PRINT Summer 2013


Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe, London, May 21, 1970. Photo: Corbis.

NEWS OF THE DEATH of the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who passed away on March 21 at the age of eighty-two, reached me at my office in Munich through the wildfire of the Internet. By day’s end, that wildfire had spread to precincts far beyond the Web. It burned unceasingly, in phone calls and text messages and the pages of newspapers; in postings on social media and African literary LISTSERVS; in classrooms and bars, and, above all, on the bustling, teeming streets of African cities. Recollections were mixed with sorrow; collective grief was speckled with celebrations of the life of one of Africa’s greatest sons. The shock of Achebe’s death left me momentarily paralyzed. But sadness was joined by exhilaration as I remembered how his vivid writing acted as a kind of life-sustaining ore to be mined by members of my generation of postcolonial Africans. Even today, I remember the impact of reading his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), undeniably one of the most beloved and important books of the twentieth century. The effect had to do with the shock of recognition produced by the world he re-created on the page: an Igbo village whose inhabitants, faced with the arrival of Christian missionaries and British colonial administrators, must grapple with the devastation incurred in the uneven contact between cultural and spiritual traditions. Though it was fictional, this world was nevertheless familiar, perceptible through so many lived encounters between the past and the present. Added to this recognition was the pleasure of knowing that the prospect Achebe conjured, of a confident postcolonial literature, was part of my own imaginative inheritance.

Still, I had to come to terms with the news of his passing and reconcile myself to the fact that the sight of the old literary lion, who had been a constant presence on the African cultural landscape for so long—the image of his gentle, bemused face wrinkled by a smile—from then on could be retrieved only as memory. But now he was on a long journey of transition from earthly icon to denizen of the immortal world of ancestors. In other words, his was a life that had come full circle, like the proverbial coiled serpent of Igbo representation.

As the Igbo, the large Nigerian ethnic group to which both he and I belong, would say: Oke osisi adago (a great tree has fallen). Achebe was the “great tree” of twentieth-century African literature. His ideas were truly world-changing. Things Fall Apart, which was published when he was twenty-eight and has been in print in multiple languages ever since, quite simply transformed modern African writing. In a recollection published on the website The Root, Kwame Anthony Appiah captures this succinctly: Achebe, he writes, “established, for those who wanted to write fiction in English about African life, the first great model of how it could be done.” The novel was followed by No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964); together with Things Fall Apart these works form the great trilogy of Achebe’s meditation on colonialism and postcolonialism. During the years in which he wrote them, Africa was in the midst of sweeping political changes ushered in by independence and the establishment of new nation-states. For postcolonial elites, the transformation came with challenges and responsibilities: It was imperative to forge a modern, independent African consciousness and to transmit the universal values of the African experience. Achebe’s contribution to this project and the great triumph of his work was his placement of African people at the center of his writing as historical subjects, as agents of a reimagined selfhood. Yet Achebe was neither utopian nor idealistic. His fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), was written at the height of the crisis of the Nigerian state and was almost prophetic in its trenchant diagnosis of endemic government corruption. The book anticipated the fateful military coup d’état of January 15, 1966, which was the harbinger of the Nigerian-Biafran war a year later.

Chinualumogu Albert Achebe was born on November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, a small town in southeastern Nigeria. His father, a Christian missionary and teacher, raised his children in the faith, but also left room for the non-Christian tradition of the Igbo world to infuse their education. The junctures between Christianity and Igbo culture, between Europe and Africa, colonialism and resistance to it, would form the lifelong themes of Achebe’s work as a writer, university professor, editor, publisher, essayist, and outspoken critic of corruption and other social ills. In his writings, the age-old wisdoms of Igbo oral tradition, emblematized by his liberal use of proverbs, were a deep well of literary and philosophical resources. Indeed, Igbo culture formed the core of his identity as a writer and thinker.

Achebe also embodied several other identities: He was a Nigerian writer, an African writer, and a world writer. Yet he was first and foremost an Igbo writer—not in a provincial, narrow, ethnocentric sense, but in the way one could say that Charles Dickens was an English writer and Wordsworth an English poet. For Achebe, Igbo tradition and the lessons of its complex language functioned in the service of a vanguard kind of universalism and humanism. Paradoxically, it was through the particularities of context—the textured evocation of a specific culture in all its intricacy—that Achebe, like Dickens, arrived at universality. Achebe’s singular achievement was to remove, stake by stake, the fences that sequestered African societies and the individuals that populated them from the sidewalk of historical interpretation, and to make clear that these societies and individuals were also vessels of universal human insights, regardless of whether the West considered them savage or primitive.

He articulated the stakes of his enterprise in such essays as “The Novelist as Teacher” (1965) and “An Image of Africa” (1977). In the latter text, he rendered a devastating critique of the racism in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness via careful close reading. Achebe was scandalized by the uncritical way Conrad’s book had been interpreted as great literature in the Western academy despite its transparent racism, which, Achebe writes, situates Africa “as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Pointing up the “preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance” of such a characterization of an entire continent, he asserts: “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.” It is difficult today to capture the sense of how radical Achebe’s reading of Conrad was in 1977, when the critical vocabulary of postcolonial studies had barely been forged (Edward Said’s Orientalism would not be published for another year).

Achebe’s universality was recognized only gradually, even though from the outset it was clear that his ambition was precisely to exceed provincialism and stereotype. As we simultaneously mourn and celebrate him, we must not lose sight of the fact that the warm reception Things Fall Apart enjoyed nearly sixty years ago did not entail a universal view of its tragic antihero, Okonkwo. In the late 1950s a critic from the New York Times Book Review encapsulated the novel this way: “Things Fall Apart takes its place with that small company of sensitive books that describe primitive society from the inside.” “Primitive society”? To read of his culture described in such a way must have given Achebe pause.

As a pioneer of what would come to be known as postcolonial literature, Achebe saw his role as that of the “writer as teacher.” For members of my generation, born in Africa during those heady years after independence in the ’60s, when it seemed that the continent’s unbounded promise was on the verge of realization, few writers or thinkers represented our aspirations as completely. In one of my favorite essays, “Today, the Balance of Stories” (2000), he averred that the world’s corpus of literature must make space for many stories and traditions. In fact, what Achebe was after was not merely a “re-storying” of Africa, as he put it, or an affirmation of the story of his people, but a model of the historical novel in which African life was not peripheral but central, and thus worthy of serious treatment as the subject of complex art and philosophical meditation.

In my own work as a writer, critic, and curator, Achebe’s critical example of re-storying Africa was enormously influential. I came to curating and to writing about art with the same fervent belief that modern and contemporary African art, and the creative vision of African artists, mattered in the mainstream narratives of our era’s art. In fact, when I chose the Igbo word Nka (to make art) as the title of a magazine on contemporary African art that I founded in the ’90s with a number of colleagues, I was partly inspired by the title of the literary journal Okike (which means “to create” in Igbo) that Achebe founded in the ’70s. I was also responding to the essential texture of artistic universality as so beautifully illustrated in Achebe’s work. This is a universality that allows for difference, for the polyphonic and the heterogeneous, but nevertheless asserts that difference is not absolute.

Achebe’s death brings to a close a brilliant and unrepeatable chapter in the history of postcolonial African literature. His influence and that of his Nigerian compatriot, contemporary, and friend Wole Soyinka (Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) have proven the most enduring of their generation of African writers. They are the yin and yang of African letters: Achebe’s writing is as terse as Soyinka’s is voluble, and represents the Apollonian ideal of restraint in contrast to Soyinka’s Dionysian abundance. Soyinka’s voice is more demonstrative, jocular, and flamboyant, embodying a certain devil-may-care attitude, a radical readiness to cross swords publicly with authority and to challenge power. Achebe’s voice, on the other hand, is ruminative, contemplative, and perhaps a touch melancholic, possessing what one might call literary ambivalence. His spare, delicate prose and the elegance of his minimalist writing arise from his conviction that a text’s narrative power lies in its ability to reach the bone of an idea by flensing off excess flesh and fat. He believed in disturbing those complacent conventions of narrative sprawl that serve to muddle the craft of writing. He did not indulge in leaps of imagination for their own sake, but sought to create a fictional realm that was recognizably continuous with observed reality, of a piece with the actual world in which the work resides and performs its historical argument. It was through this approach that the coils of his narrative, taut and masterful, would endlessly spring their potent insights, making the reader see and perceive the distorted human logic and the social frailties that undergird the relations of power between oppressed and oppressor.

Okwui Enwezor is the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich.