Book Review: No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

Book review by John Eppel

Chapter 7

Page 51

Back in Lagos, Obi starts his first day at work. He compares it to his first day at the mission school in Umuofia, twenty years before, when there were very few white people around. He remembers an incident involving the Inspector of schools, Mr Jones, who was an extremely aggressive bully of a man. He gets into an argument with the headmaster, Mr Nduka, and slaps him. Mr Nduka who knew something about the ‘great art of wrestling’ (an important aspect of Igbo culture), throws Mr Jones to the floor. This shocks the rest of the school and they run away. ‘To throw a white man was like unmasking an ancestral spirit’.

Page 52

Obi’s new boss, Mr Green, has got some characteristics of Mr Jones. He is aggressive and impatient. He doesn’t seem to have learnt anything about reconciliation, even though Nigeria is on the threshold of Independence. Achebe calls this a ‘tragedy’. From the start he is unfriendly to Obi. Obi’s immediate boss is a Nigerian called Mr Omo, who is afraid of the bullying Mr Green. Like the old English woman with the pet parrot [see page 28] the white man is accustomed to giving orders.

Obi decides that he does not like Mr Green and that Mr Omo is one of the ‘old Africans’. The phone rings and it is Mr Green on the line for Obi. He shouts at Obi for not saying ‘Sir’ to him and slams the phone down just is he, earlier, ‘slammed the door behind him’.

Page 53

Obi starts to enjoy some perks that go with his new job. He uses his ‘car advance’ to buy a brand new Morris Oxford. Then he gets an ‘outfit allowance’ of sixty pounds. Obi is quite willing to benefit from these perks even though Achebe suggests that they are a form of legalized (or sanitised) corruption.

Obi dislikes Mr Omo, who mocks his ignorance about bureaucracy, almost as much as he dislikes Mr Green. Mr Omo has filthy teeth with one missing in the front: ‘When he laughed it looked like a vacant plot in a slum’. Achebe’s hyperbolic simile is typical of his often humorous style of writing.

Obi phones Clara to tell her of his good luck and she responds happily. Sam Okoli, who is a likeable Minister of State (and who features prominently in Achebe’s novel, Anthills of the Savannah), is engaged to Clara’s best friend. He has asked them to drinks.

Page 54

The Minister is charming but he seems a little insincere. He flatters both of them, and makes them feel most welcome in his home. He says something quite telling when he offers them drinks: ‘Lady first; that is what the white man has brought. I respect the white man although we want them to go’. In Igbo culture the men are always attended to first. Indeed you could argue that African women benefited in one way from the European influence. It made a tiny though unintentional contribution to their emancipation from a rigid patriarchy. What Sam says about the white man seems contradictory. There is a tone of reluctance in his final statement.

All these educated, middle-class Africans have servants, just like their colonial masters, and just like them, they dress their servants in ridiculous uniforms: ‘in immaculate white, and brass buttons’.

While they are waiting for their drinks, Obi takes note of the Minister’s ‘luxurious sitting-room’, paid for, controversially, by the Government. Obi is particularly impressed by the music centre which, Sam hastens to assure him, was paid for by himself. He asks Obi how he likes his new job but doesn’t wait for an answer. He is not really interested. Instead he demonstrates the fancy new tape recorder, linking its technology to the colonisers: ‘White man don go far. We just de shout for nothing.’ By lapsing into pidgin he once again indicates his ambiguous feelings about Independence. He quickly corrects these reactionary sentiments by saying, ‘All the same they must go. This no be them country.’ It’s as if he has a premonition of the chaos that will engulf Nigeria in the years after Independence.

Page 55

The Minister’s ambiguous feelings continue when he compares his locally educated Nigerian Assistant Secretary with his Oxford educated white man. ‘Our people have a long way to go,’ he says with a tone of scepticism in his voice.

Obi and Clara dine out to celebrate the new car but Clara is in one of her moods. She rejects Obi’s offers of affection and says she is ‘depressed’. This plus the fact that she says she doesn’t feel like eating anything, kills Obi’s appetite. Neither of them touches their food. Then they argue about whether to go and watch a film. Finally they go for a walk and Obi ponders the nature of love. Their relationship is clearly uneasy.

Page 56

Until he met Clara, there was a conflict in Obi between his romantic self and his cynical self. With Clara, ‘there was never a superior half at Obi’s elbow wearing a patronizing smile’.

At the swimming pool Clara bursts into tears, telling Obi that she can’t marry him. Obi doesn’t understand. As far as he knows, Clara is not the sort of woman to play games. There is nothing coy about her. He asks her directly, ‘Why can’t you marry me?’ and she responds by hugging him and sobbing.

Finally the truth comes out: ‘I am an osu’. Obi is undeterred. He is not going to let traditional Igbo ways interfere with his desire. Later, when he gets back to Joseph’s room he tells Joseph what has happened.

Page 57

Joseph, who is more fixed in traditional ways than his England educated friend, commiserates but is shocked when Obi insists that he is still going to marry Clara.

Joseph tries to dissuade Obi: ‘You know book but this is no matter for book’. He blames Obi’s ‘mission-house upbringing and European education’ for estranging him from his homeland. Obi is deeply hurt by this, perhaps because it is true. Joseph decides to stop arguing and he goes back to sleep.

As far as Obi is concerned:

It was scandalous that in the middle of the twentieth century a man could be
barred from marrying a girl simply because her great-great-great-great
grandfather had been dedicated to serve a god, thereby setting himself apart
and turning his descendants into a forbidden caste to the end of Time.

He vows that not even his mother will stop him.

The next day he phones Clara to tell her that they will look for an engagement ring. The sudden announcement flusters her but Obi doesn’t give her a chance to say no.

Now that we know Clara’s status as an osu, we might read her character with a little more understanding and sympathy.

Page 58

Obi will be moving into his flat the next day. He and Clara find a jewellery shop and buy an engagement ring. Obi starts to realise how quickly money disappears. Clara wants a Bible to go with the ring, so they purchase one. Achebe wants us to connect Christian traditions with colonialism, to remind us of the part it played in the deracination of indigenous Africans.

Next they go shopping for household utensils, an occupation that excites Clara and bores Obi.

Later that morning, when Obi returns to Joseph’s room, Joseph is ready to resume the previous night’s argument.

Page 59

Before they discuss Obi’s marriage plans, Obi recounts an experience he and Clara had with the police. He words it in a way that shows he is still somewhat detached from his home country: ‘Your Nigerian police are very cheeky, you know.’ He could have used ‘our’ instead of ‘your’.

He tells Joseph that he and Clara are engaged. Joseph is not happy about this. He asks, ‘are you going to marry the English way or are you going to ask your people to approach her people according to custom?’ Obi hasn’t yet decided. He needs to speak to his parents, fairly certain that he will convince them of his wish. Joseph expresses his concern in an aphorism: ‘If one finger brings oil it soils the others’.

Page 60

Joseph concedes that one day these cultural conflicts will disappear, but not yet: ‘we of this generation are only pioneers’.

Obi picks up the word, ‘pioneer’ and gives it a positive spin: ‘Someone who shows the way. That is what I am doing.’ Ironically, the first European colonisers called themselves pioneers. We see how important context is when we evaluate a word or a sentiment. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. One person’s poacher is another person’s hunter.

Joseph continues to argue from a traditional point of view. He reminds Obi that their fathers did not use engagement rings. He tries to put Obi in a moral dilemma by reminding him that he is the first and only ‘son’ so far to be educated in England. He supports his point with an aphorism: ‘…the unfortunate child who grows his first tooth and grows a decayed one’. Joseph, unlike Obi, has retained the art of the African oral tradition.

Joseph’s persistence upsets Obi. He knows his family will be unhappy if he marries an osu but he believes he will be able to persuade them, his mother in particular, to accept his wish. He wants to have his cake and eat it in the sense of harmoniously merging the two cultures in his marriage. However, all he will succeed in doing is generating even more unease.

We learn that Obi is his mother’s favourite child: ‘there was a special bond’ between them. This bond is sealed in blood when Obi’s mother cuts herself on a razor blade that he forgets to remove from his shirt pocket.

Chapter 8

Page 61

This page provides a date to the setting of the novel, December, 1956, spilling into 1957 – about three years before Independence in 1960. This is an uneasy, transitional time.

Obi missed the first meeting of the Lagos Branch of the UPU. Now Joseph has to remind him not to miss the second meeting. The friends will attend together, and Joseph is excited about arriving in Obi’s new car. It is a status symbol, a ‘pleasure-car’ and is sure to impress the members of UPU.

Joseph, like most citizens of Lagos, can shift easily from Igbo to pidgin to English, whereas Obi is more comfortable remaining with English. Joseph boasts to his colleagues about his England educated friend. They are impressed when they find out that Obi has a civil service job with the Scholarship Board – because he will be able to take lots of bribes. When Joseph tells them that Obi is not like that; ‘Him na gentleman’, they are not convinced.

Obi arrives in his car to fetch Joseph for the meeting.

Page 62

Joseph is smartly dressed for the occasion and is unhappy with Obi’s ‘casual appearance’. It makes him feel like the ‘outsider who wept louder than the bereaved’. Achebe suggests that his casual attire might be seen as disrespectful by the elders in the Union.

Joseph is more excited about the occasion than the somewhat jaded Obi. It is Joseph’s idea to arrive a bit late, with everybody there, in order to gain maximum effect. He is right: ‘They clapped and cheered and danced when they saw the car pull up’. Achebe presents the greetings in Igbo which, as usual, gives the novel an African flavour.

Obi’s arrival disrupts the meeting where the Union members are deliberating on the case of another young Umuofian, Joshua Udo, who has been fired by the Chief Clerk at the Post Office for sleeping on the job. Joshua denies this and claims, not very plausibly, that he was ‘thinking’. This is another example of the way Achebe sprinkles humour, sometimes good-natured like this, sometimes satirical, throughout his novel.

Page 63

The president scolds Joshua but will agree to lend him ten pounds to help him find another job. Achebe starts painting a picture of government workers being not only corrupt but lazy. As one man says, ‘It is money, not work’ that brings them to Lagos.

One old man adds that money alone is not enough for Joshua to get another job. Others must put in a good word for him. He indirectly makes it clear that Obi will be expected to give back to the UPU what they have given to him. This concept of sharing, of putting the community first, is in contrast to the capitalistic idea of every man for himself, which was brought in by the colonisers.

The president agrees but says that they must give the ‘young man’ time. Obi feels ‘very uneasy’ about this and hopes it won’t be ‘too difficult to manage them’. The word ‘manage’ suggests that his moral values are beginning to deteriorate.

Page 64

Some younger members of the union complain that there was an unfair distribution of alcohol at the reception: senior members drank all the bottled beer leaving the younger members with poor quality palm wine. This gives rise to an amusing quarrel about the way funds are spent, until Obi stands up to speak.

The fact that this argument about something quite trivial creates a generational gap is significant in the context of the novel. In Igbo culture this would not happen. The youth would defer to their elders. It is another symptom of the poisonous effect of colonialism. However, Obi detects no bitterness in this quarrel.

Obi is called upon to make a speech. Tactfully he makes allusions to both Christian and traditional wisdom. Furthermore, he speaks in both Igbo and English, which pleases the audience: ‘They liked good Ibo, but they also admired good English’.

Page 65

Obi requests a fourth month respite before repaying the UPU loan. Although there are some dissenters, the President agrees to this. However, he gives Obi a veiled warning: ‘You know book. But book stands by itself and experience stands by itself’. Another warning: ‘Lagos is a bad place for a young man. If you follow its sweetness you will perish’. In short, the President wonders if giving him the four month respite is doing Obi a favour. He knows what a comparatively huge salary Obi will be earning in his government job, implying that he shouldn’t really need another four months before repaying his loan. Obi knows that the President is speaking the truth. Achebe gives paragraph status to his two reactions: ‘Obi’s heart began to pound heavily’; ‘A big lump caught in Obi’s throat’. The President says they cannot afford for their people to go wrong, to chase women and get drunk. ‘We are pioneers,’ he says, ‘building up our families and our town’. The word ‘pioneers’ echoes ironically with the way Obi uses it on page 60. Then, in Obi’s eyes, the President goes too far. He brings up the subject of Clara – ‘a girl of doubtful ancestry’. Obi believes, correctly, that Joseph has betrayed him.

Page 66

Obi is furious. Words fail him. He threatens to take the President to court. He won’t allow the latter to continue speaking. He undertakes to start repaying the debt immediately. He storms out of the meeting, orders Joseph out of the car, and heads for Clara’s lodging. He seems to be alienating himself from more and more people.

John Eppel’s Bio

Born in South Africa in 1947, John Eppel was raised in Zimbabwe, where he still lives.  His first novel, D G G Berry’s The Great North Road, won the M-Net prize and was listed in the Weekly Mail & Guardian as one of the best 20 South African books in English published between 1948 and 1994. 

His second novel, Hatchings, was shortlisted for the M-Net prize and was chosen for the series in the Times Literary Supplement of the most significant books to have come out of Africa.   His other novels are The Giraffe Man, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, The Holy Innocents, Absent: The English Teacher, Traffickings, and The Boy Who Loved Camping.

His poetry collections include Spoils of War, which won the Ingrid Jonker prize, Sonata for Matabeleland, Selected Poems: 1965 – 1995, Songs My Country Taught Me, O Suburbia, Landlocked, a winner of the international Poetry Business prize, judged by Billy Collins, and Pressed Flowers, Poems of Resistance, and recently, Not the Whispering Wild.    Furthermore he has collaborated with Philani Amadeus Nyoni  in a collection called Hewn From Rock, and with Togara Muzanenhamo in a collection called Textures, which won the 2016 NOMA award for ‘Outstanding Fiction Work’.

He has published three collections of poetry and short stories: The Caruso of Colleen Bawn, White Man Crawling, and, in collaboration with the late Julius Chingono, Together (nominated for the Pushcart prize). Eppel’s short stories and poems have appeared in many anthologies, journals and websites, including six poems in the Penguin Anthology of South African Poetry.  His poem, ‘Vendor and Child’ was chosen by New Internationalist for their collection, Fire in the Soul, the best 100 human rights poems from across the world over the last 100 years. 

His poem, ‘Jasmine’ was chosen as ‘Poem of the Week’ in the British Guardian Newspaper. In 2019 he was invited to participate in the African Writers’ Festival in Berlin. Eppel, now retired, has taught English language and literature in secondary schools for 50 years.

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