Chinua Achebe: “Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy … We really were not.”


Where was the Nobel? (Photo: Stuart C. Shapiro)

Critic Anis Shivani is better known for wit than reverence, so when I read this deferential tribute on his Facebook page, I sat up straight:

“I acknowledge with gratitude his profound influence. Things Fall Apart was as important a novel as any written in the 20th-century. I always thought he should have won the Nobel. Today a whole new set of figures have taken over the role of the Joyce Cary‘s of old: illegitimate appropriators of ‘third-world’ voices who give comfort to the propagators of new versions of colonialism.”

He’s talking about Chinua Achebe, Nigerian-born novelist and poet, who died yesterday in Boston at 82.  Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:

thingsfallapartHis novel was nearly lost before ever seen by the public. When Achebe finished his manuscript, he sent it to a London typing service, which misplaced the package and left it lying in an office for months. The proposed book was received coolly by London publishers, who doubted the appeal of fiction from Africa. Finally, an educational adviser at Heinemann who had recently traveled to west Africa had a look and declared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”

In mockery of all the Western books about Africa, Achebe ended Things Fall Apart with a colonial official observing Okonkwo’s fate and imagining the book he will write: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Achebe’s novel was the opening of a long argument on his country’s behalf.

“Literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields to stereotype and malice,” Achebe said during a 1998 lecture at Harvard University that cited Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson as a special offender. “And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story. Some people may wonder if, perhaps, we were not too touchy, if we were not oversensitive. We really were not.”

According to the Associated Press, the novel was repeatedly rejected, and even the Heinemann advisor’s enthusiasm resulted in an initial press run of only two thousand:

Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture. …Things Fall Apart has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Vivian Yudkin’s Washington Post review weighed in at just over 100 words.  Here’s the whole thing:

Customs and mores of other cultures are always fascinating. A 28-year-old Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, takes us inside his world in his first novel, Things Fall Apart (McDowell, Obolensky). Mr. Achebe, writing in English, tells us the story of Okonkwo in the deceptively simple language of folklore. Okonkwo, who yearns to be the great man of his tribe, is instead doomed to failure and exile, for he believes that cruelty and suppression of emotion mean strength.

When misfortune befalls him, Okonkwo blames his “chi,” his personal god, but author Achebe’s message is clear – that there is a parallel between Okonkwo in his 19th century Nigerian clan governed by gods and ritualism, and 20th century man in a moon-ridden world.

The decades since this 1959 review have seen a revolution in the book’s critical estimation, obviously.  From the New York Times:

“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing,” the Princeton scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once wrote. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”

Mr. Appiah, a professor of African studies, found an “intense moral energy” in Mr. Achebe’s work, adding that it “captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.” …

In his writings and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel by Joseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”



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