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Is Unoka the Unsung Hero of Things Fall Apart?

Is Unoka the Unsung Hero of Things Fall Apart?

“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 the complete meaning of this character alone.

Achebe tells us that Unoka is lazy, imprudent and incapable of thinking about tomorrow. He is a spendthrift, a debtor, a failure, and a loafer who can barely feed his family or pay his debt. Perhaps, worst of all, he is a coward who cannot stand the sight of blood. 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 precursor for the return of the dry season with its heady festivities and merrymaking.

Had Achebe left things that way, everything would have been just perfect. He didn’t. In a way that only a genius could contrive, Achebe redeems this effeminate character with the story of the clever 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.

Achebe reinforces this insight in the passage where Okonkwo is reeling from his first major setback as a hard-working farmer. He took a hit from a general crop failure that year. Okonkwo seemed overwhelmed by the conspiracy of fate against his painstaking efforts and the repeated affirmations of his chi. Unoka sidles up to him with his small talk. “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.”

These profound words of consolation combine effectively with his wise saying about the sun to bestow the toga of an unsung philosopher on Unoka. The question is, who is Unoka? Is he 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?

On 17 June 2024, the Centre for Memories, Enugu, interrogated 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.”

Panellists were Prof Florence Orabueze, poet, researcher and professor of English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Orabueze is also a former Institute of African Studies Director at UNN. Then, there’s Dr. Ikechukwu Erojikwe, a poet, playwright, theatre director, and senior lecturer in theatre and film studies at UNN and James Eze, poet, author, singer and communications strategist.

Anulika Iwoba glowed with intelligence as she moderated. The terrific duo of Iheanyi Igboko and Ifeoma Nnamani of Centre for Memories set a perfect stage for the Unoka dialogue.

Here is the heart of the matter: Achebe tells us in the book’s opening chapter that “Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure,” but he presents him as a cleverly veiled philosopher in subsequent paragraphs. Unoka is plagued with internal contradictions, reflecting Achebe’s deep fascination with 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?

I was asked to share my experience as a modern-day Unoka. At that point, I argued that, like a turtle to its shell, the artist is wedded to the initial indifference of his audience. I cited cases of unappreciated artists like the Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh and El Greco, the 16th-century Greek painter, sculptor and architect. I 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.

Achebe was very clever in constructing the Unoka character, making it difficult to see him wholly as a helpless victim of a society set in its ways by presenting Okoye as a counterpoise. Okoye is a fellow artist who has made good. Okoye is a hard-working farmer with 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 would strip Unoka of all excuses. Viewed from this angle, Unoka appears to be his enemy. Poverty begins to look like a wilful choice he made!

Two brilliant panellists joined the online conversation. The critic, writer, activist, and influential figure Ikhide R Ikheloa and the journalist Kelechi Deca, who both command impressive social media followings, made invaluable submissions.

Prof Orabueze argues that Unoka is a misunderstood philosopher, a deep thinker and a humanist who values human life above the brawny masculinity of his time. Casting 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 reschedule his debts. In Unoka’s effete nature, she sees a delicate seasoning of the overawing patriarchy of Umuofia with a silent feminine strength. Orabueze submits 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!

Dr Erojikwe argues that artists who quickly list excuses for their failure in these modern times merely hide 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 recalled his 2023 breakthrough in staging “Ikenga,” a dramatic invocation of the historic Igbo Landing to mark 200 years of the actual Igbo Landing tragedy. Success stories like his invalidate the choice of citing societal rejection as a soothing alibi for failure by some artists who should be successful.

Poet and broadcaster Ken Ike Okere blamed Unoka for wilful poverty while observing that artistic creativity was not superior to other gifts. Unoka failed himself woefully by not making his talent pay his bills, just like other workers and artisans of his time. The value of talent is what it can do for the talented.

Many readers see Unoka as a classic case of the consummate artist whose devotion to his art renders him incapable of any other productive work. Was he ahead of his time? 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 humanity has made since Umuofia.

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


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