Achebe freed me to tell my own story

He demonstrated the importance of finding your own voice.

Chinua Achebe, who has died aged 82, writes of his protagonist in Things Fall Apart: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement.” At the age of 27, Achebe most likely had no idea just how much of his own life that opening sentence of his debut novel was prophesying. Things Fall Apart has since sold more than 12 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

The book’s publication in 1958 was deservedly a huge cultural event. Published two years before Nigeria gained independence, at a time when questions of identity and nationhood preoccupied colonised nations throughout the continent, it firmly moved Africans from the margins of their own narrative to the centre.

It tells the story of the colonial intervention from the African point of view and eloquently challenges the notion of the “discovery” of a people who already existed, and whose well-established civilisation has come under attack by the “discoverers”. “The white man is very clever,” Achebe writes. “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Like everyone else I know, I remember the first time I read Things Fall Apart. I could not have been more than ten when I read an older sibling’s copy. I was struck even then by the simplicity and beauty of the prose, and how the village it described seemed very much like mine. It captivated me and opened up for me a world of expansive possibilities. In it, I – who had been fed on the stories of Enid Blyton, and instructed at school on the history of post-colonial Nigeria – found a space where I could exist, one in which my forefathers existed as people worthy of respect. They were not pagans, running around wildly in the dark, cursed by God for not being Christians, as a pamphlet I had discovered around the same period asserted.

That revelation was a liberating and refreshing experience. Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying that Achebe was the one writer in whose company his prison walls came down. For me, it was in his company that my world opened. And it would be many years before I would describe it as “coming home”.

Achebe became my idol and I sought him out diligently. I read him carefully, savouring his wisdom. His later works continued the interrogation of the tension between old and new, but also became increasingly critical of the Nigerian government. His last book, There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra (2012), traces the trajectory of the country’s leadership problems and offers an honest and biting criticism of contemporary Nigeria.

No matter what his subject, Achebe wrote with an unflinching honesty and with elegance. From Things Fall Apart to There Was a Country, he has reminded me of the importance of not only owning my own story, but also articulating it, transcribing it, and, more importantly, of finding my voice. That is his enduring legacy, for which I – and many others – are immensely grateful. Achebe is gone, yet he lives not only in his works, but in those of generations of writers all over the world for whom he continues to be an influence.

Chika Unigwe won the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature for “On Black Sisters’ Street” (Vintage, £8.99)

Chinua Achebe and Nelson Mandela in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism