This is a list of four books that made me reflect about what it means to be a human being, to choose good over bad, to look for the truth.
- FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, published in 1866
In his novel, Dostoevsky is trying to find an answer to the following question: God is dead, so now what? What are people supposed to do now that religion has taken a back seat and more and more lives don’t evolve around God again? In such a world, good and bad should be equivalent. Why would someone choose one over the other? After all, nobody will condemn you for eternity anymore. His hero, Raskolnikov, a poor student, is weighing the murder of an old rich woman, against the salvation from prostitution of his younger sister who doesn’t have any other means to help their family out. Is it really wrong to kill an old lady who is going to die soon anyway, in order to relieve the suffering of a young innocent girl? Are all lives equally important? What is good? What is bad? How do you live without God? Does the aim justify the means? The book is quite gripping as it makes you go through the young man’s doubts and makes you reflect on your own choices.
- FRANZ KAFKA – THE CASTLE, published in 1926
I have noticed that most of the time, it is not the more renowned book of an author that I will prefer. And it is the case with Kafka, a Jewish Czech author whose book, The Trial, is the most acclaimed.
The Castle is a strange story, as always with Kafka, The hero, simply named K., is a land surveyor hired by the Castle. But he doesn’t really know which work he is employed for, and all through the book he is trying very hard to contact, the mysterious Castle, which is an enigmatic office, that operate in very strange ways. When at the end of the story, after various efforts, K. succeeds in seeing one of the bosses in the Castle, and gets a chance to understand not only what is expected from him in particular, but also how life works in general, something happens that makes the encounter a missed opportunity. I liked that part of the book very much and I couldn’t stop laughing. Not every part of the book got my full attention, though, for instance, I was not really interested in the enigmatic love affair. What appeals to me however is that it is not merely the story of a surveyor but it is more about the meaning of life, and how we are kept in the dark about it, wandering and asking questions which answers are in this unreachable Castle.
- CHINUA ACHEBE – ARROW OF GOD, published in 1964
This one is the book I prefer from Chinua Achebe. I came to know about it, when it was mentioned by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, as a must read, along with No longer at ease. I had already read, Things fall apart, but I didn’t plan to read further works from Achebe. However, I followed Chimamanda’s advice and I was so happy about it. What I like in this book is the way Achebe, let us inside his character, the proud traditional Chief Priest, Ezeulu, that is so devoted to serving his God, Olu. His stubbornness, and his rightfulness makes him stand against his own people and against the white man, but then who says the Gods will always stand by you even if you are faithfully fighting their battles? Or is it your own pride and your own battle you are fighting under your holly disguise? Are not ancient Gods destined to die anyway and replaced by new ones?
That is how six villages came together to defeat their common enemy, and the need arose for a new God to be created in order to protect this bigger community and he was named Olu. Priests and worshippers of the lesser Gods were not so happy about the prominent position of this new God and his Chief Priest, Ezeulu, despite the fact that they could continue to pay tribute to all of them. In the meantime, Christian missionaries have arrived with a God of their own, and things became even more complicated. Of course, some people will always lay their loyalty where their mouth is, and worship this one the first day, and that one the next day, just in case.
Achebe, in this book too, is analyzing the process leading to the moment where “things fall apart”. Ezeulu is an endearing character because even though he is too proud, he is also trying to salvage what is left of ancient tradition, what he believes in. The beauty of the book lies in the subtlety of the conversation between the villagers. Achebe gives a humorous account of the twists and turns of their discourses, which really show how ancient Africans mastered the art of oratory, talking in proverbs and never straight to the point but still making their opinion known. The portraits of women replying sharply to their husbands also give a true picture of what village life really was, women being submissive, of course, but still not afraid of speaking their mind.
- BUCHI EMECHETA – THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD, published in 1979
Two stories are told in this book. One is a love story that takes place in ancient time, in the village, and features the regal and beautiful Ona and the fierce and handsome Agbadi, that story is so passionate and intense that it could be counted among the likes of Romeo and Juliet! And then the second story we are narrated is the more modern story of Nnu Ego, who, at the beginning of the book, laments her childlessness until she discovers the much talked about “joys of motherhood”. If I was a filmmaker, I would love to adapt this book into a film and succeed in combining those two different tales as well as Buchi Emecheta did. These two different parts are mingled beautifully and are both equally interesting. Nollywood directors who seem more often than not in search of a good script should rely more on Nigerian Literature, which offers countless and diverse sources of inspiration. Anyway, I will not dwell on the love story, which will very much be enjoyed while reading. The motherhood story however, will get someone reflect on how motherhood is too often glorified and falsely portrayed. I always marvel at how motherhood is often described like a fairy tale. Am I the only mother to have gone and still going through very painful moments while raising her children? Because even when you think your job is done, when one of your children faces an issue, you can’t be at ease. When I see an actress like Angelina Jolie, adopting one, two, three and still counting, I am like, really? Will those children stay beautiful young angels all their life or are they going to grow into lost and fearful teens and young adults that will need their own strength plus all yours to grow? It is like there is an Omerta or a Code of Honor among mothers, preventing us from telling the truth about what it is like to raise children, and making parents, whose children’s disorders are more visible, feel like failures. Buchi Emecheta broke that silence in her book and I hail her for that, because it takes courage.