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A dialogue between Chinua Achebe and UR Ananthamurthy

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Apr 16, 2013 at 03:51pm IST

When Chinua Achebe visited the Dept. of English at the University of Mysore to deliver special lectures this dialogue with Prof. UR Ananthamurthy was recorded and published in the Sunday herald on April 12, 1981. A Kannada version of this dialogue is included in a collection of essays of Prof UR Ananthamurthy.

UR Ananthamurthy:Let me begin by asking you about the narrative technique in Things Fall Apart. At one point, the narrator assumes the voice of a devout Christian to criticize the overzealous priest Rev. Smith. And a little later, he is ironic about Christianity when he remarks, "wisdom prevailed in the camp of the faithful and many lives were thus saved. How do you explain these shifts in point of view?

Chinua Achebe:I am not absolutely certain about the identity of the narrator. There are indeed shifts. There is a dominant narrator who may be the voice of the wise elders of the community, but there are other voices as well, intruding here and there.

A dialogue between Chinua Achebe and UR Ananthamurthy

A Kannada version of this dialogue is included in a collection of essays of Prof UR Ananthamurthy.

UR Ananthamurthy:There may still be another, the critical outsider - an educated African - who says that African conquest happened through education, money, religion etc.

Chinua Achebe:The consciousness at work is changing from the tradition, from the past, into the present. I think there are different levels of this consciousness; there are some people who are stuck with the European consciousness and there are others who are moving with the story. There is a kind disembodied voice in the air which reflects the temper of any moment and this voice is influenced by what has happened. It would not remain the same, i.e. static, and then there also the silent majority who move, even so imperceptibly, but they move.

UR Ananthamurthy:This is the kind of narrative mode employed in an epic rather than in a modern novel....

Chinua Achebe:Yes, that's right; it is the voice of a participator.

UR Ananthamurthy:There is a passage in the novel on which we read of Okonkwo's (the hero of the novel) first son Nwoye being attracted by Christianity through its poetry. He finds some kind of answer in Christianity to the question of the ruthless sacrificial killing of Ikemefune. Even okonkwo is disturbed for some days after the killing of Ikemefune which is ritually necessary, but humanly wrong. Yet, he is also a little worried about his son who might become, like father, a woman, that is to say, not man enough - an outsider to the manly values of the tribe. In other words, you show that there are disturbance prevalent in the community even before the coming of the Christianity. The missionaries only give vent to what is already there.

Chinua Achebe:Your analysis is correct. I was not saying that this was a perfect culture, a perfect civilization which was brutally destroyed by an insensitive foreign invader.

I was saying that the reason Christianity made the impact, that it achiever its success, was because there were already cracks in the traditional culture. It had failed to secure happiness and security for everybody and it is this group who are disabled in the old tradition, who became the first target the new dispensation.

UR Ananthamurthy:You also show that; before the invasion of Christianity, this clan sometimes discussed the customs of other clans, who have softer rules; and that means they are in contact with modes of worship which are different from theirs. And so there is a certain movement within the community. Are you saying that African civilization would have evolved by itself in this way?

Chinua Achebe:Yes, the African civilization was evolving. In different places, different people were coming to slightly different conclusions. The pace then would not have been revolutionary but evolutionary. What Christianity introduced was an element of revolution.

UR Ananthamurthy:And also some form of corruption...

Chinua Achebe:Revolution does not mean only good,; it just means change. There is a lot more bad than good. The second generation has witnessed corruption in full force. And we have not really recovered from the injection of that corrupting element into the body politic of our people. What happened was that people were wrenched from their history and put into somebody else's history where they became a kind of footnote. Their initiative is no longer at their hands and this leads to corruption and irresponsibility. This is the way I read the alternate judgment of Western invasion of our civilization.

UR Ananthamurthy:I ask you this question to lead you to a particular problem which I face as a writer, too. When we look at India of the 19th Century, we see some intellectuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy strongly feeling the need for English education. He believed that without English there would be no progress of India and many of us believe so even today, in the way we respond to the West. But we also find India, in its own way, was undergoing a change. So many, like Buddha and Basava in ancient India and medieval India, had revolted against the rigidities of Indian orthodoxy. Yet Roy wanted the West to save India. This created a cloud in our minds; and we have never been free from a certain kind of complex. For instance, when I read Naipaul in England, where I was a student, I was angry with him. But when I came back to India and saw our corruption and messiness, I felt that Naipaul was right in many ways. When we forget the British and the West, we begin to have our own quarrels with India. To depict the complexities of such a situation, you need a narrator who is both a critical insider and an outsider. Haven't you been trying to do this in your novels?

Chinua Achebe:Yes, this is called for by our situation. We cannot deal with the complex story of colonialisation without having this ambivalent position. You are absolutely right in what you say of V.S.Naipaul. He obviously was not inventing the corruption that he saw in India. But in the Third World, that is not all that there is to it. The question on what side are you becomes important.

UR Ananthamurthy:And the West likes our self-torture.....

Chinua Achebe:We are doing their job. Why should we play the role of the advocate for the devil? They should not use Naipaul. There is a proverb in Africa, 'If you see your hen being chased by the wolf, you chase the wolf away first; afterwards you can caution the hen; Hence a particular role is good in its time and place and one has to recognize that. You make what is necessary by a worthy plea and defense of your culture where it is necessary. Later on, you make your criticism, as savage as you can.. But where you stand is important. If you are mixed up about who you are, then this ambivalence can be dangerous. I am the same person defending my culture out there and criticizing it here. If I don't know who I am, I may be criticizing it there when defence is what is called for.

UR Ananthamurthy:Gandhiji had a wonderful way of doing this. He would talk of driving away the British from India, but he would say the next moment turning inwards that we should open our temples to the Harijans. It was a movement that went both outward and inward. His Hind Swaraj of 1918(?) for instance. I regard it as a classic and consider it as important as Marx's Das Kapital for us. It is in the form of a dialogue between a man who is a terrorist and Gandhiji. Gandhiji says there that the British are in India because we are in love with modern civilization. We also long for that kind of civilization. But Gandhiji regards this civilization as dangerous for both the British and Indians. He might sound cranky in some of his views on medicine, and railways but the book contains some profound truths. Gandhiji saw how in some traditional societies, many things were inter dependent, almost like in aneco-system, and an individual could be a part of the community and at the same time, fulfill his individuality. And he feared that modern civilization is going to break up such societies and exaggerate the importance of the individual. He believed this was not good for life in general. Though one may not agree on every point with Gandhiji, there is undoubtedly a lot of wisdom in what Gandhi said about modern civilization.

And in your own novels, the world you picture may be ruthless. But your Africans have a wisdom that many modern civilizations don't have. Yet we can never go back to the past. Still, since you believe that a novelist is also a teacher, you seem to be saying to us that we are not superior to our ancestors, but that they have something profound to teach us. Therefore I feel when I read you writing about the past of Africa. I am reading something like a Greek tragedy. Politicians are either progressive or conservative, but a writer like you can be neither, in that simplistic way. Is that not so? Are you saying something of this kind in your novels?

Chinua Achebe:Your analysis is again very apt. I wasn't aware of this book of Gandhi. I can sympathize with Gandhi. This is in the mode of all the prophets, all the great teachers. You ought to exaggerate when you want people to listen to you. Nobody is going to get rid of railways. But once you hear Gandhi in it, you begin to look at the railways again, and wonder how is it that we have lived for thousands of years without the railways, for examples.

But now, if you went to Nigeria, you would see that the entire middle class has gone far beyond you in corruption, in things of the West. There is not a professor in Nigeria who doesn't have one or two cars. I cannot say that I can't do without this or that in reality you can. The people who make the wealth that we consume don't have these things. The average man in India has never been in a railway. So these extremist views expressed by prophets, and seers are not as foolish as they may sound. Even if you don't go back they make you think, contemplate your situation more thoroughly. You don't simply accept things without looking at them. We must understand out past. Otherwise our people wouldn't even know where they are movingfrom.And how can you possibly move, if youdon't know where you are?So the value of recreating an alternative culture or civilization from our past does not mean that everybody will renounce everything western. But if our people through the millennia have lived and survived, they surely must have something that can tell us.

The disadvantage of being obsessed with Europe is that no matter how successful Europe has been, it hasn't succeeded in everything. We are not only limiting ourselves to be mere copycats, but also to only one aspect of reality, which is the western. What about Latin America, India, China, American Indians? All these people were knocking around the world for thousands of years, surviving and creating myths and all kinds of very sophisticated interpretations of reality. We can't ignore all that and tie ourselves to one narrow tradition because that happens to be "successful".

UR Ananthamurthy:I recently went to USSR and Hungary. It was, in some ways, a disturbing experience for me. They have a socialist economic system all right, but they are not going to create a socialist consciousness. They are basically western European societies glorifying the individual, and their civilization is distinctly moving towards the American. On the other hand, the so-called 'backward' societies like ours are ready for Socialism, so far as the consciousness of the common, poor people is concerned. I want to talk to you about this because in your excellent second lecture to us, you were trying to differenciate the relation between the individual and the community. I had a feeling that by emphasizing the importance of the community in your dialectic, you were trying to suggest an alternative mode of living to that of the West, where an individual finds his growth and fulfillment within the ambience of a community.

Chinua Achebe:Wherever you look you will find consciousness of the two realities; it is a matter of emphasis.

UR Ananthamurthy:Even in Okonkwo, your hero of Things All Apart, who lives for the clan, there is a consciousness of his individual self.......

Chinua Achebe:Yes. Some exaggerate the one and undermine the other, or it could be vice-versa. So my prescription is not even one thing, because it depends on what you have been doing up till now. If you've allowed one side of this truth to dominate to the exclusion of the other, then you must restore the balance. It need not be the same balance that the American needs to restore.

This duality is basic to the meaning of existence. The problem, I think,with many of us is that we are so literal minded we can't conceive of both. We are happier if it is either /or; Rejection of extremes may not sound very exciting and dramatic.

UR Ananthamurthy:In your novel,thewestern man triumphsover us not only becausehe has superior technology but because the African is innocent.

For instance, the Africans allow them to build churches in their evil forest, (Things Fall Apart) hoping that the church will be destroyed.

Chinua Achebe:The black African historian Chancellor Williams in this book "Destruction to black African Civilization" asks how it is that African allowed himself to be hoodwinked. He comes to the conclusion that the Africans were too hospitable; they invited the white man to dinner and he took over their house. Most of our cultureswere tolerant; the Ebo culture, for instance, sees the world immediately as a place where different ideas and different points of view could flourish. If I have my own God, you have yours, so why don't we just go on eh?With two gods? And if somebody comes and says there are three, why not? So you are more or less predisposed, to accept others on the basis of trust. And somebody comes who is so single minded, that he says that this is the only way, the only truth, you are going to be in difficulty, for this man is a fanatic and you are not; a fanatic fights and the other man doesn't fight. He will say rather than fight, you take it. And it is an appeasement.

UR Ananthamurthy:Yes, in one of your essays, you say 'Why not be earnest?' when my conqueror is very earnest? Why should I become sophisticated in order to appease the western critic?

Chinua Achebe:The western capitalist system is very single-minded and aggressive, one of the most aggressive illusions the world has produced. When it gets virulent like Hitler's Germany, everybody throws up his hands. and gives up. From there you go on to a single race, the true race. You start killing others because they look different. We don't do it. We should perhaps learn a little ruthlessness in order to survive.

UR Ananthamurthy:Your novel sold 200,000 copies in Nigeria. So you have a large reading public in England. Do the Nigerians find some details unfamiliar to them?

Chinua Achebe:Yes and No. My stories are set in Ebo culture, one of the three cultures of Nigeria, the other two major ones being Housa and Yoruba. Hence my novels wouldn't be completely familiar to the Housas and Yorubas and also to an Ibo who hasn't been exposed to his culture. Yet, I must say it is never totally unfamiliar to my African. Even if you are not aware of the culture, the culture is aware of you. Although it is fragmented, is it there. The basic spirit of the culture is familiar and acceptable, not only in Nigeria but in the entire Africa.

UR Ananthamurthy:I strongly feel that your novels should be translated into Kannada. We have many things in common. This brings to my mind the question of 'universality' on which you have a very strong opinion.

Chinua Achebe:The 'universal' can be achieved only through the particular. An American critic who is naïve, reading an African work says that it could have happened in New York and so he finds it universal- a harvest where everybody brings his own peculiar offering. But it serves Europe to pretend that its experience only is universal...

May I say something about your own country?

This preoccupation I find in your country with British and American literature, for a country of such rich and antique culture, is bad, I think. Among many of your scholars, there seems to be too much concern with what is going on in England and America.

UR Ananthamurthy:Yes, I understand that it is suicidal..... Since you have this question of preserving one's own identity in writing, may I ask what your attitude is towards English language in relation to the African languages? You had talked in 1964 of English as the national language, whereas the others like Swahili were languages of ethnic groups. Has there been a change in your mode of thinking now?

Chinua Achebe:Yes, I shifted my stand and I am very proud of my contradiction. My essay could be easily misunderstood although I did recognize even then the great importance of our indigenous languages. But I gave the credit, which I thought was due, to English in its role as cement to the new nations created by the British.

Today I wouldn't be so sanguine. I would not just say let all the languages co-exist. English is already too strong. Hence, one should do something positive to develop and strengthen our languages. Many writers are beginning to feel the same way and realize that we should write in Swahili, Kikiyu and so on.

UR Ananthamurthy:We feel the same in India as well. We do believe that our languages are big in a way vis-a-vis the European languages...

Chinua Achebe:Yes, They are. If Dutch literature survives, why not Kannada?

Published Sunday Herald April 12, 1981.

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