Set 10, 2002

Arts of Darkness

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people, clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

-T.S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi"

I read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to gain a better reading of Chinua Achebe's "No Longer At Ease". Achebe is an excellent Nigerian representative of African postcolonial literature. He was born in 1930, six years after Conrad's death. Conrad had Polish roots but he took to a seafaring life rising to the post of Master Mariner at the British Merchant Navy.

Achebe initially engaged Conrad's novel with the acclaimed "Things Fall Apart". Here, Achebe drew fiction around the exposition of African culture that existed and flourished in its own manner, belying Conrad's representation of brutes bereft of 'the light of civilization'. However, I chose "No Longer At Ease" as intertext because of it's comparable and, in a sense, parallel movement.

Conrad based his novel on his own troubling experiences in the Congo. I found his language initially difficult. Marlow, his narrator, used a hybrid of the British 'eloquent writer' variant of the time (replete those magnificent adjectives) and sailor-talk. If by any chance the contemporary reader gets used to it, it's an enjoyable read.

Conrad chronicled a sailor's journey into the depths of the Congo in search of Mr. Kurtz, a product of genteel education and paragon of European civilization. Kurtz set a high benchmark of ivory trade in the region. Superiors and equals either praised or envied him for his mysterious yet productive methods among the dark 'brutes' in his remote station. Kurtz had not reported for months and management got news of his illness.

Marlow would later unravel a 'disease' beyond physical ailment. It grew from the perceived moral burden of a white man to bring the light of reason and culture to a savage land. It was worsened by the chosen method of Kurtz. To become, unto them, a god.

Achebe, on the other end of the time line, shows Nigeria on the verge of independence from English administration. Obi Okonkwo is the grandson of the willful Okonkwo, patriarch in "Things Fall Apart". Obi makes his way back from studies in England to take an administrative post in a scholarship office.

The story is drawn along two major lines. Fresh from the university, Obi seeks to bring the light of his idealism to the dark byways of the corrupt bureaucracy. Obi struggles to marry Clara (an osu or untouchable) despite warnings from his family and community.

Akin to Kurtz, the pride of the rational man swells in his Europe-cultivated mind. He wins various skirmishes in both love and finances, rejecting bribes and keeping his 'intended' close despite mounting criticism.

Achebe succeeds in social realism, his language bringing into play elements from Ibo and Nigerian English unified by his somewhat terse narrative style. The language is unintimidating and much of the foreign elements are used in sentences and paragraphs where the reader can easily infer meaning from context.

Achebe brings the Okonkwo line to crisis at the verge of the 'incipient dawn' of independence, at the very point that is supposed to be hopeful. Obi is heir to the best of both worlds. His diasporic but tightly-knit community taxed themselves mercilessly to send its most promising son to Europe, the seat of power. He came back to occupy his high niche and pay his debt.

But through deft storytelling, Achebe shows how Obi Okonkwo grows doubly alienated from the modern and the traditional. Like Kurtz but in his own manner, he forsakes the love of his 'Intended' and sheds the reputation and dignity woven around him. He is engulfed in the black grease of the bureaucracy.

Like Kurtz, he succumbs to the worst of both worlds. They both identified their respective darkness with the light of their vision. Their fate is to have called home the very darkness they despised.

I will take, from the yarn spun by Conrad's Marlow, their common epilogue. We find them in an 'exalted and incredible degradation':

There was nothing either above or below him. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.