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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Chinua Achebe's Africa, and the magic of Marquez

Last week I read two very different kinds of novels,both by acknowledged literary heavyweights.The first was "Things Fall Apart",by Chinua Achebe,and the other was "Chronicle of a Death Foretold",by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.The former is perhaps one of the most talked-about works of the last century,widely recognized as The Great African Novel.I was aware of this when I started the book,and I must say,I wasn't disappointed one bit.

The novel focuses on the Igbo tribes of Umuofia(in Achebe's native Nigeria)and in particular,the life of Okonkwo,local leader and one-time wrestling champ.His father Unoka was a good-for-nothing,lazy idler who preferred playing his flute to working in the fields.Throughout his life,Okonkwo is consumed by a burning desire to prove that he did not inherit his father's weakness and laziness.He is thus,the classical flawed hero,whose pride and anger often override his essentially rational and kind nature.This is beautifully described in the scene where he kills Ikemefuna,a young boy from a neighbouring village,whom he had taken under his wing,only because the Oracle had decreed his killing.He does so even though the village elder advised him not to do so(as the boy called him father).His desire to be seen as a "strong-willed" man is far too important for him.

The life of the tribals has been chronicled with an obesessive eye for detail and a compassionate tone rarely seen nowadays.From the yam crops to the marriage customs,from the oracles,ancestral spirits and witch-doctors to the strict code of conduct,one comes out of the novel with a deep understandingof the Igbo people and their seemingly incomprehensible ways.However,as the story progesses,things do start to fall apart,as Okonkwo is banished for seven years,for inadvertently killing a boy.Upon his return,he is dismayed to find Christian converts in his native village,and even more so to see his own son Nwoye among them.(Nwoye never really recovered from his best friend Ikemefuna's death).What unfolds next tests Okonkwo's own honour as well as the dignity and independence of the Igbo people.

This is a terrific story,simply yet exquisitely told,with an eye for irony.It richly deserves that grossly overused term "classic".

Magical Marquez

"ON THE DAY THEY WERE GOING TO KILL him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on."This is the delicious opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" ,partly inspired by the famous opening line of "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka, who is clearly a huge inflence on Marquez.This is the story of the murder of Santiago Nasar,and how nearly the entire town was,in a way,complicit.It is difficult to find conventional structures of chronology and narrative here,but this jamboree somehow comes together under the masterly pen of Marquez.There are conflicting versions,half-truths and lies,misunderstandings and misinterpretations.....all of these combine to create the quintessential Marquez mood.

A young bride Angela Vicario is spurned on her wedding night,when her husband finds out that she is not a virgin.And when she names Santiago Nasar as her "perpetrator",her twin brothers vow to kill him.A fantastic yet believable (the magic realism Marquez is famous for) tale unfolds as dozens of people,each having their own reasons,fail to warn Nasar of the impending threat.

This was my fifth Marquez novel,and he never ceases to amaze me.Let's hope Gabo(as he is affectionately called) continues to dazzle us in the years to come.

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