Since the 1950s, Nigeria has witnessed "the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society," wrote Margaret Laurence in her book Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists. Chinua Achebe, who rejected the British name "Albert" and took his indigenous name "Chinua" in college in 1948, was among the founders of this new literature, and over the years many critics have come to consider him the finest of the Nigerian novelists. His achievement has not been limited to his native country or continent; by his death in 2013, his work had been published in some fifty languages. As Laurence maintained, "Chinua Achebe's careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters" put him in the finest rank of English-language writers during his lifetime.
Achebe's "prose writing reflects three essential and related concerns," observed G.D. Killam in his book The Novels of Chinua Achebe: "first, with the legacy of colonialism at both the individual and societal level; secondly, with the fact of English as a language of national and international exchange; thirdly, with the obligations and responsibilities of the writer both to the society in which he lives and to his art."
Achebe's work attempts to recognize the virtues of precolonial Nigeria, chronicle the ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and expose present-day corruption. Unlike Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo and others, who chose to return to writing in their native languages, Achebe judged the best channel for these messages to be English, the language of colonialism. He wrote in English because he wished to repossess the power of description from those, like Joyce Cary and H. Rider Haggard, who cast Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. Achebe's transformation of language to achieve his particular ends distinguishes his writing from that of other English-language novelists. To repossess descriptions of Nigeria in English, he translated Ibo proverbs and wove them into his stories with Ibo vocabulary, images, and speech patterns. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly," he wrote in his novel Things Fall Apart, "and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." "Proverbs are cherished by Achebe's people as ... the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage," explained Adrian A. Roscoe in Mother Is Gold: A Study of West African Literature. "When they disappear or fall into disuse ... it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away." Achebe's use of proverbs also has an artistic aim, suggested Bernth Lindfors in Folklore in Nigerian Literature. "Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels," commented the critic, "because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society."
Although he also wrote poetry, short stories, and essays--both literary and political--Achebe is best known for his novels, including Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah. These novels develop the theme of what happens to a society when change outside distorts and blocks the natural change from within. They offer, as Eustace Palmer observed in The Growth of the African Novel, "a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change." Even as he resisted the rootless visions of postmodernist globalization, Achebe in his writing does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past.
Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God focus on Nigeria's early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. "With remarkable unity of the word with the deed, the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences" of European colonialism, suggested Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe's work. "There is an artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction."
Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, early in the Nigerian renaissance. Achebe explained why he began writing at this time in an interview with Lewis Nkosi in African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews: "One of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary's novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that this was a most superficial picture ... not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character. ... I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look ... from the inside." Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction, said of Achebe's success, both in investing his novel of Africa with an African sensibility and in making this view available to African readers: "In 1964 ... Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent." Simon Gikandi recalled in Research in African Literatures: "Once I had started reading Things Fall Apart ... I could not cope with the chapter-a-day policy. I read the whole novel over one afternoon and it is not an exaggeration to say that my life was never to be the same again. ... In reading Things Fall Apart, everything became clear: the yam was important to Ibo culture, not because of what we were later to learn to call use-value ... but because of its location at the nexus of a symbolic economy in which material wealth was connected to spirituality and ideology and desire." Later in the 1960s, the novel "became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first 'classic' in English from tropical Africa," added Larson.
The novel tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800s and one of its great men, Okonkwo. Although the son of a ne'er-do-well, Okonkwo has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a titleholder among his people, and a member of the select egwugwu who represent ancestral spirits at tribal rituals. "The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart," maintained David Carroll in his book Chinua Achebe, "is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century." He explained: "Here is a clan in the full vigor of its traditional way of life, unperplexed by the present and without nostalgia for the past. Through its rituals the life of the community and the life of the individual are merged into significance and order."
In Things Fall Apart, the order of the village is disrupted with the appearance of the white man in Africa and with the introduction of his religion. "The conflict in the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart," observed Killam. Okonkwo is unable to counter the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration, he kills an African employed by the British and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long remained true. The novel thus presents "two main, closely intertwined tragedies," wrote Arthur Ravenscroft in his study Chinua Achebe, "the personal tragedy of Okonkwo ... and the public tragedy of the eclipse of one culture by another." Achebe reclaims the power of description from the colonial writer by depicting both tragedies from within Ibo culture.
Although the author emphasized the message in his novels, he also received praise for his artistic achievement. Palmer commented that the work "demonstrates a mastery of plot and structure, strength of characterization, competence in the manipulation of language and consistency and depth of thematic exploration which is rarely found in a first novel." Achebe also achieved balance in recreating the tragic consequences of colonial damage to his culture. Killam noted that "in showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory." And, Killam concluded, Achebe's "success proceeds from his ability to create a sense of real life and real issues in the book and to see his subject from the point of view which is neither idealistic nor dishonest."
Arrow of God takes place in the 1920s after the British have established a presence in Nigeria. The "arrow of god" in the title is Ezeulu, the chief priest of the god Ulu, a deity created to unite Umuaro, a federation of six Ibo villages. As chief priest, Ezeulu is responsible for initiating rituals that structure village life and maintain the unity of the federation, a position with a great deal of political as well as spiritual power. In fact, the central theme of this novel, Laurence pointed out, is power: "Ezeulu's testing of his own power and the power of his god, and his effort to maintain his own and his god's authority in the face of village factions and of the [Christian] mission and the British administration." "This, then, is a political novel in which different systems of power are examined and their dependence upon myth and ritual compared," wrote Carroll.
In Ezeulu, Achebe presents a study of loss of power in the face of colonial manipulation whose depth he does not understand. After the village council rejects his advice to avoid conflict with a neighboring village, Ezeulu finds himself at odds with his own people and praised by British administrators. The British, seeking a candidate to install as village chieftain, make him an offer, which he refuses and is therefore imprisoned. Caught in the middle with no allies, Ezeulu becomes more and more uncompromising and finally dooms the villages in his rigid opposition to the council. "As in Achebe's other novels," observed Gerald Moore in Seven African Writers, "it is the strong-willed man of tradition who cannot adapt, and who is crushed by his virtues in the war between the new, more worldly order, and the old, conservative values of an isolated society." The artistry displayed in Arrow of God drew a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem in which the writer was held. Charles Miller commented in a Saturday Review article that Achebe's "approach to the written word is completely unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely unruffled, the control impeccable." Concluded Miller: "It is a measure of Achebe's creative gift that he has no need whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his intense drama."
No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, and Anthills of the Savannah all examine Africa in the era of independence. This is an Africa less and less under obvious European administration, but still deeply controlled by it, an Africa struggling to regain its footing in order to stand on its own two feet. Standing in the way of realizing its goal of true independence is the persistence of European values pervasive in modern Africa, an obstacle Achebe continues to scrutinize in each of these novels. Olaniyan commented: "The postcolonial state was determined by, and is an expression of, the political superstructure elaborated by colonial power, and not an outgrowth of the autonomous evolution of the people. ... The postcolonial state has been unable to escape the logic of its origin in the colonial state: absence of legitimacy with the governed, dependence on coercion, lack of political accountability, a bureaucracy with an extraverted mentality, disregard for the cultivation of a responsive civic community, uneven horizontal integration into the political community such that the government is most felt in the cities, extraction of surplus from the interior to overfeed the capital, and many more!"
In No Longer at Ease, set in Nigeria just prior to independence, Achebe extends his history of the Okonkwo family. The central character is Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. Obi Okonkwo has been raised a Christian and educated in England. Like many of his peers, he has left the bush behind for a position as a civil servant in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city. "No Longer at Ease deals with the plight of [this] new generation of Nigerians," observed Palmer, "who, having been exposed to education in the western world and therefore largely cut off from their roots in traditional society, discover, on their return, that the demands of tradition are still strong, and are hopelessly caught in the clash between the old and the new," the demands the logic of colonialism continues to make on the ruling class.
Many faced with this internal conflict between individualistic and communal values succumb to corruption. Obi is no exception. "The novel opens with Obi on trial for accepting bribes," noted Killam, "and the book takes the form of a long flashback." "In a world which is the result of the intermingling of Europe and Africa ... Achebe traces the decline of his hero from brilliant student to civil servant convicted of bribery and corruption," wrote Carroll. "It reads like a postscript to the earlier novel [Things Fall Apart] because the same forces are at work but in a confused, diluted, and blurred form." In This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French, Judith Illsley Gleason pointed out how the imagery of each book depicts the changes in the Okonkwo family and the Nigeria they represent. She wrote: "The career of the grandson Okonkwo ends not with a machete's swing but with a gavel's tap," but the legacy that destroys him is the same.
A Man of the People is satire, and in this "novel of disenchantment," Achebe further casts his eye on African politics, taking on, as Moore noted, "the corruption of Nigerians in high places in the central government." The author's eyepiece is the book's narrator Odili, a schoolteacher; the object of his scrutiny is the Honorable M.A. Nanga, Member of Parliament, Odili's former teacher and a popular bush politician who has risen to the post of minister of culture in his West African homeland.
At first, Odili is charmed by the politician, but eventually he recognizes the extent of Nanga's abuses and decides to oppose the minister in an election. Odili is beaten, both physically and politically, his appeal to the people heard but ignored because he too has left his roots behind for abstract intellect. The novel demonstrates, according to Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, that "the society has been invaded by a wide range of values which have destroyed the traditional balance between the material and the spiritual spheres of life, which has led inevitably to the hypocrisy of double standards." Odili is both victim and perpetrator of these double standards.
Despite his political victory, Nanga, along with the rest of the government, is ousted by a coup. "The novel is a carefully plotted and unified piece of writing," wrote Killam. "Achebe achieves balance and proportion in the treatment of his theme of political corruption by evoking both the absurdity of the behavior of the principal characters while at the same time suggesting the serious and destructive consequences of their behavior to the commonwealth." The seriousness of the fictional situation portrayed in A Man of the People became real very soon after the novel was first published in 1966 when Nigeria was wracked by a coup.
Two decades passed between the publication of A Man of the People and Achebe's 1988 novel, Anthills of the Savannah. During this time, rather than flee abroad as he might have done, Achebe became involved in the political struggle between Nigeria and the seceding nation of Biafra, a struggle marked by five coups, a civil war, elections marred by violence, and a number of attempts to return to civilian rule. He worked throughout the war as the Biafran minister of information. Judging that novels could not express the horrors of the struggle, he wrote poetry, short stories, and essays that mourned and celebrated the attempted revolution.
Anthills of the Savannah is Achebe's return to the novel, and as Nadine Gordimer commented in the New York Times Book Review, "it is a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal." It is a return to the themes of independent Africa informing Achebe's earlier novels, but it gives the most significant role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling, offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. "This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die," wrote London Observer contributor and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. "It is also about dissent, and love."
Three former schoolmates have risen to positions of power in an imaginary West African nation, Kangan. Ikem is editor of the state-owned newspaper; Chris is the country's minister of information; Sam is a military man who has become head of state. Sam's quest to have himself voted president for life sends the lives of these three and the lives of all Kangan citizens into turmoil. Neal Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, commented that the novel becomes "a tale about responsibility, and the ways in which men who should know better betray and evade that responsibility."
The turmoil comes to a head in the novel's final pages. All three of the central characters are dead. Ikem, who spoke out against the abuses of the government, is murdered by Sam's secret police. Chris, who flees into the bush to begin a journey of transformation among the people, is shot attempting to stop a rape. Sam is kidnapped and murdered in a coup. "The three murders, senseless as they are, represent the departure of a generation that compromised its own enlightenment for the sake of power," wrote Ascherson.
Anthills of the Savannah was well received and earned Achebe a nomination for the Booker Prize. Larson, writing in Tribune Books, estimated that "no other novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and regurgitated contemporary Africa's miseries and expectations as profoundly as Anthills of the Savannah."
Achebe's next book, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987, essays and speeches written over a period of twenty-three years, is perceived in many ways to be a logical extension of ideas in Anthills of the Savannah. In this collection, however, he is not addressing the way Africans view themselves but rather how Africa is viewed by the outside world. The central theme is the corrosive impact of the racism that pervades Western traditional appraisal of Africa. The collection opens with an examination of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness; Achebe criticizes Conrad for projecting an image of Africa as uncivilized. Achebe argues that to this day, the Conradian myth persists that Africa is a dark and bestial land. The time has come, Achebe states, to sweep away this racism in favor of new myths that will enable Africans and non-Africans alike to redefine the way they look at the continent.
After a long silence, during which he recovered from a serious car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Achebe continued his critiques in Home and Exile. The book is a memoir in the form of three essays, where he extends his attack on linguistic colonialism in its many forms. For instance, he describes the Ibo as a "nation" rather than a "tribe." In an article in Research in African Literatures, a critic contended that Achebe "resents the colonial categorization of non-Western nationalities as tribes distinguished by primordial affiliations and primitive customs. By sheer force of logic and weight of evidence, Achebe demonstrates that his own people ... do not share most of the notorious attributes of tribal groups, particularly blood ties and a centralized authority." As Richard Feldstein wrote in a Literature and Psychology review: "Home and Exile calls for overwriting colonial narratives by painstakingly reviewing their articulation as well as their accumulated details while instituting a counter-discourse of repossession. Repossession ... calls for the process of re-storying marginalized indigenes who have been silenced by the trauma of dispossession. Repossession presents counter-discursive 'stories,' along with new ways of telling them."
With The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, Achebe presents an autobiographical collection of essays and adapted speeches. The seventeen selections in the volume reflect on Achebe's life as a professor, a father, and a writer. The author discusses his early education in Nigeria and writes about his favorite themes, such as colonialism and early portrayals of Africa as a savage place. Although most critics applauded the book, Michela Wrong in Spectator felt that "Achebe should have been cajoled" by an editor "to dig deeper into the themes that have preoccupied him for more than half a century. Maybe he could even have been nagged into writing something about today's Nigeria." Despite these complaints, Helon Habila acknowledged in his London Guardian review that "this may not be a scholarly work, but what it lacks in scholasticism, it more than makes up for in wisdom and passion, as well as those rare and often overlooked attributes of great literature, clarity and consistency of vision." Additionally, Library Journal reviewer Denise J. Stankovics declared The Education of a British-Protected Child to be "highly recommended for readers interested in African studies and European colonialism from the perspective of the colonized."
Achebe's last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, describes the three bloody years of the Nigerian Civil War, from 1967 to 1970. An Ibo (or Igbo), Achebe and others of his tribe were caught up in this turbulent time following Nigerian independence in 1960. After successive coups, there were massacres of Ibo citizens whom other tribes disliked for their education and prominence during the British colonial period. The Ibo people fled to the east of the country where they established the Republic of Biafra. Thereafter followed bloody years of fighting until Biafra was finally defeated in 1970. Achebe examines this period "through a blend of insightful political analysis, history, and memoir, interspersed with his poetry," according to Veronica Arellano Douglas in Library Journal.
Writing in Booklist, Brendan Driscoll noted that "Achebe warns that the root causes of the conflict ... remain present in modern-day Nigeria." New Statesman contributor Chika Unigwe had high praise for There Was a Country, noting: "Chinua Achebe's first book in three years richly rewards his admirers' patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria." Douglas similarly felt that Achebe's writing in this memoir demonstrates "his love and sorrow for his people," as well as "hope" for the future of his troubled country. Likewise, New Internationalist reviewer Peter Whittaker termed the book a "brilliant and gripping narrative of a modern tragedy that encompassed the best and the worst of human behaviour."
In his writings, Achebe created a significant body of work in which he offered a close and balanced examination of contemporary Africa and the historical forces that shaped it. "His distinction is to have [looked back] without any trace either of chauvinistic idealism or of neurotic rejection," maintained Moore. And Busby commended the author's achievement in "charting the sociopolitical development of contemporary Nigeria." However, Achebe's writing reverberates beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the arenas of anthropology, sociology, and political science. As literature, it deals with universal qualities. Killam wrote in his study: "Achebe's novels offer a vision of life which is essentially tragic, compounded of success and failure, informed by knowledge and understanding, relieved by humour and tempered by sympathy, embued with an awareness of human suffering and the human capacity to endure." Concluded the critic: "Sometimes his characters meet with success, more often with defeat and despair. Through it all the spirit of man and the belief in the possibility of triumph endures."
Achebe moved to the United States in 1993 to become Charles P. Stevenson Professor of Languages and Literature at New York's Bard College. He continued to teach there until 2009, when he became the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. He was honored with the Man Booker International Prize in 2007, and with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2010. In 2011, Achebe refused for a second time to be named a Commander of the Federal Republic in Nigeria in protest of the political situation in the country.
Upon his death in Boston in March of 2013, eulogies poured in from around the world. Writing in the London Guardian, Alison Flood noted that Achebe was "seen by millions as the father of African literature." Also writing at the time of Achebe's death, New York Times contributor Jonathan Kandell described this Nigerian writer as a "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 told by Western voices." Kandell went on to emphasize Achebe's importance to African and world literature: "In his writing and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture." After living in self-imposed exile from his native Nigeria for two decades, Achebe--in death--finally returned to his country, buried in his home town of Ogidi in Anambra state. Hundreds attended the funeral, including Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, lawmakers, and the wealthy and privileged of Nigeria who were often the object of Achebe's scorn. "It was a fitting tribute to the respect Achebe carried among the people here and for many others around the world who knew him through his books, which many say is the first African voice heard in modern literature," noted Jon Gambrell in the London Independent Online.
From: "Chinua Achebe." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2014.