On discovering Chinua Achebe after his death

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

[W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming]

Six and half years ago, I wrote a post about reading Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had just finished the book, and had discovered that someone named Chinua Achebe had called Conrad a racist. My view – then, as now – remains that the Marlow, the narrator of The Heart of Darkness did come across as a laconic white traveler who regarded the natives as pathetic and subhuman animals. Thus, while it was quite clear that Marlow was a racist, I wasn’t sure whether the accusation is transferable to Conrad. One of the blog’s readers, Max,  explained in a comment that Achebe’s view was not based just on the isolated example of The Heart of Darkness, and recommended that I read some of Achebe’s works, particularly Home and Exile and Things Fall Apart.

From then on until the month of March 2013, I thought of The Heart of Darkness very rarely, once I think, while reading The Lord of the Flies. In March, however, as I drove into my apartment’s parking lot, news came over the radio that Chinua Achebe had died. I hadn’t heard the name in a long time, but fortunately remembered the context in which it had first come to my attention. In the ensuing interview, the radio host spoke with an African theater director about Achebe and, in particular, about Things Fall Apart. That was how, I came to know that  “someone named Chinua Achebe” was a rather important figure in African literature, and that was how I came to pick up this remarkable and beautiful book.

Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart]

Set mostly in the tribal African village of Umofia, Things Fall Apart is the tragic story of Okonkwo – a mighty wrestler who has worked hard to build a life of prosperity and esteem. The story is set in motion when, in response to the judgment of the tribal Oracle (arbitrary as such human-endowed pseudo-dieties tend to be), Okonkwo joins some male villagers and kills a teenaged boy who had long considered him a father figure. Okonkwo’s life is riddled by guilt and frustration and begins to slowly unravel. In the commotion, ardor and music of a funeral ceremony, his gun fires by accident claiming the life of a young boy; he loses his place of prestige within his clan and is forced to go into exile in his mother’s village of Mbanta for seven years. These seven years coincide with the arrival in the two villages of British colonizers and evangelical Christian missionaries. One by one, either by the explicit design of the armed and modern colonizers, or by the clan’s suspicion of the religion of the white man, the society of Okonkwo and his forefathers is rent apart.

It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.  He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. Nwoye’s callow mind was greatly puzzled.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart].

It is unfortunate that Things Fall Apart is not more well-known, for Achebe is a writer of surpassing brilliance. In a short span of two hundred pages, the reader lingers briefly but vividly on patriarchy, feminism, religion, culture, and race – never passing judgement but staring each one full in the face, before walking slowly back from the scene alone, eyes unblinking and bloodshot from a small  oasis of clarity in the vast desert of unknowing. Okonkwo is the novel’s African conscience, and we watch his life unfold while simultaneously experiencing the changing epoch through his eyes and his fierce, stubborn, chauvinistic heart. In so doing, we become aware that — underneath our differently colored skins, and behind our differently veneered civilizations, and below our variously fantastical gods — underneath all the variegated baggage that we have accumulated since we left our ancestral homes in Africa all those tens of thousands of years ago, we haven’t really changed very much at all.

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On Translation

“I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves—forgive me, I mean ourselves—as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so. Is this sheer presumption, a heady kind of immodesty on our part? What exactly do we literary translators do to justify the notion that the term “writer” actually applies to us? Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the [translation] will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers. This is the translator’s grand ambition.”

[Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters.]

Grossman has translated – among other books – two incredible novels that I read in English and would probably never have encountered if not for laborious and generally unheralded profession of translation: Love in the Time of Cholera, and Of Love and Other Demons.

The full introductory chapter of the book, Why Translation Matters is available at  Words Without Borders.

The Home and the World

I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity for as long as I live.
– Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Abala Bose (1908)

Throughout history, an undesirably large portion of political dialogue has consisted of the argument that ends justify means. Examples of such political maneuvering, and the accompanying horrors, are everywhere around us, and cautionary voices are all but drowned out by extreme rhetoric. During a sensitive period in India’s freedom struggle, Rabindranath Tagore incurred much ridicule and censure when he wrote a story that warned against the rampant nationalistic fervor resulting from the Swadeshi movement.

Swadeshi, an important facet of Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to seeking freedom from the British Raj, consisted of asking people to boycott foreign goods and to rely on indigenously manufactured products. The intention was to drive home the importance of a self-reliant populace and a self-sufficient country that deserved freedom from the British Empire. Tagore was troubled by the spectacle of people enthusiastically burning foreign goods in public bonfires. He feared that this would spark discontent among India’s own social strata, and the germ of Gandhiji’s message would be lost to aggressive nationalism which would only turn the country against itself. This is the background against which he wrote Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) the story of a love triangle composed of an educated, moderate nobleman (Nikhil), his wilful, impressionable wife (Bimala) and a passionate, but self-serving freedom-fighter (Sandip).

Sandip is a fiery orator who can move thousands with his voice. He knows that nationalism has its ugly side, but believes that freedom must be attained at all costs. Nikhil realizes that Sandip treads a risky path and much can go wrong with it. Bimala who was married into the rich family in the traditional way, finds herself buffeted between her husband’s rational, peace-loving and conscientious nature and Sandip’s dangerous but irresistible ardor. That is how the story begins – with the home and outside world, both in turmoil.

The plot contains a number of interesting philosophical problems, which can be discussed without spoiling the particular events of the novel. In defense of his position, Sandip cites the example of the advice that Lord Krishna gave to the hesitant Arjuna prior to the great battle in the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic poem. This advice, encapsulated in the Bhagwad Gita, encourages a man to perform his rightful duty without thought for the consequence, or as we say in India, the “fruit of the action”. Tagore is concerned about the ease with which this maxim can be subverted to unpleasant ends. This position, which is skeptical of the Gita, is rare in Indian rhetoric to this day. As Amartya Sen notes in The Argumentative Indian,

Indeed, the tragic desolation that the post-combat and post-carnage land – largely the Indo-Gangetic plain – seems to face toward the end of the Mahabharata can even be seen as something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts. Arjuna’s contrary arguments are not really vanquished, no matter what the ‘message’ of the Bhagwad Gita is meant to be. There remains a powerful case for ‘faring well’, and not just ‘faring forward’. [This last sentence is a reference to T.S. Elliot’s “Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers!”]

Another impressive quality of the story, considering the period in which it was written, is the manner in which Nikhil perceives his relation to his wife, Bimala. Across many patriarchal societies, and certainly in much of India – there runs the refrain that the wife’s destiny is bound to her husband’s and that, once the woman has left her parents’ home, her husband is her protector and her lord. It comes as a surprise to discover that Nikhil considers the relationship as one of equality. Even though he loves Bimala immensely, and it is painful for him to contemplate separation, he does not think that she ought to remain bound to him by virtue of their marriage. I had read too little of Tagore to realize that, apart from being a great poet and educator, he was a progressive thinker whose opinions on international politics, patriotism, and God went against the established dogma of his period. [Much of these less well-known aspects of Tagore are in Amartya Sen’s essay Tagore and his India.]

The version that I read has been translated into English by Surendranath Bose. It is natural for most readers of translated texts to wonder what is being lost, what is being unconsciously subverted, and what is being rendered altogether opaque by the gaping chasm between the culture of the writer and the reader. It is true that such emotions as love, disgust, devotion and greed are universal, but the way in which they are expressed in the story is very much dependent on the particular culture in which the original story is supposed to happen. It would be apparent in any Western translation of an Eastern work and vice versa, and there is no escape from this for anyone who reads Ghare-Baire in English; this includes Indians who haven’t had much contact with Bengali culture. Footnotes attempt to explain that the vermilion mark on Bimala’s forehead is a symbol of Hindu wifehood, but how is the translator to explain the many manifestations of the vermilion mark – for has it not come to represent, simultaneously, a wife’s devotion and her cage, her love and her frustration, her radiant jewel and her crown of thorns? How is one to communicate to an uninitiated reader the religious and social “baggage” of something as loaded as the vermilion mark?

It appears that the translator’s task is made more difficult because much of the dialogue in Ghare-Baire has the flavor of poetry – some measure of rhyme and meter. In English, it still reads as very lyrical, but sometimes, it becomes a little dissonant, as if the idea being conveyed is rendered unnecessarily forceful by the mere act of translation. It took me a while to become aware of this, to accept the possibility that what I am reading is but a projection on to a subspace of fewer dimensions than Tagore might have intended.

Coma Induced by a Problematic Colon ?

I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation after listening to Lynne Truss on the City Arts and Lectures program on NPR. This is a delightful book if you are obsessive about grammar and punctuation, and feel a self-righteous irritation at the examples of maimed punctuation that you see around you. I even picked up a few things that I wasn't sure about, such as:
1. In a sentence containing a quote, should the period be inside the quotes or outside? It turns out that the answer is different depending upon which side of the Atlantic you are on.

2. Can a semicolon be used instead of a comma in a list of items? There are some good examples of this in the book, although I have to say that the paragraphs by G. B. Shaw are hideous.

In explaining the rules for using the apostrophe, the comma, the semicolon and the exclamation mark, the book is wonderfully and wittily written but it is very small; I was left begging for more. (Is a semicolon appropriate there?)