Transitive Measures: Tragedy and Existentialism in African Literature


Ato Quayson in Berfrois:

Readers of Things Fall Apart will recall the moment in the penultimate chapter of the novel when the gathering of the people of Umuofia is rudely interrupted by messengers from the white man. The messengers are confronted by Okonkwo, who happens to have taken a position at the very edge of the gathering. We have already identified the central protagonist as a man of few words and a volatile disposition:

‘What do you want here?’

‘The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop.’
In a flash Okokwo drew his matchet. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s matchet descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body.

The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in the tumult. He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’

He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away (145).

The salience of this momentous event is not so much in the evidence it provides of Okonkwo’s final severance from his society, as in the peculiar contrast suggested in his “knowing” that the tribe will not go to war set against their bewildered question: “Why did he do it?’ For the contrast amounts to the difference between a profound Aristotelian anagnorisis (recognition) and an insuperable epistemological impasse. The recognition is private but the impasse is communal.

More here.