July 19, 2024

Is Unoka the unsung hero of ‘Things Fall Apart?’

  • July 5, 2024
  • 9 min read
Is Unoka the unsung hero of ‘Things Fall Apart?’

By James Eze

“No artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” argues T.S Eliot in his epic essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’

NOTHING in literature reminds me of Eliot’s declaration with as much vivid clarity as the complexity woven into the character of Unoka in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Unoka is so intricately constructed that he leaves the unwary reader wondering if Achebe had complete meaning of this character alone.

And this is why. In no uncertain terms, Achebe tells us that Unoka is lazy, imprudent and incapable of thinking about tomorrow. That he is a spendthrift, a debtor, a failure and a loafer who could barely feed his family or pay his debt and perhaps, worst of all, a coward who could not stand the sight of blood. That he is a lover of “the good fare” who even as a boy often wandered around looking for a kite sailing leisurely against the blue sky, which was regarded in Umuofia as a harbinger for the return of the dry season with its heady festivities and merrymaking.

On the surface therefore, Unoka’s character appears simple; a pathetic loser who chooses the less difficult path in a society where manliness is defined by rippling acts of courage and the strength of a man’s arm. To sum it up therefore, Unoka chooses to be a failure where raw masculinity is the overarching identity of success.

Had Achebe left things that way, everything would have been just perfect. Sadly, he didn’t. In fact, in a way that only a genius could contrive, Achebe redeems this effeminate character with the story of his adroit rescheduling of his pile of debt to Okoye, a fellow artist. Lending nuance to this otherwise simple character, Achebe made Unoka remind Okoye with all the histrionics to boot, that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. Gently, the reader is offered a rare insight into the labyrinth of Unoka’s mind… a character whose depth is concealed by the veil of laziness and his love of the good fare. This flash of insight is masterfully re-enforced in the passage where Okonkwo is reeling from his first major setback as a hard working farmer. He had taken a hit from a general crop failure that year, and seemed overwhelmed by the conspiracy of fate against his painstaking efforts and against the repeated affirmations of his chi. Unoka sidles up to him with his small talks: “You have a manly and proud heart,” he says. “A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” The profundity of these presumably simple words of consolation combines effectively with his wise saying about the sun to bestow the toga of an unsung philosopher on Unoka, thus setting the stage for an endless dialogue on his character. The question is, who really is Unoka? A coward who dreads the sight of blood or a recondite philosopher who came ahead of his time to laugh at the foolish manliness of Umuofia?

Penultimate week, the Centre for Memories, Enugu, took a stab at the Unoka paradox when it marked the 66th anniversary of Things Fall Apart under the theme, “Rethinking Unoka of Things Fall Apart: The Place of Artists in a Society that Underappreciates Art.” On the panel was a poet, researcher and professor of English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Prof. Florence Orabueze. Orabueze is also a former director of the Institute of African Studies at UNN. Then, there was a poet, playwright, theatre director and senior lecturer in Theatre and Film Studies at UNN, Dr. Ikechukwu Erojikwe, with me completing up the trio of discussants. The moderator, Anulika Iwoba, sat in the corner glowing with intelligence. The terrific duo of Iheanyi Igboko and Ifeoma Nnamani of Centre for Memories had set a perfect stage for the Unoka dialogue.

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James Eze

The unspoken question before the panel was: what side of Unoka should the reader walk away with? Was Unoka truly a failure or a success? Was he rightly understood by the society that considered him an unmitigated failure or was he painfully misunderstood for being a forerunner of the imminent transition from a patriarchal society to a new order? Here is the heart of the matter; Achebe directly tells us in the opening chapter of the book that “Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure,” but in subsequent paragraphs he presents him as a cleverly veiled philosopher. Unoka is plagued with sizzling internal contradictions which reflect Achebe’s deep fascination with the concept of dualism. Nothing ever stands alone. Where one thing stands, another stands beside it. A corollary to this is the lingering hint that some unwary readers might be drawn to assume that an extraordinary mind like Achebe may not have had the complete meaning of his work alone. Is Eliot right then?

Now, the meaty part of the Unoka dialogue began when I was directly asked to share my experience as a modern day Unoka, whereupon I had argued that like a turtle to its shell, the artist is wedded to the initial indifference of his audience. I cited known cases of unappreciated artists like the Dutch master, Vincent Van Gogh and the 16th Century Greek painter, sculptor and architect, El Greco, and warned that the life of any worker in symbols is a long tortuous path, and just like Unoka, most of them may never be appreciated while they live. I observed, however, that Achebe was very clever in constructing the Unoka character; making it difficult to see him wholly as a helpless victim of a society that is set in its own ways by presenting Okoye as a counterpoise to him. Okoye is a fellow artist who has made good. A hard-working farmer, Okoye has three wives and a barn full of yams and is on the verge of taking the third highest title in Umuofia. Therefore, if Okoye could fit into the fabric of society, it strips Unoka of all excuses. Viewed from this angle, Unoka appears to be his own enemy. Poverty begins to look like a wilful choice he made!

Before then though, the audience had listened to two brilliant panelists who had joined the conversation online. The critic, writer, activist and influential figure, Ikhide R Ikheloa and the journalist, Kelechi Deca, who both command impressive following on the social media, made invaluable submissions.

Then taking a real bite at the cherry of the evening, Prof. Orabueze takes a back hand to the perspective that Unoka is a failure. She argues that the character is a misunderstood philosopher, a deep thinker and a humanist who values human life above the brawny masculinity of his time. Casting a beatific light on Unoka’s debt-ridden lifestyle, she exhumes a glittering record-keeping habit and an uncanny ability to manipulate his creditors into agreeing to rescheduling his debts. In Unoka’s effete nature, she sees a delicate seasoning of the overawing patriarchy of Umuofia with a silent feminine strength. The sum of Orabueze’s submission therefore is that Unoka is neither a failure nor a coward, but a brilliant and skilled artist whose refinement and elevated mind soar above his fellow Umuofians. In essence, the perception of Unoka as a failure is flawed!

Speaking in a subtle but engaging tone, theatre director and university don, Dr. Erojikwe argues that artists who are quick to list excuses for their failure in these modern times are merely hiding behind a finger. Citing his personal experience, he argues that technology has bridged the gap between the artist and his audience so much that little room is left for excuses. He recalls his breakthrough in staging Ikenga, a dramatic invocation of the historic Igbo Landing to mark 200 years of the actual Igbo Landing tragedy in 2023. Success stories like his invalidate the choice of citing societal rejection as a soothing alibi for failure by some artists who should be successful.

The poet and broadcaster, Ken Ike Okere took the microphone when the session was thrown open to the audience. He blamed Unoka for his wilful poverty while further observing that the gift of artistic creativity was not superior to other gifts. Therefore, Unoka failed himself woefully by not making his talent pay his bills just like other workmen and artisans of his time. At the end of the day, the value of talent is what it can do for the talented.

While that may be a valid way to look at it, Unoka still enjoys the applause of many readers who insist that excelling in one’s primary calling ought to be enough. They blame his appalling destitution on the insensitivity of the society or its inability to prioritize Unoka’s craft as it did other crafts of the era. They argue that many Nigerian Afrobeats artistes are billionaires from their art. Had Unoka not been ahead of his time, they say, he would have been among the billionaire musicians. While that might seem plausible, it falls short of acceptable logic; since there are still many Unoka musicians amongst us today even with all the progress mankind has made since Umuofia.

Regardless, a large army of readers see Unoka as a classic case of the consummate artist whose devotion to his art renders him incapable of any other productive work. They are quick to point at Unoka’s introspective capability and his astute diplomacy which made it impossible for creditors to turn down his loan requests, but they hardly remember that it takes only a crafty villain to ward off Okoye with a dramatic burst of prolonged laughter and the small talks about who the sun must shine on first, as Unoka swiftly conjured to checkmate someone who, out of the kindness of his heart, had lent him a hand when he was in need.

In the end, is Unoka the hero of Things Fall Apart or Okonkwo?

Eze, a poet, singer and PR Strategist, writes from Enugu

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