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Africa's Literary Shape-Shifter

Achebe’s Legacy

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Chinua Achebe—Africa’s greatest novelist—has died in a hospital near Boston.

When Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, Africa was quite a different continent than it is today. Most countries were on the cusp of independence, waiting—perhaps impatiently, as they had been since the end of World War II—for the day to arrive.  Other than the négritude poets in the Francophone areas, African writing was still in its infancy.  Literacy, rapidly increasing, would virtually explode during the next decade after independence, producing the necessary readers for a viable literary culture.  Economies were growing rapidly in anticipation of self-rule. The middle-class, also undergoing rapid expansion, could afford to buy books and newspapers to quench their thirst for knowledge.  Things Fall Apart burst forth in these contexts, though it would take a decade for its author to begin to gain the fame that would eventually transform him into the continent’s most famous and widely-read writer.

Chinua Achebe was born November 16, 1930, near Ogidi, a few miles east of Onitsha (a center of Igbo culture) in eastern Nigeria.  In Things Fall Apart (1958), Ogidi has been transformed into Umuofia.  The time frame for the story is the 1890s when Europeans first arrived in this remote community.  Until the novel was published, there had been nothing like it, nothing so devastatingly revealing of the impact of colonization from the African perspective.  As Achebe has suggested innumerable times, the Western reader’s sense of that encounter had been largely shaped by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), a book that the writer called racist.

Things Fall Apart was quietly published by William Heinemann and followed by a sequel, No Longer at Ease, in 1960.  Both books were originally part of one narrative that the author had written during 1956 and 1957.  Since the second half was set in Nigeria in the 1950s, two generations after the earlier part, Heinemann convinced Achebe to divide the story into two segments.  According to his biographers, Achebe had sent the handwritten manuscript, along with £22, to a secretarial service in England, but half a year later hadn’t heard anything.  £22 was a significant amount of money for a Nigerian in the 1950s when yearly per capita income was not much beyond that.  Achebe has remarked that if the manuscript had been lost, he probably would never have become a published writer.

Achebe’s parents were Christians, his father a teacher and a minister.  Consequently, he attended mission schools—both in Ogidi and in Onitsha—and subsequently University College, Ibadan (1948-1953).  Unlike many African writers of the early years, he was not educated in Europe.  Publication of his first two novels did not pave the way for full-time writing for many years; he supported himself initially by teaching and broadcasting.

More than fifty years later, Achebe was among a handful of African writers who could live on the royalties from their books.  His success and fame evolved gradually, though predominantly from Things Fall Apart, which today is the most widely-read novel from the continent.  Sales have exceeded eleven million copies in English editions, with perhaps half of those copies sold in Africa.  The novel has also been translated into fifty languages.

Yet one of the major frustrations of being an African writer today is declining sales on the continent.  Reading for pleasure has largely disappeared; today, most Africans simply cannot afford to purchase books.  In the last few years, Things Fall Apart has had sales of only a few hundred copies annually in Nigeria—a microscopic number in a country with a population of 160 million.  By contrast, the American publisher has claimed that Things Fall Apart sells at a yearly rate of 100,000 copies.

On the continent, Achebe’s fame began to grow in 1962 when Heinemann took the unprecedented step and started “The African Writers Series,” beginning the series with Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease.  Achebe served as the advisory editor for the first hundred titles, a number that eventually tripled.  He read hundreds of manuscripts by writers from across the continent and almost single-handedly shaped the course of modern African writing, especially the novel. It is doubtful whether a writer anywhere else in the world has had a comparable influence on the literary development of an entire continent.  It is impossible to imagine what the map of contemporary African literature would look like without Achebe’s influence.  Our sense of twentieth-century world literature would be entirely different without Chinua Achebe’s skilled midwifery.

Two years after “The African Writers Series” was launched, Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God (1964), was published.  The story fills in the historical gap between the author’s two earlier novels and completes his rumination on the African/European encounter.  Numerous critics consider Arrow of God the Nigerian writer’s most complex and accomplished work, though general readers will always prefer Things Fall Apart because of its depiction of that archetypal and fateful collision between Africa and the West.

achebe

Shortly after the publication of Arrow of God, when political stability in Nigeria had begun to deteriorate, Achebe’s work took an entirely new direction, beginning with the satire, A Man of the People (1966), his fourth novel.  Coup, counter-coup, and Civil War began to wrack the country, and Achebe—like so many other contemporary African writers—realized that he could not watch from the sidelines.  During the Nigerian Civil War (the Biafran War), he acted as a Minister without Portfolio, making frequent trips to Europe and America in an attempt to marshal support for the Biafran (Igbo) cause.  Achebe would not write about the Civil War until late last year when the published There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.  Devastated by the collapse of Biafra in 1971, Achebe had to recover both emotionally and creatively.  In a holding pattern that lasted several years, he wrote poems and short stories, collected as Beware Soul Brother (1971) and Girls at War and Other Stories (1972).  During these years, he also published numerous critical essays; it was not until 1987 that he published another novel, Anthills of the Savannah, his final novel as it turned out. Angrier than his earlier work, the novel traces the mercurial rise of an African leader, a would-be President-for-Life if politics were not so unpredictable and foolhardy.

Before that novel, however, Achebe published a bold little treatise called The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), which—if it had appeared in almost any other African country–would have landed him in jail or worse (the fate of Achebe’s equally-outspoken compatriot, Ken Saro-Wiwa, murdered by the Nigerian government in 1995).  Fortunately, at the time,Nigeria had the semblance of a free press and Achebe, like other Nigerian intellectuals, was beginning to spend more time away from Nigeria than at home.  In the opening passage of The Trouble with Nigeria, he wrote,

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.  There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character.  There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.  The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.

The remaining sixty-three pages identify the country’s greatest threats: tribalism, corruption, lack of discipline, social injustice, and what he terms “the cult of mediocrity.”  Unfortunately, Nigeria’s leaders ignored Achebe’s prescient warnings, which were not fully appreciated for another dozen years until the ruthless dictator, Sani Abacha, nearly succeeded in destroying the country.

For the last two decades, Achebe lived in the United States, teaching at Bard College, in New York, and more recently, at Brown University.  His relocation to the United States followed a tragic automobile accident that left him a paraplegic.  Ironically, the accident occurred following celebrations for his sixtieth birthday in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, in 1990: the steering-wheel of the vehicle in which he had been riding suddenly broke off and the driver lost control of the automobile.  Achebe was medevacted to Britain, where he remained in hospital for nearly half a year.  Yet for a man who had experienced such hell, he remained remarkably energetic and hearty and continued to write about a variety of issues.  Home and Exile, based on lectures that he delivered at Harvard, was published in 2000.  When he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in 2007, he revealed that he was writing a new novel, but apparently the work was never completed.

My first encounter with Things Fall Apart was in the summer of 1962, three years after its appearance in the United States from an obscure publisher, when I read Achebe’s novel before I went to Nigeria  as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Little did I realize that the school where I would teach would not only be Igbo, but only seven miles from Ogidi, where Achebe spent his early years.  Since that time—until I retired—I taught Things Fall Apart nearly a hundred times, more frequently than any other work, two or three times a year.  Each new reading provided deeper understanding and insights into a novel that I initially believed was transparent and uncomplicated.  For many years when I taught the novel, my students had never heard of it, but in the final couple of decades, all that changed.  Things Fall Apart has become the token African novel, added to the curriculum of hundreds, if not thousands, of secondary schools and university courses in America and Britain.  This situation may have been good for Achebe, but it was not good for other African writers, whose books often languished unread on library shelves unless they were taught in specialty courses with a non-Western focus.

Still, it is understandable why Things Fall Apart has achieved such iconic status.  As Africans across the continent and anywhere in the diaspora read the novel, they can say to themselves that what the villagers of Umuofia, and Okonkwo, the main character, experience is an archetypal situation, the same thing that happened to their own ancestors sometime in the past.  Equally important for readers around the world is Achebe’s depiction of the meeting–in fact, the collision–of civilizations and the unfortunate reality that two cultures rarely encounter each other on equal terms.  This theme has been a major issue in world history, especially during the last two centuries.  As Alberto Moravia wrote in Which Tribe Do You Belong To? (1974), “There is no greater suffering for man than to feel his cultural foundations giving way beneath him.”

Exploration; colonialism; migration; civil, regional, and global warfare; neo-colonialism; and illegal immigration and the mass movement of peoples from culture to culture and from nation to nation–all of these encounters with another people (sometimes familiar but often unfamiliar and bewildering) are foreseen in Achebe’s masterpiece.  The identification that readers in many parts of the world make with Okonkwo and Umuofia resonates with the situations that are specific, yet global, and sadly timeless today, whether they be newly-arrived immigrants in London, illegal aliens in the United States, American invaders of Iraq, Kenyans murdering one another after their elections.  A list of other examples would be endless, but they all imply one human failing: apprehension and misunderstanding of the Other.

At the beginning of Achebe’s novel, Okonkwo’s Umuofia is harmonious and Okonkwo is a revered member of his community.  “Community” is pivotal here, even if Okonkwo, himself, commits infractions against the social order.  There are rules and regulations that can be adjudicated by village elders when events with little precedent transpire; for minor offenses there are clearly-defined sanctions.  Moreover, there is respect for tradition and ritual, ceremonies that bring people together in their regard for others and for Mother Earth; many of the cyclical events are centered in animism, the traditional religion.  So how could these customs not be threatened by the arrival of intruders whose very presence upsets the traditional equilibrium?

When the novel first appeared, the Western reader’s confusion in response to Achebe’s story was mostly the result of the author’s avoidance of recognizable form, particularly plot.  Okonkwo himself is difficult to understand because we see him act but rarely observe him think.  Achebe tells us, “Okonkwo was not a man of thought but of action.”  Since we encounter little introspection, we draw the erroneous conclusion that the protagonist has little depth. These are the blinders Western readers unconsciously employ almost every day in encounters with the Other: what we do not understand  is devalued.  The form and characterization in Things Fall Apart are unlike almost anything most Westerners have previously encountered; the main character fits into no easy niche and the story itself (with hundreds of influences and images drawn from oral tradition) is, at times, unrecognizable.  And, yet, this is the novel millions of readers around the world read and come to admire, recognizing  that Achebe has accomplished something extraordinarily bold and innovative: he has understood cultural encounters profoundly, even if we ourselves may still be grappling with them.

Even in the absence of introspection, Okonkwo is larger than life.  Rigid and inflexible, he believes that he can keep his traditional values intact.  When he accidentally murders a boy with a gun he barely knows how to use (and as a result of other rash acts), he must go into exile, thus severing himself from his community for seven years.  The exile, combined with the arrival of the Europeans during his absence, removes him even further from the center of his people’s evolving values.  Christianity and capitalism rapidly alter his people’s practices and beliefs.  So pervasive are the changes that when, after his return to Umuofia, Okonkwo kills a government messenger–hoping that his village will use force against the invaders—he is utterly shocked that his people do not support his action.  The narrator informs us, “He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’”

The problem for Okonkwo at the end of Things Fall Apart is that he has not changed but his villagers have. Perhaps they recognized the inevitability of change in a manner that Okonkwo did not.  Or perhaps it was simply a matter of conceding the superiority of a force that the Umuofian villagers knew they could not defeat.   While they will move into the future, Okonkwo will not.  Unwilling and unable to change, to accept the new dispensation, he commits suicide.  The once revered leader of the village has become a pariah figure who cannot even be given a proper burial. Okonkwo’s self-annihilation becomes an act of recognition that the traditional cohesiveness of his community no longer exists.

Few writers live to observe the fiftieth anniversary of their novels—let alone with increasing readership.  Given Chinua Achebe’s modesty, he was probably the most surprised by Things Fall Apart’s phenomenal success.  Nigerians on the street are certainly proud of the novel and of their compatriot’s fame; it is the one novel they are most likely to have read or at least to know about, especially those who were educated in the 1970s and 80s when it was required reading for the country’s school certificate examinations.  One can travel across the African continent and encounter used copies of the novel in bookstalls and newsstands everywhere.  Similarly, in the West, there is also no question about the novel’s iconic status—or about our high regard for its author.  Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, has observed that “Chinua Achebe is one of the great intellectual and ethical figures of our time.”  Few would disagree. Things Fall Apart has become not only the great African novel but one of the great narratives of the twentieth century.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  His books includeThe Emergence of African Fiction (1972), Under African Skies (1997), and The Ordeal of the African Writer (2001).