by AHMED MAIWADA.
Kevin McCarron, a Modern English and American Literature teacher at the Roehampton Institute, also a critic with a special interest in the works of William Golding, wrote in the “Writers and their Works” series on William Golding, “…(his) war service, his knowledge of small boys, his love of sailing, are clearly of importance to any understanding of his works, but although we know a number of facts about Golding’s life these facts can never, in themselves, explain the fiction.”
I am persuaded to recommend McCarron’s statement as formula for critics’ in their quest to understand the works of authors: too little knowledge about such authors may be as fatal as improper analysis. Professor Adebayo Lamikanra, for instance, seemingly knew little about Chimamanda Adichie’s life when he wrote in the Nigerian Guardian newspaper of 4th April 2005 that Adichie is “….the daughter of a Nigerian professor, brought up mainly on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka… is therefore a product of the Nigeria’s embattled, increasingly frustrated and perhaps, hopelessly marginalised intelligentsia, which because of its exposure to Western thought and respect for Western culture is increasingly alienated from their own country and culture, so that whilst they are patently not of the West, they are even less of the African.” On this count, the Professor drew a few haphazard parallels between Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and then concluded that the former novel owes tomes of gratitude to the latter. The superficial knowledge of Adichie contributed to Lamikanra’s fatal fall for Adichie’s dummy on the first line of her novel: “Things began to fall apart …” To the Professor, “The first sentence … betrays the debt of gratitude she owes to … Chinua Achebe… the parallel between the Purple Hibiscus and … Things Fall Apart are too strong to be ignored.” An equally wrong-footed Professor Femi Osofisan joined the chorus thus: “…But in fact it is the master, Chinua Achebe himself, that she echoes more accurately by her deliberate manipulation of syntax and trope, her control of irony and suspense, and her mastery of those subtle details that build and heighten affect.” Curiously, while Professor Femi Osofisan did not substantiate his conclusion, Professor Lamikanra provided a few substantively fragile parallels which, when unable to stretch further, made him conclude thus: “The comparison between Achebe and Adichie is endless and it is interesting to note that they each published their first books at roughly the same age.”
This article aims to examine the text of Purple Hibiscus much closer vis-à-vis Adichie’s voracious readership of other texts in order to fully understand her first novel. Overwhelming evidence abounds between the covers of Purple Hibiscus’ to suggest that the novel’s central preoccupation is with the conflict between Jaja and Papa-Nnuku on the one hand, and Mr. Eugene Achike on the other. Jaja’s motivation is to shield his mother from his overbearing father; Papa-Nnuku’s is to avenge the neglect that occasioned his miserable life and eventual death. These facts cancel the notion that Purple Hibiscus is a coming of age, or a girl-child story. It is, rather, a story about the spiritual conflict between good and evil, represented by these three generations of the Achike family.
Spirituality is well woven into the plot of this novel, evidenced by the titles of its three major parts: “BREAKING GODS”, “SPEAKING WITH OUR SPIRITS” and “THE PIECES OF GODS”. Adichie flashes forward the story so that the novel opens in the thick of action—the account of Eugene’s nuclear family on a Palm Sunday. From the available evidence in the book, things have not only begun to fall apart by this date, they have already. Papa-Nnuku is dead. Before then, he had not been allowed into Eugene’s house; but now, in death, he resides there in Jaja’s body, haunting his prosperous Catholic son, Eugene. By Palm Sunday, Jaja is a real devil, having already poisoned his father. Hitherto, the perceptive Eugene has been suspecting Jaja, beginning from when he discovers that his children have lived under the same roof with his “heathen” father–a thing he tried hard to prevent. Kambili, the story teller, accounts: “For a moment I wondered if Papa was right, if being with Papa-Nnuku has made Jaja evil…” The father’s interrogation of his son on Palm Sunday confirms this: “You cannot stop receiving the body of our Lord,” he said. “It is death, you know that.” Jaja replies, albeit sarcastically, that he is not the Jaja that his father knew: “Then I will die… Then I will die, Papa.” He is already dead spiritually!
The proponents of the theory that Purple Hibiscus is heavily indebted to Things Fall Apart have lampooned the former novel for not following in the footsteps of Achebe’s reverence for traditional values—notably in his well-oiled use of proverbs. These critics ignore the fact that traditional values are not the exclusive preserve of Africans; that before Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, there was George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, which powerfully exhibited life in a communal European society, with the same masterly use of proverbs. But Adichie really is not emulating Achebe in any manner or form. In her own way of flavouring Purple Hibiscus with traditional African elements, Adichie deliberately beams some flash lights on the norms of children and wife-beating with sympathetic bias. Eugene’s mugging of his wife, leading to her miscarriage; his beating and torturing of Kambili and Jaja; his other violent conducts at home notwithstanding, Adichie excuses Eugene early enough in the novel. The incident of his beating his children with a belt echoes Christ’s use of the cane in the Synagogue, when he discovered usury in his Father’s house. Here, Adichie shows Eugene admiringly as “Christ-like”. He is still human though. Kambili observes prophetically: “Papa swayed slightly, from side to side, like a person about to fall… His swaying was like shaking a bottle of Coke that bursts into violent foams when you opened it.” The Coke imagery suggests something “good”; the “bursts into violent foams when you opened it”, suggests that a fault lies beneath this “goodness” which does not show unless someone does something to unveil it. And there are several things unveiling this “outburst”: the pressure of Eugene’s struggle with the new Government; the seeming disobedience of the children and wife; and his poisoning. Eugene’s violent conduct become aggravated from the time he appears “swaying”. Although Kambili’s eyes are too young, inexperienced and limited to see his internal pains, it is clearly suggested that Eugene has more pressure than just his struggle with the new military junta that threatens his life and business. But the most persuasive excuse on behalf of Eugene, and tradition, is Amaka, one of the most admirable characters, who symbolises “Africanness”. Adichie gives this credible character the advocacy of pleading for understanding on behalf of Eugene. She said: “Uncle Eugene is not a bad man, really… People have problems, people make mistakes… some people can’t deal with stress.” And this excuse is accepted by the more intelligent and pragmatic Obiora.
Perhaps, the strongest evidence of Purple Hibiscus’ “African flavour”, if ever such a thing really exists, is Adichie’s employment of the fantasy/reality mix to fully develop the novel’s plot. As noted earlier, the title of the second part of the book is “SPEAKING WITH OUR SPIRITS”. Kambili and Jaja have a telepathic way of communicating, using their eyes. But it goes far beyond this. As the part develops, even Eugene exhibits some psychic qualities, which instruct him to keep his “heathen” father at a distance, suspecting the old man to possess evil spirits as a result of his “heathen” faith. We see Eugene in his most terrible rage when this distance is breached, causing him to rush from Abba to Nsukka to salvage Kambili and Jaja from the old man’s company. Alas, Eugene is too late. Upon Papa-Nnuku’s death, Jaja inherited his spirit in a brief and seemingly innocent ceremony when he bends down to cover the old man’s corpse. From this point on, we see a sudden passion in Jaja about matters affecting his late grandfather. Even Kambili cannot recognize her brother. Their eye-contacts become suddenly fruitless for Kambili as a sudden veil is cast over Jaja’s eyes. It is now that Eugene’s real torments begin. Jaja is transformed from a meek, young boy into a cold-blooded killer. In an earlier confirmation of the new spirit in him, he tells Kambili that “I have Papa Nnuku’s arms.” Thereafter, he confirms the evil nature of his new spirit by killing a chicken with such “precision” and a “single-mindedness that was cold and clinical”. Standing up to defy his father becomes a norm, which in turn exasperates and frustrates Eugene, accounting for the most gruesome incident of domestic violence recorded in the book. It may even be added that Kambili would have also been a victim of this spiritual transfer if she has also touched Papa-Nnuku’s corpse at the point of his death. But the influence of evil already in Jaja, together with Papa-Nnuku’s painting, have already affected her negatively, resulting in an unusual show of defiance to her father that earns her a thrashing. That lesser evil in her is finally exorcised by the boiling water incidence in the bathroom, which is more ritualistic than an informal correction process. That Jaja can have Papa-Nnuku’s arms accentuates the mystical claims of the novel. Adichie probably used it as a plausible explanation for the martyrdom of Eugene, or to justify Jaja’s action, as one life is sacrificed to pay for another that was wasted. The Greek concept of the duex ex machina [a supernatural intervention] is employed. Papa-Nnuku is already dead. But we don’t forget his smiling face at death, which complements the notion of a slow-in-coming revenge over his son. Jaja becomes the emissary of Papa-Nnuku’s god, to take revenge and also rescue the family from a “wicked” head. And this is accomplished by virtue of the poisoning, and eventual death, of Eugene.
Eugene’s death can be better appreciated while viewing his complex roles in the novel. He is father, husband, son, brother, uncle, in-law, parishioner, employer, benefactor, counsellor, and more to several people. It is in his relationship with his church, business and village that Eugene’s Christ-like quality sparkles. He is a generous giver, yet very humble; caring and loving, though strict; and very truthful. He declines the Government’s bribe brought to his home in a van. It is noteworthy that even though he withholds the truth from the public [including the church] concerning the reasons for the “accidents” in his home, he does not lie about them. Eugene will pray for the forgiveness of his real or perceived enemies; he will give his killer father and son the opportunity to be saved from their sins. His actions are motivated by his own interpretation of love. His errors are excusable. Indeed, his conspiring wife had the option of leaving him to his conduct, but refuses to take it—a solid foundation to argue that his murder is unjustified. And since it is his faith crusades that eventually pitch him against his enemies, leading to his murder, it is apt to conclude that Eugene is a martyr.
Purple Hibiscus is told in the first-person narrative style. The language is simple and sometimes lyrical. As stated earlier, it is an account of sights and sounds from the mouth of a quiet witness, Kambili. Kambili’s narration “envelopes” the accounts of other eye-witnesses like Mama, Aunty Ifeoma, Jaja and Ade Coker. In Adichie’s employment of the “shift in perspective” technique, Kambili’s focus is beamed beyond the seclusion of the Achike family house in Abba to the wider society. Some reviewers argue that the political sub-plot of Purple Hibiscus does not complement its main plot. This view is incorrect. It is chiefly through this sub-plot that the novel’s setting emerges. Ade Coker reminds us of the late Dele Giwa, who was bombed to death in Lagos during the Babangida military regime. By localizing this sub-plot and its drama to Abba, the setting becomes modern Nigeria as a whole. The political sub-plot also aggravates the drama in the main plot by fuelling Eugene’s stress, in this way helping to shake the “Coke bottle” and hasten the drama and the suspense that brought about his tragedy.
The novel’s faults cannot be ignored. The point of view, despite its enveloping nature, is too rigid. Adichie gets too preoccupied with amplifying the unfolding drama [about half of which runs behind thick veils] through Kambili’s keen sight and hearing that she regulates Kambili so much, causing the novel one of its major weaknesses: Kambili’s ‘arrested development’. This could have been cured by the adoption of the omniscient narrative technique. The title also seems to be a fault. As is clear now, the novel is chiefly about Eugene, Jaja and Papa-Nnuku. The title, therefore, should have been something more reflective of their conflicts. Yet, the unpardonable fault lies in the Kambili/Father Amadi sub-plot. This sub-plot contains no complementarity with the novel’s main plot. Secondly, despite its irrelevance to the structure, it exhibits an unacceptable level of textual relationship to Colleen McCullough’s epic and bestselling novel, The Thorn Birds, which will be examined shortly.
It is apt to posit that Purple Hibiscus presents us with a conflict of good versus evil, or Catholic versus traditional faiths, or Eugene Achike versus Papa-Nnuku/Jaja. In the end evil overcomes. The release of Jaja from prison in the closing chapter of the book caps the pessimistic tone of Purple Hibiscus, qualifying it for classification as a dystopian novel, with Adichie clearly pitching her tent with the vanquished.
Yet, a fuller understanding of Purple Hibiscus is not possible by merely examining the text. Adichie must also be examined. Who really is Chimamanda Adichie, beside what Professor Lamikanra has offered us above? For a fact, Adichie is a wide reader, quoted as saying: “Oftentimes I get questions like ‘How did you do it?’ and it’s almost as if there is some magic formula which I don’t have. The secret is simply that if you want to write well, you have to read widely.” And here lies the key to a better understanding of Purple Hibiscus. It is admitted that some instances of textual relationship exist between Purple Hibiscus and Things Fall Apart. But they are very limited, perhaps not far beyond the first sentence of Purple Hibiscus. A keener observer may even notice glimmers from Helon Habila’s Prison Stories snuggled in between its covers. However, it is indeed Colleen McCullough’s novel The Thorn Birds that chiefly influenced Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, and perhaps herself, as a writer.
Like Purple Hibiscus, The Thorn Birds was written by a woman. One may mention that Adichie’s every chapter also begins with a flower image and there are those double-spacing between episodes within a chapter. Beyond the cosmetics, what are those two novels all about? According to Chicago Tribune, The Thorn Birds is about “…violence, love, piety, family roots, passion, pain, triumph, tragedy, roses…” The Herald Sunday (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), said of Purple Hibiscus: “Replete with beauty and horror, Adichie’s novel of self-hatred, fear and family…” From these critiques, some common nuts and bolts have emerged. There is the family element. The family in The Thorn Birds is a Catholic family, just as the one in Purple Hibiscus, with their respective heads – Padraic Cleary and Eugene Achike, as incurable, incorrigible Catholics. Padraic Cleary’s sister, Mary Carson doesn’t get along well with Padraic Cleary, just as Eugene Achike’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma does not get along with Eugene Achike. Kambili of Purple Hibiscus is a near perfect clone of the shy Meghan Cleary of The Thorn Birds, with a deep attachment to her brother, Frank, from whom Jaja is cloned. The Thorn Birds offers a young and handsome Reverend Father called Father Ralph, while Purple Hibiscus offers a young and handsome Reverend Father called Father Amadi! There also are a number of episodes in The Thorn Birds that are skilfully duplicated in Purple Hibiscus, e.g., some of Meghan Cleary’s school experiences; the periodic visits of Father Ralph to Meghan Cleary’s family house; the escapades of Father Ralph and Meghan Cleary in the fields; the protective role of Frank for his mother against his father, which is duplicated in Purple Hibiscus to spin the wheels of the suspense extolled by Femi Osofisan.
Yet, it is really the replication of the relationship between Father Ralph and Meghan Cleary that brings the point home on whether McCullough’s influence on Adichie has graduated beyond the cosmetics into the realms of text-lifting. Published in 1978 by Avon Books, the blurb of The Thorn Birds reads, in part, thus: “…most of all, it is the story of Meggie, who falls madly in love with a man she can never marry, and of Ralph, a truly beautiful man… whose love for Meggie Cleary will lead him to a passion he cannot control.” That Adichie’s love story between Kambili and Father Amadi reads exactly like this is an understatement. The tragedy is that Adichie would have successfully escaped with her long trek in McCullough’s shadows but for the wrong-footings, apparently under the ever growing strain of keeping pace with the twists and turns of the great Australian writer. Adichie’s disguises wash off when in her Purple Hibiscus Kambili is seventeen and passionately close to Father Amadi.
Let us examine a few these many instances:
The Thorn Birds, at page 162:
“What’s the matter, Meggie?”
“I don’t believe you.”
Purple Hibiscus, at page 226:
“What clouds your face?” Father Amadi asked…”
“Tell me about the nothing, then.”
The Thorn Birds, at page 221:
“Fee (Meggie Cleary’s mother) didn’t answer, only sat staring in front of her…”
Purple Hibiscus at page 298:
“I used to ask Sisi to talk to her… but she said Mama (Kambili’s mother) would not reply her, that Mama simply sat and stared.”
The Thorn Birds, at page 207:
“… As he bent his head to come at her (Meggie’s) cheek she raised herself on tiptoe, and by luck than by good management touched his lips with her own. He jerked back as if he tasted the spider’s poison… he wrenched her arms from about his neck…”
Purple Hibiscus, at pages 269/276:
“I (Kambili) was afraid… that I would throw my hands around him and lace my fingers together behind his neck and refuse to let go … He leaned over the gear and pressed his face to mine. I wanted our lips to meet and hold, but he moved his face away…”
It should be noted that the kissing episodes in both The Thorn Birds and Purple Hibiscus occurred after the respective Reverend Fathers in the two novels revealed the facts of their going away from their lovers. Indeed, the two priests went away from both Meggie and Kambili!
It is safe to assume at this point that the proponents of Adichie’s debts to Achebe have rested their cases, having realised how they have fallen prey to Adichie’s perfectly sold first-sentence dummy. It is left to address the group that champion Adichie’s “originality”, probably led by Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo. This group is urged to re-evaluate its position in view of the extra-ordinary closeness that characterise the structures, characters, language and plots of these two novels – The Thorn Birds and Purple Hibiscus— which go beyond the intertextual, beyond the acceptable limits within which one piece of literature may relate to another. SN
Ahmed Maiwada is a Nigerian writer with two collections of poetry and a recent novel, Musdoki. He practices law in Abuja, Nigeria.