Achebe’s battle against prejudice
When we think of artistic influences, of the way each artist is shaped by his or her predecessors, we tend to do so in positive terms. But sometimes negative influences are even more powerful. Repulsion and rage give an emerging artist a sense of purpose and identity that are more useful than the desire to emulate. A good example is one of the great figures of 20th-century fiction, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who died last week. It is often noted that the title of Achebe’s groundbreaking Things Fall Apart, the book from which all modern African fiction emerges, comes from an Irish writer, WB Yeats. Less often acknowledged is that Things Fall Apart owes much more to another Irish writer, the novelist Joyce Cary.
In an interview in 1972, Achebe described what was on his mind in 1951 and 1952, before he wrote Things Fall Apart : “One of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary’s novel, set in Nigeria, Mister Johnson , which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that it was a most superficial picture, not only of the country but even of the Nigerian character, and so I thought that if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.”
Cary spent much of his childhood in White castle, between Derry and Moville. He retained all his life a powerful nostalgia for Lough Swilly and the Donegal hills, recalled most vividly in his late novels Castle Corner (1938) and House of Children (1944). But like many from his background – a declining landlord family – he entered the colonial service, as assistant district officer in the Borgu region of northwestern Nigeria, between 1914 and 1920.
First published in 1939, Mister Johnson ran through eight editions in 21 years. It was adapted for a successful Broadway play in 1956 and (by William Boyd) for a less successful film in 1990. Most importantly in relation to Chinua Achebe, the novel was hailed in Britain and the US as the first “authentic” depiction of an African character. Time magazine called it “the best novel written about Africa”.
The eponymous protagonist, sympathetically drawn, is a young clerk working for the British district officer of the fictional northern Nigerian area of Fada. He attempts to ape his colonial master in dress, language and manners and to stand above the “common savages”. He tries to identify entirely with the imperial motherland. He sings: “England is my country. / Oh, England, my home all on de big water. / Dat King of England is my King.” He hero-worships his boss, Rudbeck. Johnson adopts the district officer’s manner: “He carries his shoes in one hand, his white helmet in the other, his umbrella under his arm.” As he enters a village, he “advances with the dignified steps of a governor-general in full uniform, picking his way among rubbish”. But this transformation is doomed. Rudbeck treats him with the “ordinary politeness which would be given to a butler or foot-man at home”, a politeness that Johnson mistakes for friendship. He and his wife regard the Nigerian as “comic” and “quaint”.
To make his aspirations to “civilisation” real, Johnson amasses unpayable debts, steals from the company that is bringing the railway (and thus “civilisation”) to the region, betrays his friends, gets caught stealing from a store, shoots a white man, is tried and sentenced to death. His last wish is to be shot by Rudbeck himself, a desire that is graciously granted. Johnson dies submissively, even happily.
The interesting thing about Mister Johnson is that all of this could have worked brilliantly as a mordant satire on colonialism. With just a little more self-awareness, Cary could have told the story in a deadpan tone, allowing it to take on a kind of grotesque comedy. Had he done so, Achebe’s rage at the novel would seem unjustified. But Mister Johnson presents itself as a kind of social realism and as an explanation of the African mentality. Cary can’t let the story just tell itself without authorial commentary. He can’t drag himself away from racist colonial attitudes long enough to satirise them.
So Cary writes of the African villagers as creatures without ideas, without culture, even without history: “Its people would not know the change if time jumped back fifty thousand years. They live like mice or rats in a palace floor; all the magnificence and variety of the arts, the ideas, the learning of the battles of civilisation, go over their heads and they do not even imagine them.” Johnson himself is incapable of having a past: Cary wrote in his preface to the novel that he used the present tense to drive the narrative because “Johnson lives in the present, from hour to hour . . . Johnson swims gaily on the surface of life.”
And yet this failure is what makes Mister Johnson such an important book in the history of African literature. It gave Achebe something to write against. His own African novels occupy the same ground that Cary tried to inhabit, that of the Nigerian caught between indigenous and imperial cultures. But of course he wrote the story “from the inside”, with the dignity and gravity of tragedy. Cary’s colonial prejudice proved much more useful to African literature than his well-meaning sympathy.