Coming into what I believe is my last guest appearance on Brecht's Books go Boom! series, I decided to push the envelope, this time combining a pair of responses I'd been meaning to write forever on two important African writers, to create a single intertwined book review in order to provide a better perspective to new readers of African literature.
Colonization and its aftermath play major roles in the modern history of Africa and their textual representation supplies an excellent resource for studying the processes at hand that impacted economies as well as social and personal histories across an entire continent. Contrasting the fictional work A Man of the People by the late Chinua Achebe with Frantz Fanon’s nonfiction dialectic The Wretched of the Earth allows for a broader exploration of the techniques of fiction and for the display of differing methods of discourse on the colonial experience and its consequences. These two works propagate—through different methods—a similar theme: that violence inflicted on the psyche is internalized and begets further violence as a manner of curing the damage.
Chinua Achebe’s place as one of Nigeria’s premier authors and one of the most internationally recognized and read African authors, originated with his seminal work about pre-colonial Nigeria, Things Fall Apart. A Man of the People was published later, in 1967, and in the heated political environment of Nigeria at the time, its allusions were taken as fact and Achebe was accused of being an Igbo sympathizer. However A Man of the People contains no names for its country, ethnic groups, and the like, and actually attempts to downplay these issues in a way that makes for easier comparison with Fanon’s communism inspired socio-economic categorization, and for understanding the interplay of modern African intellectualism with one of its major pieces of literature.
In A Man of the People the protagonist and narrator Odili is first sucked into the system of patronage and personality politics that characterizes the newly independent fictional nation, before radically turning away from it due to a personal slight. The story revolves primarily around the back and forth, shifting relations between Odili, a young college graduate and teacher, and Chief Nanga, his former teacher who has manipulated populist vitriol to rise through the ranks of government and become the Minister of Culture.
Two events bifurcate the novel and serve as the hinges that the plot turns on. The first is the Coffee Crisis, an economic crisis originating from a collapse in the price of coffee, the cash crop that the underdeveloped fictional African country’s economy was based on. In a choice of narrative structure, this crisis actually happens before the novel actually begins, and is related by flashback, in a scene that highlights several of the central political themes of the novel. Odili quotes the speech of the country’s Prime Minister, given in front of its Parliament as a response to the economic plan of his own cabinet, “Never again must we entrust our destiny and the destiny of Africa to the hybrid class of Western-educated and snobbish intellectuals who will not hesitate to sell their mothers for a mess of pottage” (Achebe, pg 6). The vicious, self-serving scene that arises in this related scene, is the initial event that not only sets the political course of the novel in motion, but first destroys Odili’s faith in the essential goodness of the liberal democracy system and its service to good governance.
The second event is spurred by Chief Nanga’s having sex with Odili’s girlfriend Elsie, whereupon Odili storms out of Nanga’s house, suitcase in hand, and shortly afterwards begins preparing to both run against him and to steal his planned second wife, the young college student Edna. This incident has significance in different readings, but in the context of politics and decolonization, Odili’s reaction highlights a literary aporia—a contradiction in his very personality that casts doubt on his own, subjective, self-provided reasoning.
For in a sense, Odili has internalized aspects of the same political culture. His actions stem more from his stubborn pride, than from a truly coherent ideology. Two early passages in the novel exemplify this. Odili opens up the novel’s second chapter with a retroactive, defensive passage, where he says “So when I told the Minister that I had applied for a scholarship […] it did not even cross my mind to enlist his help. […] I had had scholarships to both the secondary school and to the University without any godfather’s help, but purely on my own merit” (Achebe, pg 17). Odili lacks even a civic, humanistic identity with the common people and their plight, describing them, rather, on the very second page of the novel with such adjectives as “ignorant” and “contemptible”—an attitude reminiscent of one of Fanon’s central hypothesis's from The Wretched of the Earth: “The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor” (Fanon, pg 16).
Segueing over to Frantz Fanon, Fanon was a Martinique-born psychiatrist educated in France, who received an appointment in an Algerian hospital in 1953, just prior to the outbreak of the Algerian war, and in 1954 he joined the revolutionary Front Libération Nationale party. These experiences were what he would later use as the basis for his novel The Wretched of the Earth, a by turns polemic and matter of fact book, made up of two principle parts. The first section of the nonfiction discourse focuses on the philosophical argument for violence and the justification of violence in the face of colonialism, exemplified by Fanon’s stark statement: “[…] the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in a famous tract stated that colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat […] colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon, pg 23).
Fanon’s second section is a selection of detached, clinical case studies from his time in Algeria that deal with the aftermath of violence from the war with France, recording the effects of torture and murder on individuals ranging from a police officer of the French government who has taken to beating his wife and children senseless at the slightest provocation because of the constant, ten hour shifts of torture he has to do at work, and a pair of Algerian children who murdered their French-descended friend in retribution for the violence and fear inflicted on the Algerians by the French on the national stage. The notes from the Algerian children carry an even heavier weight for the reader, as one considers how young they are, and yet they’ve still internalized this reaction, with the second, older child noting, according to Fanon, “Has there ever been a European arrested and imprisoned for the murder of an Algerian? I replied that in fact I had never seen any Europeans in prison” (Fanon, pg 200).
The differences between the texts of Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe are, superficially, issues of setting, genre, and topic, though the two works complement each other in a subtle way, and the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o even said, in his book of criticism, Decolonizing the Mind, that it is necessary to read Fanon, otherwise it is "impossible to understand what informs African writing." Therefore the real distinction is that of genre; The Wretched of the Earth is a subtle philosophical tractate blended with a political polemic that doesn’t so much prescribe violence as the only successful and desirable reaction to colonization as it sets itself against purely nonviolent philosophies like Gandhi’s Satyagraha, as Fanon posits that violence is a necessary national catharsis required to remake the nation after colonialism. Achebe’s A Man of the People, on the other hand, is a fictional work that attempts to show the more unsavory aspects and challenges facing African democracy.
The different genres lend themselves to very different expressions. The focalization—that is, the manner in which the text presents information and opinion in the form of events, statements, ideas, and data—is much more diffuse and indirect in Achebe’s work of fiction than in Fanon’s nonfiction work. The narrative structures employed are also directed towards alternate aims in the two—where Fanon tries to construct a grand argument and theory about the interaction of violence, Achebe is writing a plot and attempting to engage readers with a story, not just his ideas, something that leads to a more organic flow with varying perception of time and event as Achebe attempts to create something that is more the sum of its parts (the truest definition of a novel). Thus Achebe must present his vision in transmuted form, and with an eye ever towards mimicking reality in a way that Fanon’s work need not concern itself; what is extraneous in nonfiction is vital in fiction. And whereas Fanon’s aporia is external (the contradictory case studies he presents that often weigh against his theories on violence), Achebe’s aporia is internalized within the characters themselves.
The Wretched of the Earth and A Man of the People, when read together, suggest a narrative of cyclical events; of cause and effect; action in reaction in an almost karmic sense. Because Fanon’s study and opinion is that violent enterprises impact the psyche of the one whom the violence is inflicted on, and that psyche reacts in a violent manner in order to undo, imperfectly, that initial damage. Friedrich Nietzsche alluded to the same dilemma when he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil that “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.” By invoking the rhetoric of threats and violence against political enemies during the Coffee Crisis, the Prime Minister destroys the unity forged by solidarity against British colonialism and introduces, like Pandora opening her box, a divisive new politics of bitter resentment. The Prime Minister’s actions pave the way for the private gangs of thugs hired by his dominant POP party, which later unleash that violence on the party’s political opponents, including Odili whose head is bashed by the mob of paid supporters, leaving him incapacitated in hospital when the filing deadline passes.
These same private armies later revolt when the POP members, such as Chief Nanga, attempt to disband them due to their prohibitive cost. The former sycophants riot, and go looting and stealing. This is in turn legitimizes the action of the military in using violent methods to end the instability and take matters into its own hand in correcting the poor leadership, by instigating a coup that left POP members such as the Prime Minister and Chief Nanga in prison and banned all political parties and elections in favor of the military’s authoritarian oligarchic governance. The event follows the same pattern that Frantz Fanon highlights in The Wretched of the Earth and it has immediate roots in the colonial legacy of Africa, because this failed and corrupt political culture is a reaction of mimicry to the methods exploited by the metropolitan European powers in governing Africa. This political culture is an abused child growing up to be an abusive parent themselves.
The cautionary tale derived from the theme of both works, that of cyclical violence forever trapped in a self-perpetuating “Catch-22” cycle, is quite stark: opening up Pandora’s box—to reuse that metaphor once more—has longer reaching, multigenerational implications. Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe are two enormously important authors who used different formats and settings to explore these implications and the challenges the complicated network of damages held for the future of former colonies. And what’s more these issues, intimately tied with decolonization and still at play in modern Africa and elsewhere, carry no easy solutions—after all, once he was broken, all of the king’s men could not put Humpty dumpty back together again.
P.S. While DKos does have reader gauges, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership, and always get an idea of what my readership looks like; how familiar they are with my topic; how I may have influenced them, etc. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall, that is why every diary I've ever written contains a poll.