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”.


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