Book review: 'Chike and the River' by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe's "Chike and the River" reads with the directness of a folk tale, even though it's set in the modern world. Originally published in 1966, eight years after the author's landmark novel "Things Fall Apart," it is the first of his four children's books, the story of a boy named Chike who yearns to cross the Niger River, for no other reason than to see what's on the other side.
Achebe is one of the signal figures of contemporary African literature, a writer who put the continent on the literary map. "Things Fall Apart," his first novel and still his masterpiece, traces with delicate acuity the clash of traditional and Western cultures through the figure of a man, Okonkwo, caught between the old ways and the new. His battle to preserve not just his identity but also that of his village is tragic and heartbreaking, for he is doomed by the very attributes that in another time might well have served him: his sense of his position, of his responsibility and, ultimately, his sense of self.
"Chike and the River" has only the loosest connection to "Things Fall Apart" -- it opens in Umuofia, the same village where the novel is set. Still, it's difficult to read without thinking of Okonkwo's story, which in some sense underlies the action of the book. Without the tensions that "Things Fall Apart" illuminates, after all, there would be nothing for Chike to navigate, as he moves from Umuofia to the river town of Onitsha, where he lives with his uncle, who works there as a clerk.
"In Umuofia," Achebe writes, "every thief was known, but here even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another. Chike was told by his uncle's servant that sometimes a man died in one room and his neighbor in the next room would be playing his gramophone. It was all very strange."
For Chike, such strangeness is at the heart of everything, even as he goes to school and makes friends. This gives his fascination with the river an aspect of the elemental, as if here, at least, he has found a connection that make sense. It is a matter of adventure, of curiosity even, although Chike knows curiosity has its price. To highlight that, Achebe tells us of "the proverb about the overcurious monkey who got a bullet in the brain."
In moments like this, we see the push-pull of modernity and tradition, the collision of the present and the past. That's what "Things Fall Apart" sought to evoke, and in a very real sense, it motivates "Chike and the River," as well. Unlike "Things Fall Apart," this is no cautionary tale, although Chike is surprised, ultimately, by how his encounter with the river changes everything.
"So he thought," Achebe writes, "what was the use of dreaming? As his mother used to say: A poor man should not dream of rice." But more important is the realization that only by dreaming can Chike enlarge himself -- a compelling metaphor for modernization, despite its discontents.
-- David L. Ulin