A Man of the People
African Literature – Literary Fiction
An inspiring 4 out of 5
By the renowned author of “Things Fall Apart,” this novel foreshadows the Nigerian coups of 1966 and shows the color and vivacity as well as the violence and corruption of a society making its own way between the two worlds.
This novel was included in Anthony Burgess’s personal selection of the 99 best novels in English since 1939.
2021 opened with an old box of books, and a TBR list that needed to be dusted off. Top of the pile – and thin in comparison to the rest – Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People was a book my mother often touted around the house, proclaiming to all, “It’s a must read.”
After reading the book, I share a fair bit of her sentiments.
The opening paragraph was all I needed to pull me into Achebe’s writing style and immediate characterization. It was a freshness to writing I perhaps needed from the novels and authors I usually surround myself with.
An interesting note lay in Achebe’s use of Pidgin English during dialogue and other parts, grounding the story in its African setting. It does take some getting used to, and I often had to reread a line to make sure I got the meaning correct.
Overall, the writing flows well and pulls you into the story, characters, and ensuing drama surrounding narrator and protagonist, Odili Samalu.
The novel opens with an introduction to the main man of the story, Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga MP (his titles are important), a charming politician, husband, and true man of the people. His meeting with Odili leads to a revelation of what truly happens behind the closed doors of powerful, influential people. Of somber sacrifices, debatable questions of morality, and murky “for the good of the people” grey-areas that can quickly drown or elevate a man by simply manipulating perspective.
Subsumed in the story is Odili’s humanly-irreproachable personality and genuine virtuousness, contrasting the harsh reality of the power, attraction, and seduction of the political world and its leaders. His own life drama entangles with Chief Nanga’s life, bringing with it aspects of love, tragedy, joy, and betrayal.
And hidden in plain sight is the ever-present conflict/debate between the “white-educated” populace and their “locally-educated” peers. It is a conflict I myself struggled with as a black African, when vocabulary and pronunciation had me questioned for being “too white”. Chief Nanga, a true politician, maneuvers around the issue deceptively well, while having an obvious opinion of where he stands and at the same time, never quite reaching it.
At one point I may have stopped the book and compared it to the narrative style of The Great Gatsby. That is, seeing Chief Nanga as the great hero and wonder that he is, and slowly realizing he is flawed and human like the rest of us. Especially in light of Odili’s narration as an outsider, guest, then close friend to the renowned man – though that’s as far as comparisons go.
Achebe’s writing style feels familiar and reads like a recount of an actual story – one can imagine meeting Chief Nanga, Odili, or any of the characters making appearances in the book, in real life. Even the dialogue sounds authentic, sub characters encompass their roles (Dogo the guard comes to mind), and the story continues and flows easily and with purpose.
I have always wondered how stories like these can ever come to an end, and yet an end they must have. This particular ending was not only reflective of the opening paragraph and proceeding events, but also reminiscent of the true struggles that rise when politics, culture, religion, and personal gain have a cost that hits a little too close to home. As one of the characters states, paraphrased,
“Does a man who comes from nothing and finally gets a taste of luxury, willingly give it up?”
The A Man of the People was first published in 1966.
Did you know: Achebe became the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, United States.
Chinua Achebe was a novelist, poet, professor at Brown University and critic. He is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which is the most widely read book in modern African literature.
Achebe’s novels focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of values during and after the colonial era. His style relied heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. He also published a number of short stories, children’s books, and essay collections.