Herein lies the power of the Achebe short story. Being short, it goes straight to the heart of the matter, a moment of revelation or some intrinsically tense moment or situation with a view to highlighting a human predicament. The Achebe short story does away with irrelevant details for as long as they do not obstruct the conveyance of the intended message. This explains the pointed nature, sharpness, briefness and terseness of the Achebe short story. In “Dead Men’s Path,” the shortest of Achebe’s published stories, the writer satisfies the reader in five pages on the need for human discretion. As a didactic story, Achebe shows the over-zealousness of a newly appointed headmaster who in the bid to please his white supervisor, insists on fencing off the government primary school in order to prevent people from trespassing the school compound through a well beaten footpath that runs across the school.
Incidentally, this footpath, according to the village Chief Priest, is the only route through which the ancestors bring babies into the community to be delivered through the women. There is a face face-off between Michael Obi, the newly appointed headmaster of Ndume Central School and the Chief Priest, with both holding tenaciously to their beliefs, and commitments to their communal duties. While the headmaster sees his antagonist’s belief as barbaric and unfounded, the Chief Priest believes that to seal off the footpath would mean a dearth of babies in the community. Their conflict appears irresolute until one morning when the entire school is found in shambles. The white inspector, contrary to popular expectation, ironically puts the blame on the overzealousness of the headmaster. This is one out of the many instances that Achebe successfully rounds off a story through his craft of a tight narrative frame-work. His artistic competence in showing whole stories through a tight narrative frame-work runs through his short stories generally.
The Achebe short story possesses the capacity of complete engagement of the human mind, thus allowing for out-of- body experiences owing to its spiritual strength. Achebe’s stories possess engaging powers arising from their content and the effect of epiphany in them. At the end of each story, the reader is often drawn into deep introspection that reflects on his or her experience. Such experiences are capable of moving the reader to physical, attitudinal or emotional action. Aribisala posits that “The short story makes you think and reflect and ponder and rethink again. She has a big powerful RE in her; rebirth, reclaim, revolution, resurrecting power in her” (76). Aribisala’s assertions on the form of the short story are quite reflective of Achebe’s stories as a reading of Achebe’s short stories enables such human activities as flights of fancy or imaginations of the reader capable of transporting the mind to distant settings. Furthermore, the Achebe short story, with its powerful, creative disposition is capable and in fact, does awaken in the reader a sense of reflection, questioning and rebirth. A reading of Achebe’s “Marriage is a Private Affair” exemplifies the point being made here. In the story, Nnaemeka’s father is averse to his son marrying Nana Atang because she does not share a common ethnic background with his son. He refuses all manner of convictions, including pleas from various individuals and groups to change his mind. He equally turns down a plea, conveyed by a letter from his son to allow the children resulting from his union with his wife, Nana Atang to visit him, their grandfather. But in an epiphany induced by nature, he finds out that he has been unreasonable. His sudden intuition and realisation of the truth leads him to change his mind. But how does Achebe achieve the change of heart of this seemingly immovable but resolute character? The writer artistically deploys the forces of nature, which no one can contend with, to do battle with Nnaemeka’s father, Pa Obi thus:
He was telling himself that he must not give in. He tried to steel his heart against all emotional appeals. It was a re-enactment of that other struggle. He leaned against a window and looked out. The sky overcast with heavy black clouds and a high wind began to blow filling the air with dust and dry leaves. It was one of those rare occasions when even nature takes a hand in a human fight. Very soon it began to rain, the first rain in the year. It came down in large sharp drops and was accompanied by the lightning and thunder which mark the change of season… His mind immediately returned to the children. How could he shut his door against them? By a curious mental process he imagined them standing, sad and forsaken, under the harsh angry weather – shut out from his house (27).
This piece can as well pass for a war scene. It is an uncommon war between a man and the forces of nature. Okeke is here presented as a stylized character, who submits to the forces of nature, despite his strong resistance and resolve not to accept his grand-children. As the writer says, “it was one of those rare occasions when even nature takes a hand in a human fight. Very soon it began to rain, the first rain in the year. It came down in large sharp drops and was accompanied by the lightning and thunder which mark the change of season… His mind immediately returned to the children.” The rain is a purposeful one. It is a mood creating and attitude changing rain that sets out on a mind changing mission. Without doubt, it is a divinely inspired rain as it is said to be the first rain of the year. The rain falls at this critical moment when Okeke’s hardened heart needs to be influenced with the full accompaniment of rain, thunder and lightning. Okeke’s hard-line posture alters when he is confronted by a subduing atmosphere. Achebe presents him to illustrate the fact that human will, no matter how strong, cannot resist over-powering supernatural forces. Like Pharaoh in the old testament of the Bible, Okeke’s heart is artistically hardened by the author in order to show the evocatively subduing power of nature. Achebe, like a war general, plans and executes a successful war by deploying the arsenal of combat at the disposal of nature.
Achebe’s dramatisation of character is quite alluring. He deploys characters with unique features and shows them as original characters in their illustrations of the human predicament. Memories of them linger for a long time in the mind of the reader because of the impact that they make on the reader. Alecia McKenzie, a theorist and writer says: The brief encounter nearly always involves quirky original characters full of passion and individuality. You remember them for a long time. Sometimes, they can change your way of seeing and feeling all in the space of a few minutes (18). In the case of Achebe, one cannot forget his characters in a hurry. The ingenuous Roof, the voter in “The Voter,” The mad man who is not so mad as to know how to deflate the “sane” Nwibe in “The Madman,” Gladys who turns from warring to whoring in “Girls at War” and Jonathan Ihegbu, who is kept alive through his transcendental meditation in “Civil Peace” are all memorable characters.
While the fore-going may be said to be the general foundation available to all short story writers, who write in the tradition of Poe, the degree of commitment to these fundamentals by writers cannot be said to be at the same level. Achebe demonstrates a good understanding of the workings of the short story and deploys this knowledge to creating stories that rate among the best in the world. But far beyond the commitment to the theoretical content of the genre stands the uniqueness of Achebe’s art which is perhaps best found in his deployment of narrative techniques. The effervescence of Achebe’s art, in his short stories lies more in his use of folkloric elements, irony, humour, suspense, flashback and surprise. These put his stories on a high pedestal in terms or ranking.
The use of folkloric elements in Achebe’s short stories endears his creative pieces to the reader as they are quite refreshing and entertaining. Beyond that, his use of parables, proverbs, aphorisms, songs and anecdotes give a stamp of Nigerianness to his artistic renditions. Among his peer and succeeding generations, one finds it difficult to encounter such a rich deployment of folk elements in the short story.
Achebe employs a great deal of proverbs and aphorisms to narrate his stories. A few illustrations from three stories will suffice. In “The Madman,” Udenkwo says to her wailing infant “don’t cry, my father, they want to kill your dog, but our people say the man who decides to chase after a chicken, for him is the fall (5). Another interesting proverb can be found in “The Voter.” In the story, Chief the Honourable Marcus Ibe, a politician and “worthy” son of Umuofia is appreciated by the villagers for his resourcefulness. In describing him, one of the elders of Umuofia likens him to a mortar when he says “Our son is a good man; he is not like the mortar which as soon as food comes its way turns its back on the ground” (13). In the “Voter,” Achebe writes “Marcus is a great man and does his things like a great man. We did not ask him for money yesterday; we shall not ask him tomorrow. But today is our day; we have climbed the iroko tree today and would be foolish not to take down all the firewood we need. (14) In Chike’s School Days, Achebe writes ”those who gather ant-infested faggots must be prepared for the visit of lizards” (37). In “Vengeful Creditor,” he deploys a remarkable proverb to drive home a timeless point when he writes that “she is learning fast. Do you know the proverb which says that when mother-cow chews giant grass her little calves watch her mouth?” (64)
Achebe’s short stories are built on irony. He enlists structural irony, verbal irony and rhetorical irony in his short stories. Many of the stories are built on foundations of structural irony, in which case, the entire story is a reflection of what is not. But this has already been said by Balogun in his popular treatise—Modernity and Tradition in the African Short Story— and may not need to be repeated here. What needs to be said here, however, is that irony is the chief device employed by the writer which he exploits for artistic effect, especially his generation of humour.
Achebe’s use of suspense and surprise richly elevate the status of his short fiction to great heights. The twin features of suspense and surprise possess the artistic effect of uncommon narrative capability that set writers who deploy if from those who do not. While suspense retains the reader’s attention with a deep curiosity to find out what happens next, surprise is a deliberate presentation of the unexpected based on the reader’s expectation as earlier fore-grounded by the writer. To us, this is the hidden technique used by Achebe to ensure that his story grabs and shakes his reader. The gripping effect of the technique of surprise is generally evident in Achebe’s short stories. It is however very evident in “Akueke” where a female character by the name of the story title is thrown into the evil forest and presumed dead. Her heartless brothers do not find her or her living or mauled remains the morning after. They are convinced that the destructive custodians and resident evil of the evil forest have subjected their sister to a worse ordeal. Achebe holds everyone in suspense until in the end of the narrative he shows Akueke, looking healthy and happy and resplendent in her uncle’s village and enjoying the loving warmth of a parent she did not have at home.
The ingenious action of Rufus, the voter in “The Voter” leaves a gripping effect on the reader as his action takes everyone by surprise. Fore-grounded earlier as a die-hard loyalist of Marcus Ibe, the politician, no one would expect Roof to ever betray his benefactor. The fact that he is on oath to vote for Ibe’s contender compounds his problem, but no reader imagined his ingenuous escape from his self-imposed dilemma.
Achebe resolves his quagmire through the artistic effect of surprise resolution.
This discourse has examined the content and quality of the Achebe short story with a view to revealing the reasons that make his short stories stand tall. Tallness in this essay has been handled in two ways: What gives the Achebe story the impetus to walk tall and proud on the pages of books and anthologies, drawing accolades and attracting re-readings and secondly why do they stand tall even when they are short?
This endeavour has attempted to answer both questions by recourse to an in-depth analysis of the stories in line with the comments of leading short story critics, scholars and writers as well as a direct assessment of the stories based on their artistry and effect on the reader.
In summary, Achebe’s stories conform, and creatively too, to the theories of the short story, especially to the prescriptions of Edgar Allan Poe, considered by many as the father of the modern short story. Furthermore, at the personal level, Achebe’s touch, which is prominent in his narrative undertakings, and the masterful handling of narrative techniques stand him apart from other Nigerian short story writers. Achebe’s stories are indeed tall today, but as masterpieces, they enjoy the constant watering of scholars and critics whose comments as nourishment will ensure that they grow even taller with time in our literary world.
• Dr. Adekunle Mamudu teaches literature at the University of Benin.