Achebe can only fulfill his cultural responsibility by recounting as faithfully as he can the collapse of Igbo tradition — and, as a part of that recounting, the multiple causes which brought about the collapse. He too could have told a story in which his people are merely victims who contribute nothing to their own destruction; but that was not, as he understood it, wie es eigentlich gewesen, though it contains most of the truth. The mores of academic post-colonial discourse, which (for good reason) focus our attention on the cruelties of the colonial powers, do not encourage us to note the complexity of Achebe’s responses to the colonial situation. Achebe’s attacks on Western cultural imperialism, especially when he is speaking to a Western audience, can be righteously indignant and appropriately scathing; but it is only by honestly detailing the internal contradictions that beset Igbo culture that he can point to the possible future re-integration of that culture.
And one of the ways that he seeks to prompt that re-integration is by reminding his people that it must be a collective task. They must share in the work of interpretation and discernment that Ezeulu heroically took on all by himself: they cannot merely rely upon a griot or priest to tell them how they should interpret their cultural situation. And in insisting upon this point, Achebe is following an old storyteller’s path. In his collection African Folktales, Roger Abrahams includes a section of “Stories to Discuss and Even Argue About.” These stories are divided into two groups. In one group, says Abrahams, are “profound moral examples, stories that explicate a lesson, or answer a central question.” Stories of this type, Abrahams goes on, are typically recounted “in those situations in which a purportedly wiser person speaks to those less knowledgeable in the ways of the world.” But in the other group are “dilemma tales, tales without an end” — by which Abrahams means tales that do not offer answers or resolutions. Many of them in fact end with questions. These stories, Abrahams explains, are told “among cohorts of equal experience and power.” So the wisdom which Achebe offers in Arrow of God is not the wisdom of answer and explication: it is the wisdom of knowing what task confronts his people — coupled with the determination to proclaim this most difficult kind of knowledge. Achebe refuses the easy virtue of one-sided readings, instead presenting the Igbo people with the challenge of interpretation: “This is what has befallen us; now what do we make of it?”
From my essay “Storytellers and Interpreters in Chinua Achebe,” in this volume