Tag Archives: William Butler Yeats

John Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and Anglo-Irish Nostalgia

Every time I read a John Banville novel, I wish that it were the first time that I was reading a John Banville novel because, taken in a vacuum, each one is a work of great invention. Banville has a capacity to infuse into his high narratives of failed epistemology features of non-high literature (an impulse that Banville now channels into his Benjamin Black persona), and his post-Nabokovian reveries are surely among the most compelling of their kind but, having read about four them, a pattern begins to stand out and here we come to the less appealing aspects of his writing.

  • The perpetually waning, ethereal, always-described-relative-to-their-physical-features female ‘characters.’
  • The aging, reprehensibly lecherous but aesthetically-atuned middle-aged or old men at each of the novel’s centres.
  • The deconstruction of the novel’s artifice every page or so.
  • Four or five points at which it is suggested that the plot in its entirety is contrived.
  • The quiet twist in the text’s last four or five pages.

I could go on, and say a lot of other things that annoy me but the London Review of Books pretty well covered it in its review of his most recent novel The Blue Guitar. So I’ll just say that The Infinities featuring an omniscient God-narrator rather rather than a mortal one, allowed the usual course of his writings to be unsettled and re-vitalised in a way. Still a shame about Helen Godley, as sketchily characterised as she is attractive. Similarly, Banville remains a good sentencer, with a firm grasp on underplayed humour and The Book of Evidence had more than the average amount of good phrases and the momentary diversions of his baroque prose style is generally enough to get me through one of his books.

However, there was more than just this to keep my interest throughout The Book of Evidence, and that was the main character’s apparent nostalgia for the departed world of Georgian Dublin, through the prism of the Anglo-Irish ruling class. Freddie Montgomery is of upper-middle class Catholic stock, though his household, when he returns to Ireland, seems to have Gone Down, as big houses in Irish books will do. Montgomery remembers his father’s attitude to modern Irish history in the following terms: ‘the world, the only worthwhile world, had ended with the last viceroy’s departure from these shores. After that it was all just a wrangle among peasants.’ He even calls Dún Laoghaire Kingstown. This nostalgic treatment of seventeenth-century Ireland is familiar within Irish literature, as one can see from the works of W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bowen. One can perhaps just about glimpse the emergent rhythms of Banville’s prose style in the following quote from Bowen’s Court:

‘The great bold rooms, the high doors imposed an order on life. Sun blazed in at the windows, fires roared in the grates. There was a sweet, fresh-paned smell from the floors. Life still kept a touch of colonial vigour; at the same time, because of the glory of everything, it was bound up in the quality of a dream.’

Some of Banville’s thematic preoccupations seem to be gestured towards here also, the faint oscillation of unreality beneath appearance, the intensity of things just in their raw being-ness and the wealth on the backs of colonial subjects without the compromising fact of their existence relates to Banville’s capacity to keep his distance from the interiority of others, and perhaps from the interiority of protagonists themselves. We see also an attraction to surface and a repudiation of tacky actualness.

Roy Foster sees the eighteenth-century pursuit of a high-style in all things from buildings, public works and overwrought, intricate furbelows in their neo-classical architecture as a try-hard pathology in response to their self-perception, a recognition of their colonial status with the attempt to construct a better capital with better public buildings than the English. Foster writes that many contemporary visitors to Dublin expected a provincial town and were confronted with a totally inappropriate level of architectural and civic grandeur. One, in a mode that is not entirely un-Banvillean mode writes that visiting Dublin was like being ‘at table with a man who serves me Burgundy, but whose attendant is a bailiff disguised in livery.’ This pretentiousness emerges from Georgian Dublin’s precarious sense of itself and relates meaningfully to Banville’s high style, as a compensation for the insufficiency of one’s identity. Montgomery’s dreams, his notions, his self are even more dream like, than they at first seem, as they are constructed on a misinterpretation of history.

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’ and the Altitudinous Authenticity of the Gael

Flann O’Brien’s satirical, picaresque novel The Poor Mouth was written in Irish and a decent English translation was a long time in the making. O’Brien was deeply informed on the subject of Irish literature; his M.A. Thesis was entitled Nature Poetry in Irish. An Béal Bocht, to give it its original title, took its inspiration from the semi-fictionalised autobiographical memoir foisted on Irish schoolchildren, authored by Peig Sayers, or Tomás Ó Criomhthain. As a lifelong lover of the language, aswell as a not unskilled prose stylist in his own right, O’Brien seems uncannily capable of emulating the same understatedly ariose, yet monotonous and repetitive qualities that comprises the diction of these pieces. Capturing the very particularity of the pastiche that O’Brien was conveying with a straight face as far as the content itself goes, must have been a staggering task for a would-be translator. I’m glad it exists.

 
O’Brien’s satire takes particular aim at the essentialist notions of those who would hold the native Irish speakers up as being ‘the most Irish,’ of deserving beatification in the Irish Free State for their lack of engagement with the fiendish Saxons. Such notions are of course ahistorical; O’Brien names his protagonist Bonaparte O’Coonassa, reaching back to the failed revolution of the late eighteenth century in Ireland, and the assistance received from the French against the English. For this Napoleon was rewarded with canonical status in manifold artifacts from the Irish folk tradition, along the lines of enemy of my enemy is &c. rationale. If you’re into Irish folk/want to hear more along these lines here’s a link to an archived episode of The Rolling Wave from RTÉ Lyric FM on the subject.

The worst offenders against O’Brien’s sensibilities are the antiquarian, self-identified Gaeilgeoir academics who invade O’Coonassa’s region of Corca Dhorcha. In these scenes we see O’Brien re-treading the ethnographic trips of John Millington Synge and his ilk who beheld the inhabitants of the West of Ireland, in their prodigious poverty, a more meaningful or authentic Irishness, allowing the Irish Literary Imagination and those responsible for it to culturally agitate for self-determination, while retaining their disregard for the urban poor.

In these sequences, there remains the familiar trope of the native being completely misunderstood by the credulous would-be ethnographer, who, when seeking to record one of the many stories the islanders are known to have in their repertoires, instead becomes an internationally renowned and decorated scholar for recording the inchoate grunts of a pig dressed in a suit, dressed as such by the natives to game the government into providing them with cash for the welfare of their kids.

O’Brien is unsparing too in his treatment of the Gaelic, who he, in one of his correspondences, derided as being in many cases, a ‘moronic’ people. One should note that O’Brien modulates the ethnography trope slightly in that the subjects of the study are not getting one over on the interloper, but merely sit mute in darkness, unable to summon up a narrative for the benefit of the scholar. The pig merely takes the initiative. The backward indigence and fatalism of the natives comes in for O’Brien’s scorn, in one particular sequence in which Sitric O’Sanassa seems to be an object of some envy among his neighbours for the extremity of his starvation and poverty, makes a memorable request of his onlookers, which confirms the multi-directionality of O’Brien’s satire:

 
“would ye carry me to the seaside and throw me into the sea? There’s not the weight of a rabbit in me and ‘twould be small deed for well-fed sound men to throw me over a cliff.”

Anne Enright Sesh Part 3: The Green Road

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

enright

There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and thereby The Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also, Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue in The Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.

Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ and William Butler Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’

When I was reading Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, I was interested in figuring out what the relationship the title has to William Butler Yeats’ frequently quoted poem Second Coming. In case you are not a product of the Irish education system, the poem reads as follows:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What is interesting about the first three words of the third line of this text being chosen to title this book is that Yeats is not a poet of ‘things.’ Yeats, I would say, is known for his absolute lack of interest in mere ‘things,’ a fact attested to by the result of his meeting with members of Fine Gael involved in establishing the Blueshirts, an Irish fascist movement. Diarmaid Ferriter describes the meeting between the politicians and the poet as concluding ‘in mutual bafflement.’ Yeats later wrote that the Blueshirts attributed their use of the colour blue to him, as he had always hated the colour green. Yeats writes that he cannot recall this being the case, but accepts their version of events in the main.

Even when Yeats talks about ‘things,’ he is talking about abstractions. ‘Things’ in this context probably means a monument of unaging intellect, a ‘thing’ more in line with the kind of ‘thing’ that Yeats is invested in. (If these monuments of unaging intellect which ‘all’ neglect, as he has written elsewhere, one wonders how much in the way of further disrepair these monuments have to fall into.) Are ‘things’ falling apart in Things Fall Apart?

Quite the opposite. The ‘things’ in Things Fall Apart retain their solidity. The gourds made of goatskin, the kola cubes and the objects which populate the domestic sphere of the novel remain steadfast in their function as ritual objects. What is constantly under threat of dissemblance in Things Fall Apart are identities, both individual and collective.

The first part of the novel depicts a Nigerian village in a pre-colonial state, a time in which religious observances are pagan. The villagers depend on oracles, high priests and a generally decentralised order of ecclesiastics. Achebe is writing against Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which represented this part of the African continent as in opposition to a more enlightened West, a barbaric un-civilisation. Achebe goes into great detail about how complex and multi-faceted Nigerian society is at this time. In fact, to refer to ‘Nigerian society’ is itself misleading, we do not find out where the novel is set until a colonial administrator informs us in the last line. The daily lives of each villager are socially over-determined by a seemingly endless multiplicity of codes and signs. A writer such as Conrad may read this as indicative of this countries’ essential simplicity, but Achebe demonstrates that the inner lives of the villagers are far from neat and often exist in opposition to these minefields of societal expectation.

When Okonkwo is exiled from his village for accidentally slaying a young boy, the village bands together to carry out his banishment. They assume a collective identity in doing so and act collectively without malice. This is simply the thing that must be done. However, Okonkwo’s closest friend, Obierika, who participates in the purging of Okonkwo’s land, dwells on the contingencies of Okonkwo’s fate in solitude afterwards: “When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities.”

This is part of the reason why the ending is so distressing. Achebe writes in a mode that is intimate and at a remove. We understand these characters’ motivations, the richness of their inner lives, but, as in the quotation above, Obierika’s thought processes are obliquely rendered as ‘greater complexities,’ and there is frequent repetition of who a character is relative to another, as if the focaliser of the narrative action is uncertain whether the reader has been paying attention or not. As such, we know that Okonkwo is wilful, violent, sometimes cruel and intensely driven  and yet his final action before the seismic shift that the final chapter enacts is described: “He wiped his matchet on the sand and walked away.”

When we next see him, it is through the eyes of a faintly annoyed colonial administrator, estranged from everything in the novel that has come before. The man inwardly complains that the Nigerians are frequently superfluously expressive, itself a repudiation of the entire novel and its dependence on excess, the mode of communication integral to the nature of literature. He also considers writing his own book, one with the depressing beaureaucratic title of The Pacification of the Primative Tribes of the Lower Niger. In this book, the kind of book that the administrator plans to write, Okonkwo would not merit an entire chapter, perhaps merely ‘a reasonable paragraph,’ and this, rather than Things Fall Apart, is what will represent Okonkwo for posterity.