Review: A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe
Title: A Man of the People
Author: Achebe, Chinua
Length: 150 pages
Genre: Fiction, Classic
Publisher / Year: Anchor Books / 1967
Original Published In: 1966
Source: Secret Santa
Why I Read It: Because I love Achebe’s works, and am slowly working my way through them.
Date Read: 10/03/11
Each book I read by Achebe only increases my respect for him. This title was written in 1967 and set in an unnamed African state. The novel is a political satire which ended up predicting events that would occur in Nigeria shortly after publication, putting his life in danger. The coup in Nigeria was the first of two which led to the Biafran war.
This book is a story told by Odili of the events which happened over the past few months. It is well told with enough foreshadowing to keep you on the edge of your seat and to keep you reading late into the night, but not enough to give anything away or distract you. At the start of the book Odili is a young teacher and is waiting for the minister of culture, the much-loved but very corrupt Chief Nanga, to show up. He is frustrated by the fact that all of the people love him despite his corruption and the fact that the government is ruining the economy of the country. He says on page 2:
I wished for a miracle, for a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. But of course it would be quite useless. They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you – as my father did – if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.
However Odili soon becomes enchanted by Chief Nanga when he remembers him as a former student back when he was a teacher and not a politician and invites him to his house in the city. Through the course of the novel as Odili narrates the chain of events the reader is often left wondering how much he is changing to make himself look better in retrospect. Numerous times though he says this very thing himself, that it is hard to write of things when you already know their ending. I loved the way this was done, highlighting how our perception of events can change over time.
On page 37 Odili says of the corruption and the refusal of leaders to allow free and fair elections:
A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. The trouble with our new nation – as I saw it then lying on that bed – was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say “To hell with it”. We had all been in the rain together until yesterday. Then a handful of us – the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best – had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in.
I thought this was an apt metaphor and description of the way that many rulers throughout the world try to hold on to power. If they’ve never lived under anything else and the options are wealth and power or absolutely nothing and poverty… well what would you choose? The root cause is shown not only as the ‘rain’, or lack of options available, but also as the lack of progress made in making the rain more bearable for everyone else. Instead those who found the shelter in government try their best to stay there.
In discussing the corruption of the government another theme that came up again and again was that of cynicism. The regular people were all cynical and didn’t think anyone else could do better. They had resigned themselves to having nothing and that things would continue the same. On page 66 he says:
as long as men are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the Chief Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything.
Another great line that is true even in my own country these days. We often seem to forget to actually think through everything and instead listen to the rhetoric that is spewed through the media.
Overall, another fantastic offering from Chinua Achebe that I would highly recommend to all. There is certainly a lot to think on in this book and I know I will be coming back to it in the future.