Literary Shelf

Chinua Achebe

In The Washington Post, Stephanie McCrummen and Adam Bernstein wrote in an obituary on the death of 82-year-old Chinua Achebe that he ‘invented modern African fiction and shaped generations of writers worldwide’. Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him ‘a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror - a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.’

Chinua Achebe (pronounced CHIN-you-ah Ah-CHAY-bay) caught the world’s attention with his first novel, ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Very few writers can really claim such popularity like Achebe. Selling over eight million copies around the world, his literary debut Things Fall Apart was translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer.

In his essay ‘The Truth of Fiction’ Chinua Achebe writes almost prophetically: “Imaginative literature does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.”

In nearly all his novels and short stories, he followed this principle of writing. In 2007, Achebe was awarded the ‘Man Booker’ international prize for fiction. In an essay celebrating the award, the critic Elaine Showalter acknowledged him as an artist who “changed imperishably the way we see and understand the world”.

Achebe wrote his novels in English and defended the use of English, a “language of colonisers”, in African literature. Nesrine Malik in the article ‘Chinua Achebe's anti-colonial novels are still relevant today’ rightly remarks: “His work tried to isolate when the defeat of colonised societies began. It is an important question, if we are to carve a path independent of post-colonialist ushering into ‘civilization’.”

Achebe gained worldwide attention for his African Trilogy: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God. Apart from his novel, Things Fall Apart his other two novels were also equally popular. His later novels include ‘A Man of the People (1966)’, and ‘Anthills of the Savannah (1987)’. These works laid out the landscape of writing from Africa in the decades that followed. They featured characters whose struggles with change and identity, modernisation and tradition and with power, corruption and moral accountability underscored the questions Africans were asking about their newly independent nations on an intimate human scale.

No Longer at Ease is the story of an Igbo (also spelled Ibo) man, Obi Okonkwo, who leaves his village for a British education and a job in the Nigerian colonial civil service, but who struggles to adapt to a Western lifestyle and ends up taking a bribe. In this second book of the African Trilogy, we may find a the sequel to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which concerned the struggle of Obi Okonkwo's grandfather Okonkwo against the changes brought by the English. This novel remains a brilliant statement on the challenges still facing African society.

Obi’s foreign education has separated him from his African roots and made him part of ruling elite whose corruption he finds repugnant. Prior to British colonization, the Igbo people as depicted in Things Fall Apart lived in a patriarchal collective political system. Decisions were not made by a chief or by any individual but rather by a council of male elders. Achebe writes his novels in English because written Standard Igbo was created by combining various dialects, creating a stilted written form.

In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Achebe said, “The novel form seems to go with the English language. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. Achebe is noted for his inclusion of and weaving in of proverbs from Igbo oral culture into his writing. Things Fall Apart upholds a Western model, or, in fact, subverts or confronts it.” He has continued to defend his decision: “English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway.”

Achebe's third book, Arrow of God, won the first ever Jock Campbell/New Statesman Prize for African writing. The phrase “Arrow of God” is drawn from an Igbo proverb in which a person, or sometimes an event, is said to represent the will of God. Like its predecessors, it explores the intersections of Igbo tradition and European Christianity, Arrow of God was published in 1964.
Set in the village of Umuaro at the start of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of Ezeulu, a Chief Priest of Ulu. Shocked by the power of British intervention in the area, he orders his son to learn the foreigners' secret. As with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart and Obi in No Longer at Ease, Ezeulu is consumed by the resulting tragedy.

Arrow of God is a 1964 novel by Chinua Achebe. The novel centers on Ezeulu, the chief priest of several Igbo villages in Colonial Nigeria, who confronts colonial powers and Christian missionaries in the 1920s. Achebe's memoir begins with the Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”

Things Fall Apart is his magnum opus. It is set in the late 19th century, tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become a wealthy farmer and Ibo village leader. British colonial rule throws his life into turmoil, and in the end, unable to adapt, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.

Achebe, the Nigerian author and towering man of letters whose internationally acclaimed fiction helped to revive African literature and to rewrite the story of a continent that had long been the title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”. The novel depicts the life of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia - one of a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo people (archaically, and in the novel, “Ibo”). It focuses on his family and personal history, the customs and society of the Igbo, and the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo community during the late nineteenth century.

Achebe dedicated his second novel, No Longer at Ease, to Christie Okoli - a civil servant who is embroiled in the corruption of Lagos. The protagonist is Obi, grandson of the main character in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo. Drawing on his time in the city, Achebe writes about Obi’s experiences in Lagos to reflect the challenges facing a new generation on the threshold of Nigerian independence. Obi is trapped between the expectations of his family, its clan, his home village, and larger society. He is crushed by these forces (like his grandfather before him) and finds himself imprisoned for bribery. Having shown his acumen for portraying traditional Igbo culture, Achebe demonstrated in his second novel an ability to depict modern Nigerian life.

Arrow of God elaborates on political disruption and shows how closely the land, agriculture and subsistence of villagers were tied to religion. When the new colonial administrator tries to co-opt the chief priest, the latter rejects the offer and is thrown in prison. In rebellion and religious hubris, he refuses to call for a harvest and the yams rot in the fields. There ensues a famine that results in many converting to Christianity in rejection of a system that the white Christian missionaries convinced them had allowed them to starve. It is a simple narrative of the practical difficulties in governing societies under two conflicting political systems rooted in incompatible values.

Mr. Achebe’s fourth novel, ‘A Man of the People,’ published in early 1966, had predicted this course of events with such accuracy that the military government in Lagos decided he must have been a conspirator in the first coup, an accusation he denied. Mr. Achebe fled, settling in Britain with his wife, Christiana; their two sons, Ikechukwu and Chidi; and two daughters, Chinelo and Nwando. Thus in each of his novels, Achebe set up a dialogue with its predecessor, technically and formally as well as with regard to character and social milieu.

This process culminated in his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah which commented on the forms and themes of his own works and those of other African writers. The novel insists there is no one story of the nation, but a multiplicity of narratives, weaving continuities between past and present, Igbo and English cultural forms and traditions. But for more than 20 years a case of writer’s block kept him from producing another novel. He attributed the dry spell to emotional trauma that had lingered after the civil war. “The novel seemed like a frivolous thing to be doing,” he told The Washington Post in 1988.

‘Anthills of the Savannah,’ is the story of three former school chums in a fictional country modeled after Nigeria. One of them becomes a military dictator; another is appointed minister of information; and the third is named editor of the leading newspaper. All meet violent ends. The novel was widely admired.

Discussing it in 1988 in The New York Review of Books, the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson wrote: “Chinua Achebe says, with implacable honesty, that Africa itself is to blame, and that there is no safety in excuses that place the fault in the colonial past or in the commercial and political manipulations of the First World.”

Chinua Achebe was the first African writer who painted a non-romantic picture of this tribal life without apologizing for the bad, or praising the good. We may conclude with Nadine Gordimer’s words again (Chinua Achebe’s Death: A mind able to penetrate the mystery of being human) that for Achebe got the recognition from Nelson Mandela who told Achebe what his novels brought to him: “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison walls fell.” The Nobel Prize — awarded in 1986 to a friend, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka — eluded him.

Achebe was a visionary who traced the modern tragedy of the dehumanizing effects of cultural arrogance and absolutism, and how they are manifested as the moral arms of cynical. The civil war was the theme of many of his writings during these years. Citing bitter disappointment with government corruption and brutality, Achebe rejected the Nigerian government’s attempt to name him a Commander of the Federal Republic – a national honor – twice in 2004 and in 2011.When the massacre of Igbos began in the north following the coup, Achebe took his family to eastern Nigeria. He became a strong advocate of Biafra’s independence, travelling the world to seek support. In his view, Biafra was not only a territory that could ensure the survival of Igbo peoples, but also an ideal. Speaking in 1968, he declared: “Biafra stands for true independence in Africa, for an end to the 400 years of shame and humiliation which we have suffered in our association with Europe. I believe our cause is right and just. And this is what literature should be about today – right and just causes his anti-colonial novels have a great relevance till today. He established the validity of life in tribal Nigeria before the arrival of the so called civilizing Christian missionaries did it over there. He succeeds in presenting a community that is vibrant with strong mores and religious values and morally upright characters. Achebe’s novels are “an indigenous interpretation of regional history that was not either a non-critical celebration of the pre-colonial past or a condemnation of it.

After many African countries such as Nigeria gained independence in the post-World War II years, Achebe used books such as ‘A Man of the People’ to satirize the despots and corrupt bureaucrats who filled the gap and failed their own people. His 1983 polemic ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’ judged that ‘Nigerians are what they are only because their leaders are not what they should be.’

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More by :  Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

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