Friday, May 17, 2013

Reading group: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Ann suggested this 1958 novel because her interest had been aroused by Chinua Achebe's recent death, and she remembered that it had once been suggested previously but, in our system of voting between two suggested books, had been passed over for another.

The book charts the destruction of a traditional native West African community via the tale of Okonkwo, a great wrestler and warrior, who, through a combination of circumstance and his own proud, hot-headed and uncompromising personality, moves towards tragedy.

Ann said that she was very aware of the status of this book in postcolonial studies, and its political importance in depicting from the inside a society destroyed by Christian missionaries and colonial government. She said she had certainly found the portrayal of the pre-colonisation community interesting, and there was unanimous agreement from the rest of the group. However, Ann said she wasn't so sure about it as a novel. For the first three-quarters of the book that appeared to be all it was, a simple depiction of the society and the history of Onkonkwo's life, and it's only towards the end that it takes on more novelistic form. John and I agreed with this: it's not actually clear for a long time that Onkonkwo is moving towards tragedy, so there's no sense of forward motion apart from the episodic events of a life in progression. There's also a lot of repetition - not only are there recurring descriptions of the rituals of daily living, but events already related are referred to again as if they had not been so - although Ann wondered if that was a deliberate borrowing from traditional oral story-telling. She said that it was only when she got to the very end that she understood the true project of the book. It ends with the colonial District Commissioner considering including a chapter about Onkonkwo in the book he is intending to write, or:
Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
It is at this point that it becomes clear that the book is specifically an answer to such colonial versions, and a redress of the editing of reality implied in that 'cutting out of details' and the unreasonable reduction to a so-called 'reasonable' paragraph. In political terms, this does justify the book's prolonged, sometimes anthropological but nevertheless intimate anatomisation of the life of Onkonkwo's clan. As Jenny pointed out, any society seems strange if viewed from the outside in anthropological terms (she referred to experiments that have subjected our own society to this treatment with telling results), and she thought that this was an implication of the book. Trevor pointed out that, although there was warring between the tribes, the number of people killed each time was a handful, as opposed to the masses killed by the colonising forces, making an irony of that 'Pacification'. This point is graphically  illustrated in the novel by the wholesale colonial massacre of a village in revenge for the villagers' killing, out of fear, of a lone white man, an apparition they had never before encountered, arriving on a frightening 'mechanical horse' (a bicycle). Onkonkwo is indeed particularly warlike, which has made him a hero in his clan, but he is untypical, and, crucially to the plot, village elders counsel him to greater restraint. John pointed out the irony at the end of the novel whereby the District Commissioner is intrigued by the custom which prevents members of the tribe cutting down a man who has hanged himself, yet has his own reasons for not doing so, rooted in just as much of a constructed convention: it would be 'undignified' and would 'give the natives a poor opinion of him'. Trevor would also later note that up to the point in the novel at which the missionaries arrive, the events could have taken place at any time in the preceding hundreds of years. The sense of stasis in the first three-quarters of the novel can thus be seen as a formal reflection of that historical fact, the long prior and undisturbed existence of the society before colonisation. Ann also noted that, as a formal illustration of colonisation, at the end of the novel the point of view and language change to that of the District Commissioner.

People noted here that, although clearly meant as a redress, the book is subtle in its assessment of both indigenous and missionary societies, making clear that it is the flaws or vulnerabilities in the culture of the indigenous tribes (most clearly personified in Onkonkwo) that caused certain of its members - the outcasts, those bereaved by traditional decree - to be open to the Christian message of the missionaries, with a consequent 'falling apart' of their society. And the dilution of the culture is presented as ambiguous: the elders and the first missionaries talk amicably to each other, teaching each other about their respective religions. By contrast, as John said, unlike them and unlike Onkonkwo's father whom he despises, Onkonkwo is no talker:
He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists
and it is this particular flaw of Onkonkwo's that leads most directly to his own downfall.

Ann pointed out that in fact, Achebe - as the grandson of a man of Onkonkwo's generation, and the son of a man who (like Onkonwo's own son Nwoye) had been converted by the missionaries - had been brought up in the Western tradition of the narrative arc, and she said she had read commentaries comparing this book to Greek tragedy. Once you get to the end of the novel it is indeed clear that, like a Greek tragedy, it  pivots on the fatal flaw of one man (Onkonkwo), which leads him to defy the gods. However, the incidents which lead to his tragedy, and to the preceding defection of his son to the missionaries, are less pointed than is usual in the traditional Western narrative arc, with consequently less indication (before the end) that they are indeed steps towards tragedy.

As a result, Ann said, if she hadn't been reading the book for the book group, she probably wouldn't have carried on reading, and I thought that if I hadn't known the political importance of the book, I probably wouldn't have, either. However, Jenny and Trevor said that they liked the book unreservedly, and although Jenny hadn't even registered the (in Western narrative terms) crucial point that Onkonkwo defies the god, because of the political importance of the book's revelations she thought it very important indeed. Later, Mark, who hadn't made the meeting, emailed to say that he had loved the book, and took it for granted that our discussion had been entirely consensual.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, May 06, 2013

Reading group: Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Trevor suggested this book, the satirical depiction of life in Hungary towards the end of the war and under Soviet rule up to the 1956 revolution, seen through the exploits of the randy, skiving, joking and scamming members of a basketball team. Its title is a reference to the Hungarian phrase for a dire situation, 'Under a frog's arse down a coal mine'.

He had chosen it because he had read it when it was first published in 1992 and loved it. What he particularly liked was the language. Although the book was written in English, and although Tibor Fischer (the son of Hungarian parents) was indeed born and brought up in England, there was a certain feel of translation about it in the sometimes comical use of obscure and formal Latinate words alongside the demotic. One chapter begins formally, in reference to the anything but formal basketball team:  They estivated [ie, spent the summer] outside Tatabanya. Other group members joined in exclaiming about this, some saying they'd had to look up some of the words in the dictionary, others saying they couldn't be bothered. Most people in the group felt that the book was most likely based on the experiences of Fischer's own father as told to him (indeed the central character, through whose eyes most of the events are seen, is called Gyuri Fischer), and that therefore the book is echoing Fischer's father's voice. What Trevor liked about the effect, I think, was that it lent the book an air of the characters being foreigners in their own country under Soviet rule, as well as straitened yet simultaneously inventive and intellectual in their articulation of their situation - which I too very much liked. However, having enthused about the book for five minutes, Trevor then said that he hadn't actually liked the book quite so much this time round, although he wasn't sure why, perhaps because when the book was first published its subject was more current than it is now.

It was very quickly clear though that the book was generally popular in the group for its satire and its depiction of humour as the only means of survival under a repressive regime. The only person not to have liked it at all was John, who found the tone too flippant and couldn't as a consequence read beyond 50 pages. Others were staggered by this, but I said that I too had had moments of not being sure that the humour always hit the right note. Last year John and I were conducted around the former Stasi prison in Berlin by a previous inmate who was intensely and fiercely passionate about the repressive regime he'd lived under, and although he often used irony - the classic tool of the oppressed - it was a grim and savage humour, in comparison with which the tone of this book did indeed seem potentially flippant. It's possible of course that differing national characteristics may lead to different ways of dealing emotionally with similar situations (and a native Hungarian has told me that this is her very favourite book). However, my feeling while reading was that the lightness of the humour was the effect of the author having been cushioned from experiencing first-hand the political circumstances depicted, and that thus it did not always truly portray the atmosphere and mood.

There was general strong disagreement with this. Most people felt entirely convinced by the tone and loved the humour. Mark said he laughed out loud, and Doug said he did too. I was going to ask Mark how he could laugh out loud at the following scene taking place in 1944 when the Russians take over the city from the Germans and Russian soldiers invade the Fischers' house:
Depending on how drunk they were, they either removed the women to some separate room or they did it on the spot. They were fair. They didn't just rape the young and attractive women but distributed the violations equally. It was a day when Gyuri was glad he didn't have a vagina.
Before I could mention it, Mark referred to the very same scene as the only one he could imagine being wrong in tone, but he didn't actually think it was. I said I thought it was. I think that out of context it's possible to read most of the passage as savage irony, but in the context of the tone of the whole book, it didn't seem to me so; in fact it seemed more of a narrative ironic posturing. In any case, that final sentence does seem to descend into flippancy, especially as one of the raped women is a young girl with whom the fourteen-year-old Gyuri is supposed to be in love. Mark said, But it's all flippant (which he didn't see as a fault but as a satirical mode). I didn't have an answer to that at the time, but thought later that that was precisely the trouble: incidents such as the one above are treated no differently from the schoolroom shenanigans when Gyuri and his schoolmates play up the unwitting chemistry teacher. However, when I said this to John, even he wasn't sure that that was a fault: isn't the point, he said, that all repressive systems - from repressive schools up to dictatorships - share similar characteristics? I said, But isn't there a difference of degree (requiring differences in degree or tone of humour)?, but John said he wasn't sure: once again, couldn't that be the point, that they're not that different, that the one is often the seed of the other? This does seem a persuasive argument, but I'm still not convinced.

In fact, I hadn't finished reading the book by the time of the meeting. I commented that another thing I found a little unsatisfying was the fact that it seemed to be simply a series of episodes, rather than a purposeful narrative arc. Everyone agreed that this was so, and Trevor now said that was perhaps one reason he liked the book less this time, but it wasn't a problem for those others who relished the humour. The others told me that the book does take more shape, and very much changes tone, towards the end (with which, having now read the whole, I agree).

Mark said, But didn't we find it laugh-out-loud funny? still amazed that anyone couldn't. Clare and I said, No, we found it wry and at most it made us inwardly smile. Mark said, But what about the camel jokes (which one of the characters makes)? John and I said that no, we didn't find them funny (John had read that far). What is funny, and more interesting, as Ann pointed out, is that it is the priest who makes these jokes, some of them obscene (as psychological strategy for surviving a repressive regime).

As I hadn't then read the ending, I may be mistaken about others' comments on it, but I think Clare asked, almost as an afterthought, if there was a suggestion that one of the characters - a surprising one - turned out to be an informer. Some people nodded, but tentatively, seeming unsure, and it didn't seem to have occurred to others. I went away and read it with this in mind, and found that this was indeed so, and that it is in fact not only planted but we are possibly meant to assume, or at least suspect, it of this particular character from  early on, and that this is one of the major jokes of the book - which in turn makes it less episodic and more holistic than we had all thought. But I and John, at least, had forgotten that the book begins with the very question: who on the basketball team is an informer? and an assumption that there is one. Something had primed all of us I think not to absorb its significance, and I would say that that is possibly too much levity of tone.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here