It starts with Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of tribal god Ulu, who is watching for the new moon. “The moon he saw that day was as thin as an orphan fed grudgingly by a cruel foster-mother.” This part of his priestly job will become important at the end of the book. It is to do with the announcement of the new year, a task which gives him great power although in many ways "he was merely a watchman". "It was a fight of the gods. He was no more than an arrow in the bow of his god."
But for the most part the narrative meanders around the priest and his family. He has four sons: Edogo who wants to be a wood carver; Obika, a strong man and in some ways his father's favourite but headstrong and a lover of palm wine; Oduche whom has been sent by his father to the mission school so that he can learn the ways of the white man; and little Nwafo, still a boy, but perhaps the one most likely to inherit the priesthood. If there is a plot it revolves around the colonial officer's and their ignorant attempts to bring civilisation by building roads (with forced unpaid labourers who can be whipped) and appointing village leaders to become local kings. Ezeulu is one of those whom they want to appoint.
What makes this book great, and I would rate it higher than either of the other two, is that it understands the people. Each character is portrayed with their strengths and their weaknesses. It is a fond portrait of family life. And when bad things happen, blame is difficult to ascribe. Is it due to the well-meaning but ignorant intervention of the colonial conquerors or is it due to the superstitions and pig-headed clinging to tradition of the villagers?
There are some fabulous descriptions, such as a promise that “went no deeper than the lips.” A man with a hangover thinks “the walking was already doing him some good; the feeling was returning that the head belong to him.” A stubborn man “could never see something and take his eyes away from it.” Caught in a rainstorm two men get soaked: “the cloth clinging as if terrified to their bodies”. These are observations of humanity that transcend time and culture and place.
But perhaps the best thing about the book is all the wonderful proverbs within it:
- “What kind of power was it if it would never be used?”
- “To you whatever I say in this house is no more effective than the fart a dog breaks to put out a fire”
- “Wisdom is like a goat-skin bag; every man carries his own.”
- “In a great man's household there must be people who follow all kind of strange ways. There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers ... In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.” This is repeated . The first time Ezeule says it; the second time it is said to him: “In all great compounds there must be people of all mind - some good, some bad, some fearless and some cowardly; those who bring in wealth and those who scatter it, those who give good advice and those who only speak the words of palm wine. That is why we say that whatever tune you play in the compound of a great man there is always someone to dance to it.” A number of the proverbs are repeated, sometimes very similar but often changed slightly to reflect the character or the context.
- “The white man is like hot soup and we must take him slowly-slowly from the edges of the bowl.”
- “A man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked.”
- “The death that will kill a man begins as an appetite.”
- “If a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude.”
- “A woman who began cooking before another must have more broken utensils.”
- “A man who asks questions does not lose his way.”
Other great lines
- “He was as good as any young man, or better because young men were no longer what they used to be.”
- “My things always turn out differently from other people's. If I drink water it sticks between my teeth.”
A great book by a writer who has really come into his power.
June 2018; 222 pages