Sunday 24 March 2013

Chinua Achebe Dies Aged 82: The Extraordinary Life and Work of an Extraordinary Man

Chinua Achebe will be sorely missed

In 2008, while studying for my Postcolonial Literature module at Manchester Metropolitan University, I read Chinua Achebe’s “A Man of the People”.

Finding the book a short but fascinating introduction to an author who my course tutors seemed to adore, I set about reading the better known “Things Fall Apart” over the following summer.

As “Things Fall Apart” has been described by Achebe himself as a ‘spiritual predecessor’ to “A Man of the People” and to several of his later novels, I found myself delving backwards through the work of a man who characterised African literature in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

On Thursday, Chinua Achebe died in Boston, Massachusetts after a short illness. Born in Ogidi in the Protectorate of Nigeria in 1930, Achebe spent the first 24 years of his life under British colonial rule, until the disbandment of the colony in 1954. By this point, Achebe had studied at Nigeria’s first university – University College in Ibadan – achieving a second class degree.

While not excelling academically – not yet, anyway – Achebe did find the time to fall in love with literature at the university, something which we should all be thankful for.

Four years after Nigerian independence, Achebe published his debut novel, “Things Fall Apart”, followed by “No Longer At Ease” two years later and then an extensive period of travelling. On returning to Nigeria, he set about creating the Voice of Nigeria network, nurturing and encouraging the cultural identity of this fledgling, independent nation.

Over the years that followed, Achebe produced three more novels, as well as countless short stories, poems and works of critical and political theory. The great man will be remembered as a novelist, but – amongst the fiction – it was one of his works of academia that resonated most greatly with me.

“An Image of Africa” is Achebe’s essay on the depiction of his home continent in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, “Heart of Darkness”. Often appearing in the upper reaches of those irritating “Best Books Ever” lists, Conrad’s work has been held up as a stunning psychological study of the human mind as it retreats into a sort of Freudian ‘other world’; heading, quite literally, for the heart of darkness.

Achebe instantly dismissed the legitimisation of Conrad’s writing as a modern or pre-modern text. He pronounced that there was something altogether more disturbing about Conrad's work than what initially met the eye, and advocated that it was the author himself himself who should be subjected to psychological study;

"Conrad had a problem with niggers,” Achebe wrote.

“His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.”

Published as part of the 1988 collection “Hopes and Impediments”, “An Image of Africa” could easily have become an interesting, if rather pedestrian, historical assessment of a hoary old Victorian writer and his problem with “those black chaps”. However, Achebe’s keen sense of social and political relevance ensured that the essay offered far more than this.

He maintained that, by simultaneusly holding up an outdated text like this one as a paragon of its literary movement, and apologising for its often less-than-salubrious messages, we are simply perpetuating support for prejudice, subjugation and segregation; attitudes that we like to think we have left behind.

When we cite works like these as foundation texts upon which modern literary schools of thought are based, this practice becomes all the more dangerous.

Achebe argued that, in Conrad’s eyes, notions of African humanity should be dismissed, and the continent should instead be viewed as a sort of experimentation chamber within which the refined European psyche could be put to the test.

"Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?" Achebe asked.

Who else could produce such a politically charged, powerful and contemporaneous analysis of a book written almost a century before?

Chinua Achebe will be sorely missed. Read his novels, by all means, but do not overlook “An Image of Africa”, a text that did as much to promote African culture and literature in the international consciousness as the celebrated “Things Fall Apart” or “Anthills of the Savannah”.


Nicola Monaghan, Alan Sillitoe and Nottingham’s Literary Soul

Nottingham on a rare sunny day

Nottingham is a city with soul. 

This is a non-negotiable position, and one which is soon reached by anyone who has spent time in the East Midlands conurbation.

It’s got its problems, like anywhere. But, time and time again, its positives outstrip its negatives, both in number and in weight.

Ask someone to describe Nottingham’s literary soul in two words, and the answer that is likely to be fired back your way is: 'Alan Sillitoe'. 

This is unsurprising: the author's scintillating work “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” continues to reverberate in every drunken laugh that echoes out at 3am on Forman Street and Broad Street to this day.

To paraphrase the Arctic Monkeys – somewhat appropriately, given the Sheffield quintet’s admiration for Sillitoe’s novels – there is a certain romance in the next generation of Nottingham’s youth emulating Arthur’s adventures on the cobbles of Old Market Square each weekend. How accurate they make such emulations is up to them.

So, while Sillitoe is the undisputed grand master of Nottingham’s literary scene, and is immortalised at the heart of the city’s cultural soul; who are the young writers ready to take up that torch and forge on into the 21st century?

Writers like Ghanaian-born, Freddy Fynn have already helped to expand the traditional boundaries of Nottingham’s literature.

His outstanding collection “Of Life and Love: Eight Moral Tales” retells traditional African short stories handed down by Fynn’s grandfather, and could not be set further from NG1 if it tried. Despite this, Fynn’s book instantly became part of the cultural fabric of the East Midlands city.

If writers like Fynn are taking Nottingham in new and exciting directions and introducing fresh perspectives, it is writers like Nicola Monaghan who are continuing the Sillitoe lineage and drawing influence directly from the city of Nottingham, from the ground upwards.

The influence of Alan Sillitoe is evident throughout Monaghan’s work. Even the title of her blog “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer”, owes a debt to the famous author, while her short story “Sunday Night and Monday Morning” offers more than just a gentle nod in his direction.

Published in 2006, Monaghan’s award winning debut novel “The Killing Jar” follows young Kerry Ann Hill as she grows up on a council estate in Aspley, north-west Nottingham. Certainly not a love letter to the city, “The Killing Jar” contains some of the most hard-hitting writing and bleak subject matter produced by a British writer in recent years.

The book’s central metaphor is its eponymous killing jar. Used by Kerry Ann’s elderly neighbour, Mrs Ivanovich to kill butterflies for her collection, the jar becomes a symbol, not only for the drug-infested council estate, but also for Kerry Ann’s poisonous relationship with her mother and, later, her abusive partner, Mark.

Tackling these issues head on makes “The Killing Jar” uncomfortable reading at times, but there is a thread of positivity that runs throughout the book that prevents the novel becoming an ‘it’s-grim-up-norf’ caricature of itself. Without giving too much away, it is this antithesis of the positive, the uplifting and the downright horrible, that makes the book so readable.

With a keen eye and ear for what makes her city tick, Monaghan's “The Killing Jar” is a triumphant text that repeatedly lays bare the foundations of Nottingham’s strong identity, for better or worse. With that identity brought under scrutiny so often over the last decade, we need texts like this to preserve and propagate it.

Monaghan followed up her debut by moving on to pastures new and producing “Starfishing” – a dark tale of corporate excess set in The City in the boom days of the late ‘90s – and “Okinawa Dragon”. I have to admit that I haven’t read either novel, although I will do someday. However, I go about my day with constantly crossed fingers in the hope that Nicola will return to our shared hometown for her next literary outing.

In the meantime, I continue to be quietly overwhelmed with civic pride.

Click here for an exploratory journey around Nottingham's oldest pubs.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Fellow readers; how much guidance do we really want? Or need?

It has little to do with the remainder of this post, but it is a fact that Russian literature is something I can get enthusiastic about. 

Today I decided to search for my next literary fix from the former Soviet republic and found myself reading through the Amazon user reviews for Dosoyevsky’s “The Devils” (aka – for the sake of accuracy – “Demons” or “The Possessed”).

The only review I could for Dostoyevsky’s 1872 novel which did not offer a glowing 5/5 write up was a one awarding the book a paltry 3/5. The main gripe that his reviewer had with “The Devils” was the reluctance of the author to give the reader any concrete details in terms of character development and back-story.

The discussion raged in the comments, with defenders of Dostoyevsky praising the literary maestro adoptions of narrative ambiguity as to the origins of the characters.

One supporter in particular seemed ecstatic about the way in which the author posed certain questions: how did such-and-such character get here? for example, what are they planning? what is real and what is not? These are questions which Dostoyevsky leaves for the reader to answer. Something that evidently rankled the poster of the 3/5 review.

This interesting point led me to pose a question of my own. As no novelist approaches a work with a completely open and objective mind, should the writer lead his or her readers through the novel, to the conclusion they intended? Or should they cede some degree of narratorial control to the reader themselves?

Acolytes of Roland Barthes’ literary criticism will have a very short answer to this question: it is not up to the author, the author is metaphorically dead – or quite literally dead in the case of Dostoyevsky.

While I prescribe to this view to an extent, it is too neat to completely remove the author from the equation. Novelists are narcissistic by their very nature, and so are understandably reluctant to simply release their creation into the world with no guidebook to help a reader navigate its pages.

So it is interesting when a writer appears to be trying to do just that. Milan Kundera is a writer who has been described variously as narcissistic and even misogynistic – we won’t go into that here, there’s not time – but in his 1979 book, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, he appears to be willing to put his egocentrism to one side, opting to hand over elements of control to the reader themselves.

The narration takes the form of a series of discrete, seemingly unrelated components, which ultimately spiral in on themselves to form a whole. The novel has been described as ‘a whirlwind dance’ – a phrase which echoes the rings of floating dancers that appear at various points in the novel, whether in the skies above Prague or levitating above the floor of a classroom.

However, despite this apparently meticulous choreography, the breathing space given to the reader allows us to form our own connections, formulate our own back-stories and, crucially, draw our own conclusions.

While Kundera’s work is at times dazzling (and at other times frustrating) his techniques are neither experimental nor extreme when compared to the work of certain other postmodern reader. Published a decade prior to Kundera’s work, B.S. Johnson’s “The Unfortunates” is one of the arch examples of a pure rejection of accepted narrative forms.

The novel follows a sports writer who journeys to an unnamed city in the English Midlands (a thinly disguised version of my beloved home town of Nottingham) to cover the match of an unnamed football team (it’s Forest; not County).

Already scoring big in my book on the strength of the setting alone, “The Unfortunates” clinches the winner by virtue of its astonishing disregard for traditional convention. In a move that would have made Gustave Flaubert turn in his grave, Johnson published the novel as a box of 25 un-ordered chapters of various lengths.

The chapters were designed to be read in any order the reader desired, ensuring that any one reader’s experience of the now infamous ‘book-in-a-box’ would be totally dissimilar to that of another.

A victory, then, for those Barthesian literary anarchists who believe that authorial jurisdiction ceases when the pen leaves the paper? Well, not entirely; “The Unfortunates” is packaged up with a proviso that, once again, casts everything into doubt.

B.S. Johnson designed his ‘book-in-a-box’ so that only 23 of the 25 chapters were to be read in the reader’s chosen order. The novel’s opening and closing chapters are clearly demarked as such, acting as carefully inserted bookends to this groundbreaking novel.

So, if even an arch-experimentalist like B.S. Johnson was reluctant to completely cede all control of his narrative, what hope is there for a work which completely eschews traditional for and structure?  Can a novel ever be truly free of the ‘tyranny’ of its author? And – more pressingly – should it ever be released in this way?

I began this post with a question, and ended it with one. Sorry about that.