrats and their condescending ways, he honors their tradition of relatively honest civil service. Meanwhile, he questions whether at least this first generation of natives who are replacing the departing Europeans are truly prepared to meet the same standards or whether a slide into corruption is nearly inevitable.
Obi is a decent enough man and he has the best of intentions, but he gets in way over his head, bringing tragedy down upon himself and disgrace to his village. His situation, as portrayed by Achebe--caught between the traditions and expectations of his village on the one hand and the modern ways and legal constraints of the West on the other--puts him in an untenable position, one where something must give. The title of the book comes from T. S. Eliots's 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.
Achebe offers a fully realized portrait of one of those returned who are "no longer at ease," aliens in their own country. It's a terrific book.
GRADE : A