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‘There Was a Country’ by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe has written a kind of hybrid memoir.

Jerry Bauer

Chinua Achebe has written a kind of hybrid memoir.

Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart,” published about 55 years ago, virtually introduced African-written fiction to the rest of the world. Not only that, his story of a traditional village hero, come to grief under the Western ways imported by the British, has been a huge and continuing success, translated into numerous languages, and selling a reported 12 million copies.

Now in his 80s, having written a number of other novels on African themes and taught for years at colleges in the United States — Bard and currently at Brown — Achebe has published a kind of hybrid memoir. The first and more interesting part tells of his upbringing and early days.

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The second part is an account of the abortive three-year secession of his native Biafra from the rest of newly independent Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the hideous civil war that followed. There is indeed a personal element here. He was a backer of independence, went on diplomatic missions to rally support abroad, and found himself fleeing the bloody advance of the Nigerian federal forces which, together with a choking embargo, cost as many as 3 million Biafran lives, mainly children.

After Biafra’s surrender, despite promises of no reprisals by the federal government, some crippling economic measures were imposed. Achebe briefly joined in an attempt to form a party that would promote reconciliation, but found that the quarrels and compromises of political life did not suit him, and he returned to writing and teaching

This part of the story is a thinly written paraphrase of a history in which Achebe, like so many of his fellow Biafrans, was less a shaper than an unhappy and at times critical spectator. Though collaborating as an intellectual with Biafra’s strong-willed, often harsh military ruler, Odumegwu Ojukwu, he regrets his refusal to seek solutions and speculates that someone more flexible might have done better.

Achebe was the son of a prominent family in the town of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria, the region that later became Biafra and was home to the Igbo people. Under the British, the Igbos produced a large share of Nigeria’s educated classes, entrepreneurs, and civil servants. Achebe’s father, a preacher trained in the Christian missions, sent his son to a series of rigorous British-style schools. The headmaster of one, an unmatched disciplinarian free with the cane — once beating every student at the school in a single day — had an unmatched record for getting his charges into the best secondary schools around the country.

Achebe, an excellent student, attended a top boarding school and then Nigeria’s newly established university, linked to the University of London. After a brief spell of teaching he joined the broadcasting service, rising quickly to become a top manager in Lagos, and going on to London to train at the BBC. He’d begun to write stories, and it was at this point that he produced “Things Fall Apart.”

Looking back, Achebe pronounces what he calls the “heresy” of judging British rule in Nigeria to have been useful and well managed. He condemns them for manipulating election results, as they withdrew, to favor the less-educated northern Hausa over the Igbo and the Yoruba; mainly, he argues, to protect British economic interests.

His views of the Christianity he was brought up in are also mixed. Revering his father’s faith, he quarrels with its “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”: its “desolation, the acerbity of its meaning, the lack of options for the outsider, the other.” And it will be this “other” — a traditional African culture and means of expression — that he blends with his British formation in writing his novels.

Even recalling his early years, Achebe’s writing is abstract and lacks savor. He gives the facts without engaging in them. His wife and children are little more than noted. When he arrives in England from Nigeria for the first time, “London was a brand-new and pleasant experience,” is all he has to say about it. Is it possible that at 80 the memory as well as the body begins to lose its juice?

There is plenty of juice in the most interesting passage in the book: Achebe’s argument that fiction from the developing world must abandon any stylistic literary ivory tower to engage in social and political themes. For such a purpose the realistic novel is needed (he overlooks, perhaps, the magic realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez). And to the Western avant-garde that thought of itself as moving forward from the realist tradition, he retorts: “You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.”

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at ederculloch@gmail.com.
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