NOT TO BE MISSED
"L'hibiscus pourpre", a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE
Paris: Editions Anne Carrière, 2004. (418p.).
Translated from English into French by Mona de Pracontal. Original title: "Purple hibiscus" 
Ce compte rendu en français
Domestic violence knows no boundaries and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel testifies to the devastating results of this curse on a Nigerian family living in Enugu, in the South of the country. Her story is all the more challenging since the perpetrator is a very stern, rich and powerful Catholic elder beating his wife and children in the name of religion and discipline. In line with his fundamentalist credence, he believes that punishing the body cleanses all evil and saves the soul, thus, maintaining the family in the deathly grasp of his rigorist approach. The author's condemnation of this ferocious zealotry is unmitigated, but the novel is not only one of pain and sorrow. In stark contrast to her brutal brother Eugene, Aunty Ifeoma's attitude towards her kinfolk is one that foretokens a much more tolerant and convivial approach to life.
Eugene's affluent family is anything but the quiet and subdued household it appears to be. Relationships are dominated by fear, relgious observances are draconian and punishments common. The fear of God, Eugene has inherited from the catholic priests who made his education, is in part responsible for his baleful obsessions. It is under the whip that he had to learn the demands of his new faith, and it is in the same way he intends to transmit the founding fathers' demands for abjuring traditional beliefs and doctrines, supporting the Church with prodigality, confessing one's sins and punishing the flesh. This Spartan understanding of one's duties to oneself and others leaves no room for true love and compassion. Thus, driven by his fear of hell and an insane sense of duty, Eugene is led to commit the worst offences against his basic duty of care. His priest may sing his praise from the pulpit and 'Amnesty world' might have granted him a "human rights award" (p.4); but this praise for the public persona means nothing with regards to his appalling domestic conduct.
Reading the novel is indeed an harrowing experience as the horror of Eugene's fanaticism is progressively exposed. What appears first as a trivial altercation between a father and his teenage son reveals itself as the end result of a full-blown story of abuse that has had many dreadful consequences: Eugene's wife repeated bashing ended up in miscarriages, his son's punishment for peccadillos led to serious harm to his hand, and the repeated flogging of his daughter to a debilitating speech impediment and a complete destruction of her self-confidence. It is not behind the walls of Eugene's expensive mansion that one will find the comfort of religion and the soothing hand of a magnanimous God.
The ambivalent attitude of Eugene's victims towards his ruthlessness adds to the disheartening complexity of the issue. Eugene's conduct amounts to straightforward physical and mental torture, but irrespective of the offence and injuries he inflicts upon others, his meek and obedient family does not rebel. Rather, they blame themselves in order to justify pain and retribution. It is only after the intervention of Aunty Ifeoma and a string of dramatic events that Eugene's family is set free from his destructive frenzy. Their freedom of movement however does not include freedom of the mind and the power to come to terms with years of abuse.
In sharp contrast to Eugene's destructive streak, Ifeoma is caring and supportive. She is a widow with teenage children, and despite tough living conditions in the University town of Nsukka where she teaches, her home is filled with love and laughter. Food is scarce, power and water outages frequent and petrol in short supply, but the freedom and support given to her children makes up for the lack of such conveniences. Unlike Eugene's children who have been compelled to obey rigid religious observance and to follow the rules of a tyrannical father, Ifeoma's have been encouraged to be critical, yet open-minded and tolerant. That approach also includes matters pertaining to religion, i.e., Church's sacred rites and social expectations. Thus, while Eugene's daughter Kambili gets the belt because she ate a little "corn flakes" before Mass, thus "desecrating the Eucharistic fast" (p.102), the refusal by Ifeoma's daughter, Amaka (p.271), to chose a European name to be confirmed by the local Catholic Bishop is eventually supported albeit reluctantly by her mother, as her place, the narrator says, was "fragrant with the undertones of freedom [...] A freedom to be, to do" (p.16).
This rather trivial episode is indeed interesting as it encapsulates the clash of two visions of the world, two contradictory understandings of Godliness, two perceptions of the sanctity of religious dogma. To Eugene and the traditionalist priest of his parish who is convinced that nothing but Latin makes justice to the solemnity of the Credo everything from eucharistic fast to the head cover women have to wear at Mass, and the way one has to stick one's tongue out to receive communion, belong to a set of sacred and incontrovertible commands revealed by God. In contrast, Ifeoma, Amaka and their progressive priest consider that Church's rules and principles are providing a priceless sense of direction, but the minutiae of worship, they argue, can be subject to change as they have to adapt to the sensibilities of different places and times. It is not always easy enact, though, as a meeting between Amaka and Father Amadi shows. The local Bishop wants to confirm Amaka with a Christian name but the lass is adamant that she does not want to surrender her Igbo name; and trying the priest's patience, she exposes in simple terms a deleterious doctrinal chasm between diehard fundamentalism and reformist ideals: a rift that injures not only Catholicism but many other religions as well:
"Father Amadi looked tired. He handed Amaka a piece of paper and told her he had written some suitably boring names on it, that she had only to choose one and he would leave. After the Bishop used it in confirming her, she need never even mention the name again. Father Amadi rolled his eyes, speaking with a painstaking slowness, and although Amaka laughed, she did not take the paper.
"I told you I am not taking an English name, Father," she said. [...] "Why do I have to?"
"Because it is the way it's done. Let's forget if it's right or wrong for now" Father Amadi said [...] "When the missionaries first came," she replied, "they didn't think Igbo names were good enough. They insisted that people take English names to be baptised. Shouldn't we be moving ahead?"
"It's different now, Amaka, don't make this what it's not," Father Amadi said, calmly. "Nobody has to use the name. Look at me. I've always used my Igbo name, but I was baptised Michael and confirmed Victor."
Aunty Ifeoma looked up from the forms she was going through. "Amaka, ngwa, pick a name and let Father Amadi go do his work."
"But what's the point, then?" Amaka said to Father Amadi, as she had not heard her mother. "What the church is saying is that an English name will make your confirmation valid. 'Chiamaka' says God is beautiful. 'Chima' says God knows best, "Chiebuka' says God is the greatest. Don't they all glorify God as much as 'Paul' and 'Peter' and 'Simon'?"
Aunty Ifeoma was getting annoyed [...] But Amaka refused [...] and walked into her room [...] And the next day, Easter Sunday, Amaka did not join the rest of the young people who wore all white and carried lit candles [...] They all had pieces of paper pinned to their clothes, with names written on them. Paul. Mary. James. Veronica..." (pp.271-274).
Amaka's determination to shelter her name from religious bullying runs parallel to Eugene's pertinacious attempts to cast aside ancestral values and local religious beliefs. However, their respective actions encapsulate fundamental differences in relation to human agency and the association of men and gods. Eugene's robotic application of divine laws as defined by the Church will earn him a place in paradise, he hopes; but his blind and brutal devotion avails him nothing but sorrow. In contrast, Amka's challenge to religious orthodoxies and "the way things are done", is an attempt to bring religious beliefs within the realm of secular preoccupations. Not only does it mean disputing old colonial ideals irreconciliable with modern Catholicism, but also looking anew at century-old impositions such as the celibacy of the priests, (p.281), the latter's role in their parish, etc..
Even more importantly, it means becoming tolerant of others, respectful of different faiths and open to the concept of diversity. Burning witches at the stake, warring against the infidels, punishing the flesh to redeem the soul, bashing one's wife and children into submissiveness and turning one's back on the non-believers are all obsolete paths to sanctity. Thus while Eugene mortifies his family, expels the infidels from his big mansion and cuts all ties with his "pagan" father, Ifeoma opens her door to all and sundry, takes care of her elderly father when he got sick and invites not only the altar girls of her congregation to pick up flowers in her garden, but also those of the Protestant church (p.129).
Purple hibiscus reveals the deep fractures that undermine Nigeria's cohesion and destroy people's life and hopes. The deadly sway of ill-directed religious orthodoxies is one of them, but corruption, criminality, lack of opportunities and the muzzling of dissenting voices are also issues addressed in a gripping novel that denounces the many evils that contribute to the slow downfall of the country under the indifferent gaze of the gods. During an interview, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: "I like to think that it is a book that you finish reading because you want to rather than because you ought to" ; hundreds of laudatory comments published on the Internet should have reassured the author: Purple hibiscus is indeed a very good read that one will want to read from start to finish.
1. See: http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnainterview.html (Sighted 7 June 2013). "The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website" (University of Liège), proposes a compilation of hundred of reviews and articles that relate to the author's work. http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie/cnafaq.html
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but page numbers relate to the English original "Purple Hibiscus". New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities