Civilizations exist, but they are difficult to build and maintain. Two books demonstrating this statement are ‘A Man of the People,’ by Chinua Achebe, and ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann. The fictionalized city traversed by our main character, Diligent, in the former book, is a tenuous seed capable of growing. Through the narrative, Achebe describes the impossibility of such advancement due to both government failures and citizen indifference:
Max began by accusing the outgoing Government of all kinds of swindling and corruption… many in the audience laughed… the laughter of resignation to misfortune. The ex-policeman put it very well. “We know they are eating,” he said, “but we are eating too.” (Achebe, pp. 125)
The setting of the former book is a reversal from ‘A Man of the People.’ McCann delves into multiple characters inhabiting New York City during 1974. Philippe Peitt’s daredevil tightrope stroll between the twin towers serves as a loose framing device. The alternating reactions of the ensemble cast to this event serves as an exploration of their faith. The Catholic Monk believes it to be sign from God, while the experienced Judge is amused. The performance of Petit is a living representation of Manhattan’s magical undercurrent, the mysterious energy pulsing beneath the architectural achievement and ceaseless commerce. Why are freaks drawn here, to create beauty? And does a small spark of that beauty settle inside the people walking the streets, no matter where they came from?
New York City, as an idea, is the completed crown jewel of western civilization, the answer to a mathematical equation adding together wealth, location, freedom, endless death and constant birth. But the free market’s child had been abandoned during the era in which ‘Let the Great World Spin’ unwinds. Citywide debt and rising crime engendered a sense of helplessness among citizens, the hopelessness unique to this specific moment, when both the national and local government seemed unable to implement solutions. The character of Solomon Soderberg, the father of a son killed in Viet Nam, and a weathered judge in the New York judicial system, finds himself taking an existential viewpoint, identifying the city as an entity unable to pause:
New York had a way of doing that… It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief… it happened, and it re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred because there was no necessary regard for the past… no, the city couldn’t care less where it stood. New York kept going forward because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it left behind. It was like a city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder. (McCann, pp. 247)
Even the bloody late eighties saw embattled Mayor David Dinkins enacting new tactics for the police force, aiding a decline in crime during his final months in office, and providing Rudolph Giuliani with enough momentum to corporatize Times Square. The continuing collapse of the murder rate, along with the nineties’ boom economy, allowed Giuliani to preside over the city’s renewal:
“Dinkins faced a very sharp economic downturn, and he was in the very difficult position of coming in with high expectations from many constituencies,” said John H. Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University Graduate Center. “Yet he expanded the police force and rebuilt neighborhoods; he deserves more credit than he gets for managing that time…” Mr. Dinkins’s most lasting achievement might have been in the very area where he now fares worst in popular memory. He obtained the State Legislature’s permission to dedicate a tax to hire thousands of police officers, and he fought to preserve a portion of that anticrime money to keep schools open into the evening, an award-winning initiative that kept tens of thousands of teenagers off the street. (Powell, Michael. Another Look at the Dinkins Administration, and not by Giuliani. New York Times. 25 October 2009. Online)
‘Let the Great World Spin’ takes place in the New York City of 1974, where the horizon held few such glimmers of hope. Considering the blackout riot in ’77, and the tumultuous eighties, one could argue the worst only got worse. An understandable desire to escape strengthened the developing suburbs, and also rustic upstate. The great fleeing is excellently represented in the book’s narrative through Blaine and his wife Lara, two burnt Greenwich Village veterans of the late night shadow show, who seek refuge in a cabin:
In 1973 Blaine and I had swapped our lives in the Village for another life altogether, and we went to live in a cabin in upstate New York. We had been almost a year off the drugs, even a few months off the booze, until the night before the accident… we were returning to the old grandma notion of sitting on the porch swing and watching the poison disappear from our bodies… Had lived without electricity, read books from another era, finished our paintings in the style of the time, hid ourselves away, saw ourselves as reclusive, cutting edge, academic. (McCann pp. 118, 120)
Lara ultimately finds happiness by delving deeper into the troubled city she has abandoned, unable to wash her hands of a crime committed by Blaine. Her conscious decision to get involved with the life of a stranger, Carian, the brother of a man accidentally killed by her husband in a car accident – is made more poignant by the signification that she is no longer denying her place in time. McCann delivers this message clearly by invoking time during the conversation where Lara and Blaine fallout over the accident:
-What happens if we make a series of paintings and leave them out in the weather? We allow the present to work on the past. We could do something radical here. Do the formal paintings in the style of the past and have the present destroy them….
-The girl died, Blaine. (McCann, pp. 134)
The novel’s structure, which extended from the seventies into the contemporary time period, displayed the unpredictable effects of complicated decisions, rippling through decades. Cities change, and at the same time, they do not change, and the same could be true for people. Instead of searching the surface for altered behaviors that could be traced to the past, ‘Let the Great World Spin’ seems to argue for a better gauge, reflected through relationships. How did one person touch the life of another? And where does it lead? The dream of civilization is an imperfect monster, crushing thousands incidentally, helping a few intentionally, and housing all the others like science experiment creatures, witnessing their world through the eyes they own.
Diligent, real name Odili, belongs to the first generation of post-colonial Africa. Colonialism was not only terrible for human rights abuses, but also from a practical, state building standpoint. The tyrannical interference set the entire region backward. Just as a single human being would be developmentally blocked by a controlling, outside influence, so too was an entire country:
Just the assumption that the previous patterns of political development would continue is sufficient to argue that these countries would be more developed today. Colonialism not only blocked further political development, but indirect rule made local elites less accountable to their citizens. After independence, even if these states had a coherence others lacked, they had far more predatory rulers. These polities also suffered from the uniform colonial legacies of racism, stereotypes and misconceptions that Africans may not have had and which have since caused immense problems, most notably in Burundi and Rwanda. (Heldring, Lester. Robinson, James, A. Colonialism and Development in Africa. VOX. 10 January 2013. Online)
Of course, the complicated question emerging from freedom: who deserves to create the new world? The militaristic rule emerging from colonialism forced citizens to accept a compromised, and ultimately ineffective governance:
The history of police and military formations in several parts of the world can be traced to the need to protect citizens and ensure territorial integrity. Conversely, in the case of Africa, the police and military were established primarily to crush civilian opposition to colonial rule. Police engagement with the populace was founded on the need to enforce hateful and debilitating colonial laws, including forced taxation, segregation, and quelling of anti-colonial uprisings. At the end of colonialism, the newly independent African government inherited institutions that had internalized a culture of citizen oppression and extortion. The immediate post-colonial police and military were designed to inflict terror on innocent citizens, and citizens had internalized the art of buying their way off unwarranted harassment. (Origin of Corrupton in Africa and the Way Forward. Anonymous. ChikaforAfrica.com. 21 August 2012)
Odili intellectually understands the corruption of the new government, but initially has the discipline not to be swayed emotionally. The novel portrays him as a reasonable person, seemingly only enflamed by the politics of women, a trait that both serves the narrative and makes him an empathetic figure for males attracted to girls. Diligent’s quick witted, humorous, and generally clarion disposition in the opening pages are quite effective at distancing the western reader from the potentially dangerous setting. One comes to understand the setting is less dangerous for people behaving like Diligent. His early behavioral stability is not only a likable character trait, but a self-protection mechanism, too. Diligent begins as an entrenched teacher more concerned with the obnoxious flattery of his superior, the school principal and proprietor Mr. Nwege, attempting to impress the visiting local minister Chief Nanga, than any political ideals. He’d been involved with a student’s branch of a reformist minded political organization while attending college, but became discouraged by both corruption and the people’s inability to discern the truth about their constantly lying leaders:
Chief Nanga was a born politician: he could get away with almost anything he said or did. And as long as men are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the Chief Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything… he had that rare gift of making people feel – even when he was saying harsh things to them – that there was not a drop of ill will in his entire frame. (Achebe, pp. 66)
Unstable societies such as the one described in ‘A Man of the People’ will challenge their citizens in a different way than New York City. The phrase that serves as the title for Achebe’s book could apply to politicians across all regions. Americans running for political office will wear masks carefully pieced together by public relations firms, designed to connect with voters on surface levels. However, the brilliance in Achebe’s exploration of this phrase, within the context of a post-colonial Africa, could be found in the immediate pages of the novel. The reader observes Odili while he observes Chief Nanga, his former teacher treated like a returning king. Achebe does not break into a long explanation that summarizes why the two will eventually be personal and political rivals. The reader is only made to understand that a fragile system creates turbulent social, political, and personal identities. Nanga has gone from being a teacher to wielding power. The equivalent of Odili, in a place like America, most likely would not rationally see himself assuming the power of Nanga, without a fortuitous break or the decision to pursue politics as a career. But in post-colonial Africa, the lines are thinner. Herein resides the realistic and literary value of the Nanga character being a former teacher, the current job for Odili. The phrase ‘the student becomes the teacher,’ is universally understandable, and effectively conveys, even to western readers without any knowledge of the region, the close proximity between Diligent and his old teacher, despite them leading incredibly different lives.
Life shows that the actions of people are often driven by both their perceived opportunities and boundaries. In ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ all the major players have either been molded by the city, or are being changed, the permanence of both processes beyond their conception. Despite all the dysfunction, the city remains a container, not a blank space. Corrigan, arguably the most important character in the novel, his daily presence in the Bronx influencing events far past his death, came to New York from Ireland on a priestly mission. The city is somewhere to go, a complicated, sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful, sometimes unbearable reality, but a reality above anything. When a city and state can barely function on a daily basis, controlled by soldiers disconnected from the citizens they are supposed to serve, without any semblance of a local economy beyond dependence on foreign product, while also lacking the infrastructure to support such dependence, this setting could be labeled as more of an existential problem than a real place. Human beings delineate the real and unreal through the methods that constitute routine. When the roads aren’t being built, when the schools aren’t being funded, when the generals sleep in mansions and feel poisoned after drinking a different brand of coffee, certain dissidents will step forward and want to change the situation. In this respect, for all the flaws of New York City, the character of Judge Soderberg, in ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ seems to demonstrate the human ability to move forward within the chaotic system. He is a Judge, and in a certain sense, he is everyday in New York City. He is the exhausted force continually pushing back against chaos, the shaky hand flipping the calendar. But what would a man like Solomon Soderberg do, if he were in Diligent’s situation? A man like Soderberg would attempt to create a place over which he could preside. Diligent eventually believes he must oppose Chief Nanga. Similar to Lara, he realizes that different surroundings (in his case, Nanga’s mansion, where he is an invited guest) have caused him to deny the reality of his setting (the unnamed state). And also similar to Lara, his awakening occurs due to a personal incident. Chief Nanga seduces his girlfriend, Elsie. At last, Odili registers what has been stirring within him throughout the entire novel, to that point. Chief Nanga, and his brethren, cannot build the new world. He must. In life and fiction, setting is often destiny, and different people can be surmised to come from different places.