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What’s In A Name?

Things Fall Apart is an outstanding book. I’m only halfway through it, and I can already tell that I’m going to love this one.

I’m a 36-year-old white guy in Tennessee. I’ve never been to Nigeria, much less the Nigeria of the late 19th Century. So it’s really a testament to Chinua Achebe’s writing and creativity that I really feel like I’m there when reading this story. I feel like I connect with these characters, even though there customs and culture is a world apart from mine.

Speaking of that, one of the most difficult aspects of the novel has been keeping up with all the names. It seems that many names with the clan start with an O, and it’s not Oscar and Oliver and Obi-Wan and names that I would be familiar with. It’s names that I’m pretty sure I’m not pronouncing correctly in my head.

For instance:

“Do you know Ogbuefi Ndulue?” Ofoedu asked.

“Ogbuefi Ndulue of Ire Village,” Okonkwo and Obierika said together.

“He died this morning,” said Ofoedu.

“That is not strange. He was the oldest man in Ire,” said Obierika.

“You are right,” Ofoedu agreed. “But you ought to ask why the drum was not beaten to tell Umuofia of his death.”

“Why?” asked Obierika and Okonkwo together.

Okonkwo is the story’s protagonist, so I think I’ve got his name down. But all these other O names–and the ones above are just the tip of the iceberg–can get a little confusing. It’s like The Lord of the Rings–with Aragorn and Arwen and Frodo and Bilbo and Saruman and Sauron and Gandalf and Gimli–except with even more difficult-to-pronounce names.

I’ve thought about renaming the characters to Steve, Bill, and Tom–like I mention in this post about my bad memory–but I think that might be a little disrespectful to Achebe. So onward I go.

Beside that small difficulty–which is really a slight against me, not the book–I’m really enjoying Things Fall Apart. I think this one could be pretty high in my meaningless rankings.

Do character names ever trip you up?

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lol. That’s the gist. Keeping up with the originality attatches a kind of sentiment to the writers ego. What the hell! Bill , tom , and jerry can the place in your head.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  2. ecoshan #

    Yeah I experience the same befuddlement with Russian literature! The wonderful Anna Karenina is a soul wrenching tale- but the names! They are so many! And the nicknames- it took me a while to get used to, but oh so worth it 🙂

    Like

    May 29, 2012
    • Seconded on Anna Karenina! If I remember right, there are two minor characters named Varenka and Vachenka…one male and one female. Even other Russians must have gotten those confused!

      Like

      May 29, 2012
    • I can’t seem to remember names like that. Usually,I just remember character profiles with a vague idea of the name, but I probably pronounce it horribly in my head.

      Like

      May 29, 2012
      • Am thinking if it sometimes takes its beauty away. ? Well, its an hypothesis

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        May 29, 2012
  3. Character names, Nigerian in particular, can be difficult to pronounce at times. I usually look up the pronunciation, or come up with my own pronunciation. I also create a visual image for each character so I can keep up with the story line. My name is also Nigerian, and so many people struggle to pronounce it correctly. It’s not offensive, but it is interesting to hear the differences! I think I’ll read “Things Fall Apart.” I need ideas for my summer reading!

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  4. Siuon #

    I have problems remembering the names of the characters in the Song of Ice and Fire. So I remember them by their characteristics. For instance, Tyrion is known as the dwarf. But names of minor characters are problems.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  5. Haha! This reminded me of The Innocents Abroad, with Twain and the other passengers renaming all of their guides “Ferguson.”

    This book is on my list to he read this year. I’m looking forward to it.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  6. LOL! Maybe this helps:

    Og-bu-efi

    N-du-lu-e (eh)

    O-foe-du

    I-re (Ee-r-eh)

    O-konk-wo and

    O-bie (bee)-ri-ka

    O-foe (foo) -du.

    Umu-ofia

    At least, from my living there, that is how I read the names with my limited exposure to the different ethnic languages. Mind you, Nigeria has over a hundred tribal languages!

    Like

    May 29, 2012
    • Thanks for the pronunciation help. Now, if I can only remember who each person is!

      Like

      May 31, 2012
  7. I find I struggle with character names not because of difficulties in pronunciation, but because the author has not provided enough context to make them easy to remember. I’ve often read books where characters are trotted across the stage of a novel very briefly, but not enough information is given about them to make them memorable. When they reappear, the author sometimes makes the assumption that the reader remembers some slight detail associated with the character when first introduced. That often leaves me scratching my head. Most recently, I had this problem with the first couple chapters of Trollope’s The Warden. Once the characters were mentioned often enough, there was no problem.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
    • That’s an excellent point. And that’s probably the case at times, at least early in the book. At some point though, I wish my memory would do a better job!

      Like

      May 29, 2012
  8. I had a friend recently say that the next time she reads a Russian novel she is going to change the names to Sally, Bill, Tom, and so forth. I agree. I just started War and Peace and that is the hardest part of it, remembering who the characters are.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  9. When i read Dostoevsky’s The Possessed that novel juxtaposed like three narratives running at dis ease with each other; at times they crossed, and I celebrated that I knew all the characters finally. But, oh, no, the anti-party (simplify) well, of course the names Dostoevsky kept shooting into my forehead. And I loved it. German names at times also, Hesse. French names when they’re not simplified for American Idiots, it’s funny how they reckon with my sound system in my head. “Alexandria Quartet” the four novels by Durrell, the Arab names coupled with the culture occasionally visited in the beginning and overwhelmed by at the end. I think it’s perfectly fine to sound them as you read them until they just sound familiar. I look at names first, until the name looks familiar. Then I attach prominent features provided by writer/Then I hear a sound that represents that character during the entire novel. I hesitate to look up proper pronunciation. U know sink or swim? Inevitably, I sink every time.

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    May 29, 2012
  10. Character names can be tricky. I always found it interesting that in creating an authentic Nigerian story, Achebe uses the structure of an Elizabethan Five Act Tragedy.

    Like

    May 29, 2012
  11. I taught advance placement classes in high school, and we read this novel. Outstanding, but we always had issues with unfamiliar names. I gave them a nickname, but if you feel uncomfortable with that a student of mine made me a bookmark when I was reading Anna Karinina that had all the family names color codes with a very brief explanation of who they were next to them. She laminated it so everytime I ran across a character that I could not remember who they were, I just checked out the bookmark. Worked wonderful. Lots of teachers of upper level classes use this technique.

    Like

    May 31, 2012
  12. I think that when character names are from parts of the world you’re not familiar with, it can be a bit hard to keep them straight. I especially find the russian novels challenging but also Japanese novels can be tricky. The names sounds so unfamiliar – you don’t know how to pronounce them and you can’t really associate anything with them…

    Like

    June 1, 2012
  13. I read this novel in high school. Our teacher recommended abbreviating the names.Thus, I ended up with characters named Oko, Ogo, and Obi. It helped immensely.

    Like

    June 1, 2012
  14. Echo the other comments here about the difficulty of keeping character names in Russian novels straight in my head. War and Peace was a nightmare even with the help of the reference list at the front of the book. Half the problem was of course the large cast but the bigger one was that each character had more than one name depending on whether Tolstoy was using their familiar name or the family name or their title.

    Like

    June 2, 2012

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