CHINUA ACHEBE: THE DOYEN OF THE AFRICAN IDIOM
Achebe bestrides generations and geographies. Every country in Africa claims him as their own.
- Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Chinua Achebe appeared on the world stage in grand style by way of the epochal novel Things Apart. He left the stage in the grandest style ever possible through his release of There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra. Some people who mouth controversy should learn the words of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” What strikes me most instructively in There Was a Country is Achebe’s deposition that he could not see any of his so-called friends come to the rescue of the Igbo people when they were being hounded and killed at will across the country before the start of the civil war. The venom with which Achebe’s book has been bitterly attacked in certain quarters has made me to edit the characters I call my friends!
Actually There Was a Country has created the world record of having more critics who had not set eyes on the book, let alone read it. Some of the critics of Achebe’s There Was a Country actually called for the outright banning of not just the book but also Things Fall Apart! It is of course simply beneath me to dignify septal palace intellectuals of man-worship with a response. So let’s make progress along the lines of Achebe’s wise words…
Achebe does not waste words. His warning in There Was a Country rings true that there may be no Nigeria if his urgent message is not addressed. It is an apocalyptic valediction from a prophet. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer of South Africa understands the great import of There Was a Country as she writes thusly: “Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom. It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of storytelling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”
Yes, any new book by Achebe becomes an instant classic. Chinua Achebe’s oeuvre is indeed intimidating starting from the legendary Things Fall Apart in 1958 and grandly lapping all the way through No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, Girls at War and Other Stories, Beware Soul Brother, Morning Yet on Creation Day, The Trouble with Nigeria, Chike and the River, Home and Exile, Hopes and Impediments, The Education of a British-Protected Child etc.
There Was a Country can in a sense be seen as the encapsulation of the great man’s lifework. Achebe starts out by reiterating his favourite Igbo proverb that “tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” For Achebe, the rain began to beat Africa upon the “discovery” of the continent by Europe some 500 years ago. Achebe follows through history to the Biafran war that changed not just the course of Nigeria but more crucially and cataclysmically the history of Africa. According to Achebe, “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”
Born in Ogidi in present-day Anambra State on November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe who was baptized as Albert was indeed a child prodigy from the very beginning such that his academic feats was known far and wide culminating to his lifelong buddy Christian Chike Momah, alias Papa Ada, confessing that he and his mates were warned early in life that one Albert Achebe from Ogidi would send them to the cleaners in the regional school exams!
It was therefore no wonder that Achebe was early in life given this nickname: Dictionary. He passed his school certificate exams at the top of the class with five distinctions and one credit, and the one credit was paradoxically in literature that would eventually earn him worldwide fame. In the nationwide examination for entry into the University College, Ibadan which had just been established Achebe came first or second in the entire country and thus won a major scholarship. His alma mater Government College, Umuahia was so proud of his achievement that they put up a big sign that stayed on the wall for many years.
At barely 28 years of age Chinua Achebe published the novel Things Fall Apart in 1958, and it has in its 55 or so years of existence proven to be the single most important piece of literature out of Africa. The 50th anniversary of the 200-odd page novel was celebrated all over the world with festivals, readings, symposia, concerts etc. The novel which has been likened to epic Greek tragedies has been translated to 50 languages and has sold over ten million copies. It is taught not just in literature classes but in history and anthropology departments in colleges and universities across the globe. The archetypal theme of the meeting of the white world and the black race makes Things Fall Apart an epochal event in the annals of world literature.
The book works at several levels, and can be read at any age from 10 to 100. As a child one can enjoy the incidents such as the match with Amalinze the Cat, Unoka’s dismissal of his creditor, Okonkwo’s attempted shooting of one of his wives, the visitation of the masked spirits etc. Later in life the many ironies in the book come into play such as the joke on the District Commissioner thinking that Okonkwo’s story can only end up as a paragraph in his planned book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, without knowing that one Chinua Achebe had taken the thunder from him by giving Okonkwo an entire book in which the story is narrated from inside!
It is not for nothing that Achebe is celebrated as the father of African literature. He has changed the perspective of world literature from the gaudy picture of Africa as painted by Europeans such as Joseph Conrad, Joyce Cary and Sir Rider Haggard to the authentic telling of the tale by the Africans. Unlike earlier African writers like Guinea’s Camara Laye, author of The African Child, who painted a romantic picture of the continent, Achebe is relentlessly objective in his narration, telling it as it is, warts and all.
It is because of the remarkable success of Things Fall Apart that the publishers Heinemann UK launched the African Writers Series (AWS) in 1962 with Achebe’s first novel as the first title. For many years Achebe served as a non-remunerated Editorial Adviser of the series in which the majority of African writers got their breakthrough in publishing. Things Fall Apart reputedly accounted for 80 percent of the entire revenue of the AWS.
Former American President Jimmy Carter numbers Achebe as one of his favourite writers. The rave reviews for Achebe’s most famous novel have somewhat dwarfed his other novels such as No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe won the Man Booker Prize for his lifetime achievement in fiction writing, beating a formidable shortlist that included Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Ian McEwan etc. He equally won, as the first African, the American National Arts Club Medal of Honour for Literature in November 2007.
Things Fall Apart has earned its uncommon distinction as a modern classic and was in 1992 adopted into the esteemed Everyman’s Library of world classics. The Igbo world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which Achebe limned in Things Fall Apart has become the global picture of Africa writ large. At the turn of the 20th century the book was voted as Africa’s “novel of the century”. Achebe has in the book given the world a new English language which paradoxically portrays African life without facetiousness or affectation. He lays bare the brute masculinity of the age without bending the knee to latter-day political correctness or gender balance. The truth happens to be Achebe’s sublime weapon in telling the immortal African story.
It is remarkable that Achebe worked beyond the African past by depicting the corruption that is ravaging Nigeria and indeed all Africa in his second novel No Longer At Ease. He delves into where angels fear to tread, tackling the ignoble Osu Caste system. His landmark Arrow of God can be likened to the tensions bedeviling the six geo-political zones of Nigeria in the manner the six villages of Umuaro met with tragedy. The shame of Nigerian partisan politics has its best illustration in literature in Achebe’s A Man of the People which predicted the advent of coups and counter-coups. Achebe extends his grand discourse of life in his assessment of the segments of struggle in his last novel Anthills of the Savannah.
The issue is always raised that Achebe never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, the following writers who were still writing after the Nobel had been bequeathed did not win the prize: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Ibsen, Conrad, Twain, Brecht etc. Then these are the names of the so-called writers who won the Nobel Prize: Carducci, Eucken, Heidenstam, Reymont, Karlfeldt, Laxness etc. In short, the Nobel Prize does not the great writer make.
Chinua Achebe belongs with the gods. He is indeed immortal.
Written By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu