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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times