Why Chinua Achebe embodied Africa’s struggles
The first book by an African writer I ever read was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which isn’t surprising as it’s sold 8 million copies, more than any other work of African literature, and has been translated into 50 languages.
Although Achebe went on to write dozens of novels, essays and works of non-fiction, it was this first book, published in 1958, that ensured his enduring fame.
Achebe, who died in Boston this morning aged 82, is the father of modern African writing. Things Fall Apart is the tragic story of Okonkwo, torn between the traditional life of the Igbo village of Umuofia and the vision of the white missionaries, a vivid evocation of the conflict between tradition and modernity, between cultures and ideas that characterised much of Africa in the twentieth century.
Achebe’s first publisher, Heinemann, was clear nonetheless that this wasn’t just a good piece of “African” writing, but a brilliant book by any standards. “This is the best novel I have read since the war,” said Donald McCrae, the educational advisor who spotted the work.
Achebe’s most recent book, There Was A Country, written in the USA where he lived after suffering a car accident in 1990, was a memoir of the Biafran war. He had been an ambassador for the breakaway Biafran state in the late 1960s.
“[It] is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war,” said Chimamanda Adichie, one of a new generation of Nigerian writers, in the London Review of Books. ” Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.”
Returning to Nigeria in 2009 with Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society, Achebe said “I do miss Nigeria which is very strange because when I am here, we are constantly quarrelling.”
“He was totally disillusioned with Nigeria’s failure as a functioning state,” says Dowden. “It caused him immense pain,” recalling the upset on Achebe’s face watching police whacking the crowd to clear a path through the thousands of Nigerians jostling to see the country’s most famous literary son.
Achebe’s life embodied the contradictions and struggles of post-colonial Africa. He was both grateful to the British for the education they had given him, and appalled by Britian’s imperial role in Africa, especially the disregard for traditional culture.
“He is the ultimate expression of post imperial conflict in Africa,” said Dowden. “It was this which made him so creative. His voice will echo down the centuries.”
Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter