Review: No Longer At Ease
Obi Okonkwo has the world at his feet. Recently returned from successful study in England. He is feted by his people, his new employers consider him a ‘responsible’ young African. But - in a period of transition from colonialism to independence - why has he ended up in court? Does he deserve the racist judgment and negative attitudes of the colonial overlords?
These are the questions posed by Chinua Achebe in his second 1960 published novel, which dramatises Obi’s downfall and his emotional dilemmas over his people, their culture and traditions.
The debilitating minutiae of colonialist society combined with the influence of traditional culture causes one ambitious man to question his culture and adopt the ways of the colonialists - and still end up defeated.
There are several strands to Achebe’s novel which continues the story of the Okonkwo family introduced in the classic Things Fall Apart. Colonialism in its death throes and European attitudes towards Africans. African ‘corruption’; the clash between colonialism and African independence; the transition between traditional African customs [changing] and English colonial protocols.
The novel has an underlying theme - African propensity to corruption – which is really an exploration of perpetuation of traditional values of communalism and support for ones clan, community and people vulgarised by the edifice of British colonialism and strengthened by racist and chauvinist attitudes.
All of these and more get surveyed in this dramatically told story which mixes the comedic with the tragic. Even the use of ‘broken/pidgin’ English is good – seems authentically recreated. It also reflects the dichotomy between African and British culture, and conflicts between the traditional and the modern
The main narrator is Obi – his perspective, is explored, his life and motivations, his impressions. He is erudite, well learned, intellectual, well-read, an anti-colonial; he opposes traditional Africans who he believes represent backwardness which contrast with his metropolitan-centre learned standards.
His unfolding tragedy is a clear metaphor for the transition between traditional Africa and the post colonial period and the battle over contending traditions - one dominant and racist, the other reacting to inequality and chauvinism, but not yet willing to accept the necessity of renovation.
Through a series of misadventures Obi’s principles, apparent façade of modernity and ambivalence towards his traditional culture and customs his attempts to emulate European customs to demonstrate his ‘advance’ come to nothing. His predictable downfall is a parable of one mans descent from prestige, honour and ambition to courthouse and jail.
With more of a traditional plot than that of Things Fall Apart each depressing and humiliating misadventure is sympathetically portrayed with carefully drawn and intricate scenes which develop the story, and contrast cosmopolitan and urban Lagos with traditional Umuofia.
Pacy scenes and well observed tragi-comic incidents provide a touching and prophetic tale of Africa’s plight – symbolised by the pressures and difficulties faced by someone who appears to embody an African success story – chosen for such by his own people, and groomed to succeed by the colonial administrators. The journey to Europe has been one of utter disaster; has caused more trouble than success.
Although the times have changed the legacy of colonialism hasn’t gone away. This novel is an articulate expression of the necessity of addressing still unsolved challenges.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's art editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The African Trilogy - No Longer at Ease  including Things Fall Apart  No Longer at Ease 
1984 – Picador [Macmillan]
ISBN - 0-330-30331-7
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