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24 Mar 2013

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Chinua Achebe

Nigeria’s most celebrated and controversial literary luminary, Chinua Achebe, passed away in a US hospital. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

It was in the late hours of last Thursday when the Grim Reaper came for the literary icon. According to the reports, Chinua Achebe had long been laid prostrate in a Boston, Massachusetts hospital by an undisclosed ailment. Even before it became official, the news of his demise had already gone viral on the social media

Amid the outpouring of eulogies, a few literary front-liners remained cautious. The Cassava Republic’s Jeremy Weate wondered in his Tweeter handle why the newswire agencies hadn’t mentioned it. The renowned poet, Emman Usman Shehu, chose on his Facebook page to stick with Achebe’s family’s earlier rebuttal of the news.

The literary community, nevertheless, feared the worst. Literary newshounds and stakeholders remained glued to the various social media, hoping it was not true. Then came Ikhide Ikheloa’s Achebesque Facebook posting, which read: “It is true what the ears do not want to hear. Professor Chinua Achebe strolled into the next pantheon. I may as well have lost my father. I shall stand still until this hurt goes away....”

So Alfred Chinualumogu Achebe has closed his eyes to this side of existence, after all! He turned 82 last year on November 16. The Guardian of London quoted the Penguin’s publishing director, Simon Winder, as saying that he was an “utterly remarkable man”. Winder also said Achebe was “the greatest African writer and we are all desolate to hear of his death.”

Just last year, Achebe had set the cat among the pigeons with his latest non-fiction offering, There Was a Country (A Personal History of Biafra). Tempers flared and sentiments edged out reason as the controversy trailing the book raged. Not surprising though, many among those who joined issues with it never read it. Achebe also stirred the hornet’s nest of controversy when he rejected the Nigerian national award for the second time.

Since his first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, took the literary world by storm in 1958, few of works of his have had similar galvanic effect. A work of fiction, Things Fall Apart has been translated in 50 languages, sold more than 10 million copies around the world and is not surprisingly deemed the most widely read book in modern African literature.

Set in the 19th century Igbo village of Umuofia, its unaffected narrative revolves around the character Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s resistance against the rampaging onslaught of colonialism leads to his tragic end. He also struggles to overturn the legacy of his debt-ridden and flute-playing indolent father, Unoka.

The publishers, Heinemann, first published 2000 hardcover copies of the novel on June 17, 1958 with one of its employees, Alan Hill, declaring that the company did not “touch a word of it” while it prepared for its release. The British press curiously had heart-warming things to say about the book. For the Times Literary Supplement, it “genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside” while Time and Tide enthused that “Mr Achebe’s style is a model for aspirants.” The Observer simply called it “an excellent novel”.

Even so, a section of the Nigerian literary community’s initial reception of the book was guarded. Achebe’s alma mater, the University of Ibadan, scoffed at the idea that an alumnus could produce anything worthwhile.  But a reviewer in the magazine Black Orpheus thought differently: “The book as a whole creates for the reader such a vivid picture of Ibo life that the plot and characters are little more than symbols representing a way of life lost irrevocably within living memory.”

Things Fall Apart has since not only made the Time magazine’s list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 in the good company of novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, but has also continued to make waves in the global literary circuit.

Achebe, revered as the father of African literature, was also a poet, critic and essayist. His family had in a statement eulogised him as “one of the great literary voices of all time. He was also a beloved husband, father, uncle and grandfather, whose wisdom and courage are an inspiration to all who knew him.”

His other novels No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) have failed to replicate the feat of his first novel, which took its title from WB Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”.  The Guardian of London also quoted the nonagenarian South Africa’s iconic first post-Apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, as saying that Achebe “brought Africa to the rest of the world” and hailed him as “the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”.

His 1975 essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” took a hard-hitting swipe at Joseph Conrad, who he accused of turning Africa into “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity into which the wandering European enters at his peril” and asked: “Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

This essay was hailed by Brown University, where Achebe held the position of David and Marianna Fisher university professor and professor of Africana studies until his death. According to the US-based university, the essay “is recognised as one of the most generative interventions on Conrad; and one that opened the social study of literary texts, particularly the impact of power relations on 20th-century literary imagination.”

Born in the Anambra State town of Ogidi in 1930, Achebe had an early fascination with world religions and traditional African cultures.  He was already as an undergraduate of the University of Ibadan penning stories. So while he worked, after his graduation, at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos he started to work on his subsequent novel, No Longer at Ease.

The activist in Achebe guaranteed his support for the secessionist Biafra’s independence. He was later appointed an ambassador of the embattled nation. He was continually appealing to the conscience of the Western nation for aid, as the violence and starvation took its toll on the beleaguered populace. After the war had claimed the life of the poet Christopher Okigbo, a badly-shaken Achebe later penned a “Dirge for Okigbo”, which though originally written in Igbo language was later translated to English. Most of his creative works during the Nigerian civil war took the form of poetry, a consequence of living in a conflict zone. “I can write poetry,” he was quoted to have said. “Something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood...All this is creating in the context of our struggle.”

Many of these war-time poems were eventually published in his 1971 book, titled Beware, Soul Brother. Biafra’s eventual capitulation to the Nigerian federal forces in January 15, 1970 brought the 30-month long conflict to an end.

Achebe later became involved in politics when the military handed over power to an elected civilian government in 1979. His party, the People Redemption Party, was one of the least successful among the four registered opposition parties. Frustrated by the level of corruption in Nigeria, he had relocated to the US after his retirement from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he had taught at the English Department.

A car accident after his 60th birthday anniversary celebrations – themed “The Eagle on the Iroko” – in the university in 1990left him crippled for the rest of his earth-life. He returned to the US, where he lived until his death.

He was a winner of several prestigious literary prizes and twice turned down national honours from the Nigerian government. His most celebrated novels focus on the Igbo societal traditions, the influence of Christianity and the clash of Western and African civilisations. Drawing from the rich local folklore, proverbs and oral traditions, his writing style is a straightforward narration. Among his publications are short stories, children’s story books and essay collections.  

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