A Laughing Giant The Everlasting Humour of Chinua Achebe

In 1998, at a lecture in Portland, Oregon, the United States, Chinua Achebe, 68 and already the father of modern African literature by numerous accounts, introduced himself with a joke. “I know I’m not very well known as a poet,” he said, “but some years ago, when I was invited to read by one of the colleges at Cambridge University in England, I read my poetry. And at the end of it, the chairman said ‘everybody knows about your fiction, why don’t we know about your poetry?’ and I said, ‘there’s a conspiracy against my poetry.’”

During the lecture, Achebe would recite several of his poems as a way of playing his own part, he confessed, in “destroying that conspiracy”. By this time in his career, Achebe no longer lived in Nigeria—for health reasons, having survived a car accident in 1990 with severe injuries. He had, nevertheless, published five acclaimed novels, essays and, at least, one poetry collection to a global audience of readers.

In Nigeria, today’s readers of Achebe are people accustomed to reading him from a distance. For some of us, the only experience of Achebe that we will ever know, having never shared a venue or a classroom with him, will be derived through his essays, his fiction, random quotes from the Internet that are, otherwise, placeless. My knowledge, thus, of his lecture in Portland is, unsurprisingly, by way of a recording. And each time I listen to that particular recording of him, I join the audience in laughing when he mentions the word conspiracy. I’m amused, not that there’s anything inherently amusing about conspiracies (successful ones, at least) but because it is Achebe—already a literary giant by 1998, an African literary giant if the former doesn’t register—being self-deprecating.

The recording is only one of several avenues, never quite like the original, through which generations of readers will continue to recognise the importance of Achebe. The significance of his work to the post-colonial imagination of Africa and the African self, to a more representative globalization of humanity, cannot be overstated. But this giant—who, when we think of him, is imagined behind signature blocky glasses, pensive, wearing a beret—was funny as well. In a rare, conscious way; through a unique understanding of the Nigerian psyche and an effortless command of language that lent to there being no mutual exclusivity between his humour and seriousness.

Recently, I read A Man of the People, Achebe’s novel about a young, equal-parts-idealistic equal-parts-impressionable man, Odili Samalu, and his fast descent into Nigerian politics. It is a classic story: Odili, naive, is washed by a mentor-from-hell, the Idi Amin to his Dr. Garrigan, in the form of a more established politician, and emerges at the end of the story a new, less ingenuous man. At several moments in my reading, I stopped and, in unveiling new meanings to established passages, realised the truth to Italo Calvino’s statement, “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” And what a humbling pleasure it is, I would also realise, to find something new in an old book, be it a new way to read it, a new way to start and/or end it.

It was, in this case, that I had never noticed what a funny book A Man of the People is. Indeed, the novel is marketed (and accepted) as political satire, but I wasn’t laughing for the classic reasons—how, perhaps, it reveals the mediocrity of politics in Nigeria. In fact, such explanations are why I had always failed to find the humour in it in previous readings. That and because the book’s antecedents remain eerie, for how, seemingly, it “predicted” a military coup that occurred in Nigeria just weeks after it was published.

However, the treatment of A Man of the People as literature that is only concerned with institutions and societies regulates, in essence, what the novel, as comedy, can be funny about. It suggests that readers should seek in the novel caricatures particular to Nigerian history, and not unique reflections of universal human conditions. It is to censor the intimate observations of the novel.

Achebe, nevertheless, wrote A Man of the People in 1966—six years after Nigeria gained independence from Britain and three years after Nigeria became an official republic. The novel, therefore, complements the history of both Nigeria’s post-colonial government and political class. And after it was published, a coup that flung Nigeria into years of conflict did happen. But it begs wondering if Achebe, when writing A Man of the People, meant for the only way to appreciate the book to be as a reflection of political systems, as opposed to say, people. Do we not, by denying ourselves the whole gamut of the book’s personality, also refuse ourselves a more wholesome experience of the book, the people it satirizes, and Achebe’s writing? His fourth novel, Achebe wrote A Man of the People about a uniquely ordinary African man, one that was perhaps even less heroic than he was flawed.

The most interesting moments in A Man of the People are not when it discusses any actual politics, but when the story rests and Achebe performs a literary sleight of hand, manipulating Odili’s foibles. In one of such moments, Odili has just had sex with a white American woman and is trapped in a bout of post-coital chat because though he “could tell her to stop chattering,” and “objects most strongly to a post-mortem,” as he called it, he “didn’t know her enough yet,” to have the guts to tell her to leave. In another—even less heroic—moment, Odili receives the kindest rejection ever written. The turndown is sickeningly sweet; a letter bomb soaked in Chanel No 5. The letter, which is to inform him that the woman he’s in love with will be marrying someone else, is a nesting doll of rejections. At one point, it even reads: “I know you are so noble and kind-hearted to forgive me before even I ask [smiles!]”

The thing about being rejected, which Achebe completely understands in that moment and, at once, uses in enriching and complicating the book, is that no matter how it is phrased or packaged, in the business of affection, no loss could be greater than being told you are seen only as a friend when you yearn to be something more. You experience multiple stages of grief, and nestled in one of those stages lies a dilemma: do you take the rejection like a champ and actually try to stay friends? Or can you—as a friend, of course—ask for feedback, where to improve, a second chance at being more than a friend? At what point does whining about being just a friend stop being Mario (2002)-acceptable sleazy, and when does it become irritating?

When Odili receives his letter, which comes from Edna, a nurse he’s been seeing, it perplexes him. Never mind that at this point in the novel, Odili is gearing up for a potentially disruptive career in politics. He and a group of likeminded young people mean to change the status quo in Nigeria and have created their own political party to do so. It is tough work that someone has to do but at that moment, nothing could be more important to Odili than understanding why he, an eligible bachelor—a well-educated man, a future leader of their unnamed African country—has just been “friend-zoned”. Odili reads the letter and, as heartbreak (one stage of grief) segues into rage (another), he does something unexpected: he begins to appraise Edna’s letter-writing skills. Pedantically judging her writing style and her choice of words—being “petty as fuck”, basically—is his coping mechanism. His greatest issue with the letter is that Edna saluted him “Dear Odili”, when in an earlier letter to her, he had referred to her as “My dearest Edna”. And he holds her by the degree of her chosen adjective. Suddenly, he’s indignant, and though he doesn’t see it, it becomes clear why it’s probably for the best that he remain kept a “friend”.

But A Man of the People is only the second panel of Achebe’s diptych on young fallible men, players who forget that the first rule of the game is to not buy into your own bullshit. The first panel is a much earlier novel, No Longer at Ease. When Achebe published the book in 1960, the world had no clue what to make of it. What is curious about the whole thing—given how far the world has come since then—is that two years before No Longer at Ease, Achebe published Things Fall Apart, a novel that was also difficult to sell, albeit this time due to its primarily pre-colonial African setting. By 1960, Things Fall Apart was on its way to becoming “an instant classic” and yet this new novel—set primarily in the urban parts of Lagos and in more contemporary times—was, somehow, still difficult for its global audience to place.

In his interview in The Paris Review, Achebe, expressed surprise at his global reach, and disappointment at what he thought was an unwillingness to embrace not only the authenticity of his work but, also, that authenticity was no limitation to the diversity of his stories. “[T]he thought of who may be [reading] may be there somewhere in the back of my mind,” he said, “but it’s not really what I’m thinking about… some people will say, Why does he put in all these Nigerian-English words? … And I feel like saying to them, “Go to hell! That’s the way the story was given to me. And if you don’t want to make this amount of effort, the kind of effort that my people have always made to understand Europe and the rest of the world, if you won’t make this little leap, then leave it alone!”

Except, it is no little leap. No Longer at Ease is compelling because its message is multilayered and because so durable a mirror does it hold up to Nigeria that it calls for non-static reading. What independence from colonialism meant to Nigerians in the sixties is not what it means to Nigerians today. And it follows that what the novel said in the 1960s is not what it says now. Currently, however, mainstream reading of the novel lags behind its message; the “moral” of the novel is easy to miss or grows stale unless readers place it in a context that evolves with time. The novel is funny, but it required multiple readings for me to arrive at its humour. From the get go, in No Longer at Ease, we meet Obi Okonkwo who, more than likely, seems on his way to prison for accepting a bribe. Others have argued that the novel’s real tragedy is in Obi’s failure to “rescue a country from the debilitating effects of colonialism”, but more current Nigerian readings would also recognize the great tragedy in this one guy who thought he knew the answers to Nigeria’s problems because he studied abroad—that is, until Nigeria showed him.

What is amusing about No Longer at Ease is the misplaced morality of Obi. Like Odili, he is young, idealist, fresh out of university, rather inexperienced, very ordinary, and yet a man that possesses stubborn ideas about the kind of country Nigeria is supposed to be and how it can become that country. Today, Obi would not be uncommon; he’d be affiliated with an NGO in Lagos, would express vague interests like “anti-corruption”, “Change”, or “Leadership”. He would call himself a feminist until it really matters and could even have the numbers—thousands of followers on Twitter—to prove his “wokeness”. If he wasn’t you, he’d hit close to home. He’d be the classic returnee who, upon arriving in Nigeria, believes there to be some sort of veil that separates him from the rest of the country, except, in actuality, such a veil would only exist to keep him out of touch.

Obi arrives in Lagos from England in the 1960s the way, in 2013, I myself arrived from England: thinking it impossible for Nigeria, a country mired in corruption and poverty, to hold within it any form of validity or justification for what I believed was its chaos. Instead, the only way the country made sense was if everything about it was wrong. In a Channel 4 documentary, Nigeria: The “Repats” Who’ve Returned, one particular scene captures this attitude. A recent “returnee” sits in the back of a vehicle as it crawls through traffic, before lowering her window to hound a young beggar. “Why are you begging?” she asks, not exactly to find out why, but to tell us, the viewers, that she is enough of an expert to dispute and condemn the beggar for carrying out what could be a necessary means of survival.

This way of looking at Nigeria—as though its people are inconveniences, problems first before they are people—is a ridiculous way of looking at any country or any people, and one that will doom anyone claiming to have the best interests of such people at heart to failure. Achebe knew this, and in No Longer at Ease, Obi failed simply because he “tried to do what everyone does without finding out how it was done.” And while there is nothing funny about bribery or a corrupt system of government, isn’t it amusing that Obi, the man who could pinpoint all Nigeria’s problems, the very same guy who was hell-bent on ridding Nigeria of corruption didn’t even know the proper way to accept a bribe?

In both A Man of the People and No Longer at Ease, something more profound than occasional funny subplots is happening. Achebe is writing African men who aren’t epic but clumsy, and who, crucially, bear the brunt of their clumsiness. When A Man of the People’s Odili, now a guest at Chief Nanga’s house, foolishly invites a woman to spend the night and she ends up sleeping with Chief Nanga instead, Odili locks himself in his room. Unable to sleep or confront either of the two, he has to listen to them have sex even and especially when, delirious, this woman mistakes Nanga for Odili and begins screaming Odili’s name. In No Longer at Ease, Obi has an equally awkward encounter with the woman of his dreams, when, unthinking, he blurts out “I love you” and it is too soon—they’ve only just met.

Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her review of There Was a Country, “is a man who is effortlessly himself”.  That effortlessness is a trait his best characters inherited from him. “He has a sense of humour,” she also wrote, “but very little cynicism”. In addition, his choosing to side with hope over scepticism on the subject of humanity was no more evident than when he wrote friendships. Close friendship between men is very typical of Achebe novels: think Obi and Joseph in No Longer at Ease; Ofoedu and Obika in Arrow of God; Odili and Andrew in A Man of the People. Achebe wrote solid friendships, which are still quite rare in African fiction. Of these, A Man of the People has my favourite: Odili and Andrew’s friendship, which pivots on impeccable banter. An example occurs when Andrew pays Odili a visit early in the novel.

“I was lighting my Tilley lamp later that evening when someone knocked on my door.

‘Come in if you are good-looking,’ I said.

‘Is Odili in?’ asked an unnatural, high-pitched voice.

‘Come in, fool,’ I said.

It was a silly joke Andrew and I never got tired of playing on each other. The idea was to sound like a girl and so send the other’s blood pressure up.”

In Dead Man Laughing, a 2008 essay on her father’s humour—and, by extension, British humour—Zadie Smith wrote:

“I decided that what Harvey didn’t have much of in life he would get in death. In life, he found Britain hard. It was a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names. The humour of its people helped make it bearable. You don’t have to be funny to live here, but it helps. Hancock, Fawlty, Partridge, Brent: in my mind, they’re all clinging to the middle rungs of England’s class ladder. That, in large part, is the comedy of their situations.”

Humour is a product of social context and the best of Nigerian humour is derived at the intersection of acute dissatisfaction and an equally intense willingness to endure. In, What Nigeria Means to Me, an essay Achebe published in the UK’s Guardian in 2010, he explained—and it is true—that “being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting”. Part of being Nigerian is loving it just as much as you despise it: sometimes it is the entire country; sometimes it is your life in the country. And you don’t have to find it funny, but it helps.

What the grasp of a people’s humour measures is the ability to express oneself technically and, more importantly, socially. It comes as no surprise, then, that in Nigeria, grasp of humour is a high indicator of fluency both in speaking and behaviour. Achebe’s humour was very Nigerian, not least in the way that it flirted with and never succumbed to frustration. But humour also serves a universal purpose: to not only ease complicated situations but to ease them enough for human beings to feel as though we have some control over our lives. In short, the moment a complex situation becomes funny, we gain some sort of authority over it. Nigerians, for instance, may joke about corruption as a way of coping with it or managing how it makes them feel (note, it isn’t an invitation to join in); an Arab Muslim may upload to Twitter a picture of himself on a plane beaming as the white passengers around him cling to one another in unfounded fear—he does this to establish a different context: one in which the most important gaze is his. Just as well, an African-American customer in the US may turn around and follow you around the store to see how you like it. In A Man of the People, a character insists, in typical Nigerian fashion, that people “do not commit suicide everyday we feel unhappy with the state of the world”.

Suffering, Odili argues towards the end of A Man of the People, “should be creative, should give birth to something good and lovely”. And any truthful depiction of the human experience must reckon with a great deal of suffering. But it would be dull—not to mention wasteful—to not transform our suffering into something productive, something beautiful, something good. And great humour, Achebe shows us, will do all three