Up until recently, I would not pick up a political drama unless it was part of mandatory reading for a college literature class. So, when I decided (on a whim) to read Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, I wasn’t too excited. But I went for it anyway since I quite liked Arrow of God, which I read for a college literature class. So, to write my impressions about Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People without making it a critical analysis that looks into cultural references, gender roles and symbolism is a tall order to fulfill. Simply because the book is rich in all these aspects which deserve a critical discourse, and to not look at these aspects is (in my opinion) robbing the book of the messages that it truly wants to convey.
So, let me make an exception and try to do justice to the book. But yes, I will try my best to not make it a full-fledged critical analysis. A Man of the People, narrated by Odili Samalu, looks at the actions of Mr. Nanga, a strong political leader in a high position in the government and the repercussions. Mr. Nanga, is a man of the people. He wields power in a way that inspires awe and obedience from the people, and gives him the status of a demi-god. And Odili (using the ‘Americanized’ way of addressing the narrator), who is averse to Mr. Nanga in the first few pages, shows us that he is only human, is not immune to the politician’s charm and bush ways.
Concepts of trust and mistrust are prevalent throughout the book. And it makes you wonder what it must be like to constantly have to watch your back. Yet Odili proves to be a resilient soul. No matter how many reasons he has to mistrust people, he refuses to look back in fear. He ‘eats at the hills like a yam’. However, this (in my eyes) does not make him the quintessential hero. He does not have the qualities that I would subscribe to a hero. He does not get his way with most things in life. Yet, he is surprisingly focused.
Another concept that Achebe addresses is the presence of the white man and his ways. A Man of the People is sprinkled with references to how the community does not think highly of the things Americans and the British do. But, there is no escaping the allure of it. Whether it is the way people address each other, the convenience of language, or the need to appear more modern vs ‘bush’, the American and British ways of doing things appear to be better. Yet, the resistance to it is also evident. While Mr. Nanga talks in English and travels to America, he still sends his children to their village, so that they are in touch with their roots.
Achebe shines the light on gender roles too in the book. One line in particular that struck me, and I believe summarizes the way women were perceived at the time when the book was written, was this: ‘My brother, when those standing have not got their share you are talking about those kneeling.’ This is what Mrs. Nanga has to say to Odili when she was asked why she would not be accompanying her husband to America. Here, ‘those standing’ refers to men, and ‘those kneeling’ are the women. Cultural misinterpretations are another concept on which Achebe throws light. Well, all of this unveils in a story that’s about the complex relationship between Odili and Mr. Nanga.