Realist Novel Chapter 13 The realist novel Casting the contradictions A large proportion of modern African works of fiction can be defined as realist novels. Though what, precisely, is a realist novel? And what of the notion of Realism itself? As Stephen Heath has lucidly expressed it, the ‘realistic’ is a process of significant fictions (that is, not substantial but formal) and it may be described as the vraisemblable of a particular society, the generally received picture of what may be regarded as ‘realistic’.1 Heath, I think rightly, points out that this vraisemblable is founded partly by the novel itself. In terms of the connection between the novel and reality, then, there is a dialectical process at work. Within this process it seems important to say that there is no direct, spontaneous relation between a literary text and history. Incorporating the mediating role of ideological formations, the text takes as its object, not the real, but certain significations by which the real lives itself as Terry Eagleton puts it.2 Realism is therefore a convention of discourse, a range of different patternings that gives rise to an impression of reality, a range of reality-effects. Granted that realism is a conventional, formal concept, what of the formal realism of the novel? Ian Watt and Lucien Goldmann have suggested answers to that question.
The formal realism of the novel would appear to allow a more immediate imitation of individual experience set in its temporal and spatial environment3 than do other literary forms. And not only individual experience, surely, but areas beyond that limit: where a ‘world’ can be created whose structure is analogous to the essential structure of the social reality in which the work has been written.4 Given, then, the possibility of an imitative rendition of both individual and collective experience, the use of the realist-novel form can certainly make available (through varying emphasis) a function of judgment in relation to the experience that it renders. Stated ideas, embedded in the text, could be expected to occupy a central position in the ‘judging’ process. But then (in approaching these realist novels) certain implicit ideological assumptions – from which the stated ideas derive their authority – also need to be noted. An approach to the ideological concerns of realist fiction entails something akin to what Richard Hoggart has called ‘reading for value’. He sees the aim as to find what field of values is embodied, reflected or resisted, within the work ..
what, in assumed meanings or counter-meanings .. is in play.5 Such a reading moves us right into the centre of the critical debate about the relationship between ideology and literary form. For these ‘values’ are, after all, in a novel. There are two concepts of immediate importance here. The first has been articulated in the theoretical work of Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey.6 The literary text, they contend, presents ideological contradictions in the form of their resolution. Such a concept enforces the view that the distinctive work of literature .. is not simply a contrived harmonization of the discordant ideological themes that echo in the text: rather, it consists in a ‘prior’ recasting of these themes in such a way that their final reconciliation becomes possible.7 The second concept of importance is that stressed by Francis Mulhern, among others, when he points to the personalisation of social contradiction as being one of the distinguishing features of realist fiction.8 Both these concepts – the possibility of ideological contradictions being presented in the form of their resolution and (as a corollary) the projection of contradictions by literary personalisation – chart the road ahead.
Before plunging along that road, one remembers a remark by Achebe that seems to frame the whole enterprise: .. it is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant – like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.9 Given such views, an African novelist would necessarily not be concerned with the ‘fleeing rat’ but with the central problem of the ‘burning houses’ of the post-colonial period. In examining the manner in which this concern is projected through a formal literary response, the following questions are of paramount importance: what ideological contradictions are being considered, either implicitly or explicitly (at the level of stated ideas), within the presented worlds of this novel? In what manner are these contradictions personalised? To what extent is a resolution of the contradictions projected or achieved? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered. The presented world of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People (1966) 10 is clearly analogous to that of the Nigerian First Republic – the period that stretched from Independence to the first of a plethora of military coups. It is a world of demagogic politicians, idealistic young men, and the struggle for political power that has been activated by the possibilities of self-rule. The novel is concerned with the nature of events that are almost exactly contemporary with its writing.
A wide field of values, a range of ideological contradictions is under consideration here. In the opening paragraph of the novel, the narrator (the self-inquiring young Odili) describes Chief Nanga as a man of the people. The importance of this phrase is stressed, by Achebe, from the outset. Odili goes on to remark that it is necessary to admit the appropriateness of the title or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense. His comment emphasises the central importance of the term in relation to an understanding of certain ideological issues: what is a man of the people? what does the title imply? The consideration of these questions is immediately carried forward by Odili’s account of a congratulatory festival for Chief Nanga, the Minister.
Odili sees the applauding villagers as being not only ignorant but cynical. His view is expressed in these terms: 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. (p. 2) Certain juxtapositions of values are implicitly present here. Good sense versus ideals, acceptance rather than protest, a conflict between ‘normal’ behaviour (apparently sanctioned by folk-wisdom) and an unusual integrity, between practical politics and incorruptibility: these are the contradictions that are clearly under consideration. Achebe broadens his approach to these issues by introducing an episode where a white American searches for authentic Africans (p. 57).
The issue is then raised – what, exactly, is an authentic African and, by extension, to what extent are Chief Nanga and Odili authentic men of the people? The question of the relevance, or otherwise, of principled behaviour is raised by the lawyer-politician Max when he asks Odili: Now do you expect a man like that (Nanga) to resign on a little matter of principle ..?. The moral concern about the relationship between those with power and those without is given focus by Achebe’s use of initials. In opposition to V.I.P., a classification of P.I.V. (Poor Innocent Victim) is posited. The reversal of the initials underlines the difference in socio-political status and introduces a sense of irrationality in regard to the value-judgements of those who would use them. Much the same process is at work in the initials of the competing political parties: the governing People’s Organization Party (P.O.P.) and the opposition Progressive Alliance Party (P.A.P.). Apart from the comic implications of P.O.P.
and P.A.P., there is the more serious implied question of a lack of real political alternatives. The point that any party can govern, that nothing will really be changed, is appreciated by the ex-policeman who sees the C.P.C. group (the ‘new’ force of Max and Odili) as merely completing a trilogy of vultures who feast on the body politic.11 Another contradiction raised in Achebe’s text is that between the apparent reality of Nigerian independence and the continuing influence of the former colonial power. When Odili speaks of the necessity for ‘clean’ election tactics, Max replies with a question: Do you know, Odili, that British Amalgamated has paid out four hundred thousand pounds to P.O.P. to fight this election? Now you tell me how you propose to fight such a dirty war without soiling your hands a little.
(p. 142) The essential dilemma – the necessity for political effectiveness opposed to a felt need for honesty and integrity – is projected here within the neo-colonialist frame of reference. In terms of the socio-political contradictions that are being considered, particularly at the level of stated ideas, there is a passage in Man of the People that can be regarded as the ideological core (or thematic centrepiece) of the work. It is marked by Achebe’s use of the logic of the proverb. Odili, in a period of thoughtful reflection, considers the overall position.
He defines it in terms of a man who has just come in from the rain, dried himself and put on new clothes. That man, thinks Odili, is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. By metaphoric extension, he sees this as the trouble with the new nation that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say ‘To hell with it’. He sees the people as having been all in the rain together until yesterday (Independence) and 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. Then, Odili considers, the smart and lucky handful (the new ruling group), from their privileged position in the dry house, seek to persuade those outside that the first phase of the struggle has been won and that the next phase – the democratic extension of the house – called for different tactics.
It required that all argument should cease and the whole people speak with one voice and that any more dissent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house. (p. 42) In using the image of the rain and the house, Achebe focuses attention on the paramount contradiction of the post-Independence period: a few are inside the house of power, the majority are outside. The relationship between this majority and the new elite is under consideration. Concepts of fair-play and human justice (in the face of dishonest gains) are clearly raised by Achebe’s analogy.
The nature of honesty itself is in question. These issues constitute the field of values in A Man of the People. Odili, the young University graduate and teacher (a figure who has his foot planted in the door of the ‘house’ and pushing hard), and Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, M.P., are the major figures created by Achebe to personalise these social contradictions. Odili, as narrative voice, is handled ironically by the novelist.
In terms of characterisation, he is defined by a greater or lesser identity with the more constant values of Chief Nanga. Odili is portrayed as an ambitious youth with opinions and attitudes that are in a constant state of flux, a perpetual process of modification. He approaches the contradictions of his individual position with what is projected as a naive searching for the ‘right’ way, for himself and for the nation. Odili accepts, as no idle talk, the common saying that after Independence .. it didn’t matter what you knew but who you knew.
(p. 19) He is willing, with some reservations, to work within this situation to achieve positive political influence and a measure of self-advancement. It is a situation where a long American car driven by a white-uniformed chauffeur and flying a ministerial flag could pass through the eye of a needle. (p. 63) Odili, however, is a young man full of doubts and is projected by Achebe as having a limited understanding of his own motives.
Does he proceed from high ideals or from a desire for revenge on Nanga for alienating the affections of his girlfriend? He constantly questions his motives and, by implication, those of all who would enter the house of the elite. He begins to see the essentially relative value of his principles. Going to University with the clear intention of coming out again after three years as a full member of the privileged class whose symbol was the car, he undergoes a radical change. He vows never to be corrupted by bourgeois privileges and yet now, as a paid political organiser for the C.P.C., he finds himself motoring around the country in a party car. He attempts to answer his own question: How important was my political activity in its own right? It was difficult to say: things seemed so mixed up; my revenge, my new political ambition and the girl. (p.
121) It is apparent that Odili’s constant self-questioning plays an important role – as catalyst and as debater – in Achebe’s personalisation process. Chief Nanga is characterised as a man of clearly defined ‘principles’. He does not question his motives. He is in the house of power and intends to remain there. Despite Achebe’s satiric thrusts, Nanga is projected as being a man of certainty. He is seen to have correctly appreciated the national situation and made full use of his opportunities. In this respect, the figure of Nanga is surrounded by a field of values that are projected as being ‘realistic’, commonsense views.
Achebe’s satirical treatment of the character enforces a debate on those values. The implicit questions are these: can a man be popular, and a scoundrel? can a man be honest and, at the same time, corrupt? is political success evidence of a betrayal of ideals? Nanga affirms that his purpose is to make sure that his constituents press for their fair share of the national cake. He tells his audience that he would have preferred to speak in the vernacular but he uses English because (as he puts it) speeches made in vernacular were liable to be distorted and misquoted in the press. (p. 15) In passages such as these, where one notes the socio-political contradictions that are revealed by the use of satire, the main target is clearly the exposure of hypocrisy.
Indeed, Nanga’s hypocritical approach to his role of benevolent politician clarifies the connection between ‘honest’ national aims and personal hypocrisy (a connection …