Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

Nigerian author dies at the age of 82.

The Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe has died at the age of 82. His last book, There Was a Country, an examination of the bloody recent history of his homeland, was reviewed for the New Statesman by Chika Unigwe. Here is her review.

There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra

Chinua Achebe
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

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.

Divided into four parts and interspersed with poetry, the book provides an expansive, historical sketch of Nigeria from the colonial period to the present. It also pays homage to one of Achebe’s idols and one of Africa’s most respected leaders, Nelson Mandela.

It begins with an Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” This is exactly what the book sets out to do – to discover where the rain that is still falling on Africa originated. Achebe, who is always clear-eyed about the source of the continent’s woes, writes:

The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin conference of 1885 . . . It took place without African consultation or representation . . . Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages.

That piece of chocolate cake, made up of so many disparate parts, began to crumble soon after Nigerian independence in 1960. James Robertson, the governor general appointed by Britain ostensibly to oversee the transition, was given the task of manipulating the elections to ensure that Britain’s choice for prime minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, got into power. “The British made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country that had played no real part in the struggle for independence,” Achebe writes.

Nigeria soon became a cesspool of corruption and misrule and was wracked by one crisis after another: the controversial census of 1963- 64, which was accompanied by accusations that the government of the northern region had inflated numbers to give it an advantage in the House of Representatives; the federal election crisis of 1964; and the western Nigeria election crisis of 1965.

In January 1966, there was a coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, “Igbo only in name”, who “was widely known as someone who saw himself as a northerner”. Unfortunately for Nzeogwu and the rest of his group (which included one Yoruba officer), the casualties of the coup were mostly politicians of northern origin, including Balewa, by then prime minister, and Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. This led to a perception that the coup was an Igbo plot to take over the reins of power. A counter-coup in the summer crush - ed Nzeogwu’s putsch and prepared the ground for dire repercussions against the Igbo. In the north, mobs attacked Igbo civilians. Things deteriorated quickly. General Ironsi, who after the first coup had inherited a nation in a shambles, was assassinated as Igbo officers were targeted.
The massacre of easterners had begun.

Achebe argues that “a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government . . . Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. Calls in the east for independence grew louder . . . There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other peoples from eastern Nigeria. Nigeria did not belong to us.”

In the midst of this crisis, on 24 May 1967, Achebe’s son, Chidi, was born. Six days later, citing the federal government’s inability to halt the genocide against easterners, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the eastern region, declared Biafra an independent state. In July of that year, a fullscale war broke out.

It has been 42 years since the Nigerian-Biafran war ended, yet ethnic and religious tensions remain high in Nigeria. Achebe writes: “Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government turned a blind eye to . . . savage massacres of its citizens . . .” To put an end to this requires, as Achebe acknowledges, a transformation of the political system and an end to “the cult of mediocrity” that currently runs (and ruins) Nigeria – one hopes through a peaceful, democratic process. And with the Boko Haram terrorist group growing increasingly active and violent, this had better happen sooner rather than later.

Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer. Her latest novel is “Night Dancer” (Jonathan Cape, £12.99).

 

The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (Photo: Getty Images)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage