Darkness held a vague terror for these people

things-fall-apartThings Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe

I first read this Nigerian classic for my A-level English. It was probably the first book I had read by an African author. Back then I didn’t have much to compare it to but I’m grateful to Linda, my English teacher, for introducing me to it.

I remembered this as the story of the arrival of the white man in Africa, and the effect of Western religion and imposed rule, but that’s really only the end of the book and not the main thrust at all. This is primarily the tragedy of Okonkwo, a great and celebrated hunter and wrestler, whose obsessive need to not fail like his father sows the seeds of his destruction.

Okonkwo’s father was lazy and died in debt. So Okonkwo makes a point of opposing everything his father enjoyed, such as music and arts, and becoming great at the things his father did not do well: farming, fighting, war. He has three wives and several children and is an elder in his village, Umuofia. Everything is on track to him earning all the great titles of his tribe. But his determination to succeed is his own downfall.

“When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists.”

Continue reading “Darkness held a vague terror for these people”

Justifiable anger

An Image of Africa
by Chinua Achebe

This is actually two essays by the great Nigerian author: “An image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, and “The trouble with Nigeria”. Which are some pretty heavy topics, so it’s possibly best that they total less than 100 pages between them!

The first essay is fascinating, though I would no doubt get more from it had I actually read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But then the major reason Achebe came to write this essay is that Heart of Darkness is so widely read and studied that the grotesque myths and caricatures it perpetuates cannot easily be erased from the public consciousness, so perhaps by not reading it myself I’m helping just a little bit?

As the title suggests, Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness is hideously, unforgivably racist. From subtle linguistic differences between descriptions of black and white to outright lies told about African natives, Achebe’s argument seems hard to counter. I found it interesting that he calls Conrad a “great stylist of modern fiction”, which is perhaps akin to saying he ought to have known better. He speaks of Conrad’s fixation with blackness and the word “nigger” but mostly he is concerned with the way the book questions “the very humanity of black people”. Which is a grievous accusation indeed, and certainly I can see why Achebe might feel such anger toward the book.

Achebe doesn’t just look to the book itself but also to modern scholars’ writing about it. Not one of them, he says, has dealt with the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness, which suggests that all those scholars considered racism to be entirely normal and/or acceptable. The possible damage of continuing to teach such a text widely is that such attitudes will continue to be normalised, that the image of Africa as the dark, prehistoric continent will be perpetuated and therefore racism continue.

Reading the second essay is to some extent dependent on having some knowledge of Nigeria and in particular the Nigeria of 1983, when the essay was written. Achebe speaks largely about corruption and rule-breaking in his home country. Though he lambasts his fellow Nigerians, occasionally lapsing into caricature and generalisation, he always comes back to how the country’s leaders have made the situation what it is. He balances out the generalisations with specific examples of men or occasions that highlight his points. Politicians Azikiwe and Owolowo come under particular fire, but I was more interested to hear brief mention of a name entirely new to me, Aminu Kano, who Achebe compares to Mahatma Gandhi and calls a “saint and revolutionary”. I am immensely curious what is behind these words of admiration and am off right now to ask the internet what the story is.

“An image of Africa” was originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, February 1975; later published in the Massachussetts Review 1977.
“The trouble with Nigeria” first published by Fourth Dimension Publishing 1983.
This selection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the “Great Ideas” series.

I read to open up my world

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.

There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).

But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.

At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.

Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.

The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.

When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.

There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.

There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.

The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.

This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.

First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.

UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.