The true measure of a man and mind

2013-03-24 10:00

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Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer reflects on the lessons to be learnt from Chinua Achebe’s life and work.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s first novel, is also the founding creation of modern African imaginative literature, the opening act of exploration of African consciousness in terms that took full right to use traditional modes of expression along with those appropriated from colonial culture, particularly the English language.

The Irish poet WB Yeats’ despairing statement of destruction – things fall apart – is for Achebe’s novel a presentiment of what was to come, in Nigeria, in the continent of Africa, during the end of the colonial occupations and their aftermath.

But the novel begins by creating what was complete before the situation in the title is to come about, because only with this can the revelation of disintegration be understood.

And only when this is understood, revealed by Achebe with subtle mastery of every literary mode as the story progresses, can things be put together, made whole in a new way that is imperative for social and political survival in an ever-changing world.

That first work was prescient – not only of the creative powers to develop, in subsequent works of a nascent writer, but of the political upheavals, the embattled end of colonialism, the fight for freedom in which and by which the personal lives of the people of Africa have been shaped.

As we all know, Achebe himself lived through these times, a tragic civil war in his country, as an activist in extreme personal danger, finally exile, fulfilling Albert Camus’ statement of what it means in terms of human existence to be a writer: “The day when I am no more than a writer I shall cease to be a writer.”

During those years, Achebe kept faith with this commitment. Yet during those years, he wrote novels, stories, essays and poems that were a bold revelation to his countrymen and women and the world, of what really happens to people within themselves; of what suppression and oppression really mean.

And trust Chinua Achebe to give, anew, a definition of colonialism.

His collection of essays, recently reissued as modern classic, is The Education of A British-protected Child.

Chinua Achebe has not feared to challenge, with the ideals and practice of justice and humanity, those post-colonial, independent regimes in Africa who abuse personal power in every possible way, from banning political opposition, to corruption.

His novel A Man of The People, a biting satire on corruption in freed African regimes, uses the blade of humour to alert us, his reader, to official greed and the cant which legitimise it.

His most recent work appeared in 2011, Chike and the River.

I read it in the sense of extraordinary entry into a brilliant (I do not use that word fashionably or lightly) mind, a writer’s continuing achievement of penetrating the variety, possibilities, mystery of being a human being in the presence not alone of one’s own people and country, but in the presences of the world.

He does not shirk writing of what “I have chosen to call my Middle Passage, my colonial inheritance. To call my experience colonial heritage may surprise some people. But everything is grist to the mill of the artist. True, one grain may differ from another in its powers of nourishment; still, we must … accord appropriate recognition to every grain that comes our way.”

Writers are always asked by interviewers: for whom do you write?

What audience, what readers do you have in mind, who is it you are addressing yourself to? Whose eyes do you imagine your test meeting, who are the people gathered there round your, the storyteller?

The somewhat testy answer is: We write for whoever will read our work.

Because we’re not talking of propaganda here, but of imaginative literature that does not dictate or persuade, but seeks to discover and illuminate the labyrinths of human existence.

Yes I think one must admit there are some very special exceptions to our quite proper refusal to discriminate, those our writings may reach.

It surely must mean a great deal to a writer to know that his or her work has reached through prison walls, having been longingly requested and received with difficulty by way of lawyers or rare visitors allowed a political prisoner.

Chinua Achebe had that rather special recognition when someone who was certainly one of the greatest political prisoners of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela, 27 years behind prison walls, told Achebe what his novels brought to him: “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe in whose company the prison wall fell.”

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