Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Flying from the Enchanter: From Narrative Empathy to the Questioning of Narratorial Reliability in Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Flying from the Enchanter: From Narrative Empathy to the Questioning of Narratorial Reliability in Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People

Article excerpt


Chinua Achebe's fourth novel, A Man of the People (henceforth MOP), aptly stages two of the most memorable characters in the African literature of the second half of the 20th century: the protagonist Chief Nanga, a Minister of Culture, and the narrator-antagonist Odili Samalu, a grammar school teacher. The popularity and cultural significance of these characters are such that the words 'Nanga' and 'Odili' have entered the African political dictionary as common nouns in much the same way as, say, Lawino and Ocol. Additionally, the personages themselves have become proverbial prototypes of two opposing approaches to the political future of Africa.

But, while Chief Nanga has invariably been pilloried by readers and critics alike, Odili Samalu has generally enjoyed a gushingly sympathetic and laudatory treatment from them. Cases in point are the appraisals of Bernth Lindfors, Qiang Hu, Vachaspati Dwivedi and Kennedy Lubengu, to name just a handful.

The eagle-eyed American critic, Bernth Lindfors, disparaged Chief Nanga as 'one of the finest rogues in Nigerian literature;' as 'a self-seeking, grossly corrupt politician who lives in flamboyant opulence on his ill-gotten gains' (Lindfors 1978: 61). Conversely, he commended Odili Samalu as a man who has somehow 'managed to remain untainted amidst all the surrounding corruption;' as a commentator whose 'clear vision provides an undistorted view of a warped society' and whose word 'can be trusted to be accurate and honest' (p. 62, emphasis added). Qiang Hu subscribes to this value judgment. He tacitly casts Chief Nanga into the basket of actors on the theater of 'corruption and political immorality,' which vices Odili Samalu is said to condemn from a detached position (1998: 25, emphasis added). It is worth noting here that Hu's ascription of 'objectivity' to Odili does not mesh at all with his later denunciation of the 'built-in bias and limitation' (p. 26) inherent in Odili's first-person narration. As to Dwivedi, he walks in the footsteps of his predecessors in scorning Chief Nanga as a 'villain,' as the embodiment of corruption, and in praising Odili's detached firstperson perspective (2008: 3, emphasis added). This critic goes much further as to lyrically eulogize Odili as the incarnation of morality, the mediator of Achebe's vision (2008: 3) or the character through whom Achebe 'successfully projected his ideals (p. 10). The same lyrical note tinges Lubengu's praise of Odili 'who today remains my undisputed hero of the over 200 literary texts I have read' (2013: 28) and who is his political role model.

I am concerned with Odili's (un)reliability as narrator and actor for two major reasons. First, Odili is the communicative bridge and the semantic nexus between the (implied) author and his/her (implied) audience. Second, inasmuch as (un)reliable narration is situated at the interface of aesthetics and ethics, the determination of a narrator's (un)reliability has farreaching interpretive consequences (Nünning 2005: 90): it is a gateway to the decoding of authorial communicative intent. In this paper, I argue that the scandalous bestowal of an undistorted view, a detached position or a detached perspective upon Odili is a normal effect of narrative empathy. Also, this empathy can be only short-lived in the face of a stupendous amount of textually schematized clues of narratorial unreliability which elicit epistemological doubt from the (implied) reader and alarm his/her cognitive mechanisms into the exercise of epistemic vigilance. I therefore withdraw the reliability badge from Odili, taking the stance that he is an unreliable narrator and that narratorial unreliability is intentionally encoded in MOP by the (implied) author as a stylistic device, i.e. for the purpose of generating irony. This being so, my approach is markedly narratological.

Theoretical Framework: Narrative Empathy and Unreliable Narration

Narrative Empathy

The British experimental psychologist Edward B. …

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