Chinua Achebe: A Celebration

2013-03-23 19:47

Victor Hugo, the French poet and novelist, says, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.”

Such was the blaze that blew across the literary world following the day in 1958 when the UK publishing house, Heinemann, issued “Things Fall Apart”, the debut novel of a young Nigerian writer named Chinua Achebe. Who has read that book, now a classic of African English literature, and would not agree with Hugo? Not me. (I have read it and I do agree with the Frenchman.) A beginning reader I may be, but my resolute belief in the irredeemable value of literature rests, if not on the unadulterated satisfaction that a good story gives one, then on the shared assumption that each of us has a story to tell from which wisdom can be gained by the rest.

This is where I am supposed to mention Okonkwo, the proud protagonist Achebe spools his story of African tribal life around at the risk of spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it yet. Safe to say, critics then and now concurred that “Things Fall Apart” presented a more human picture of Africans.

“There is that great proverb,” Achebe, who passed away last Friday, once told the Paris Review, “that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This realisation, he explained, was arrived at during his days at University College, Ibadan, in late 1940s Nigeria, where he studied English, among other things; he had been exposed to a literature written entirely by whites who chronicled the great colonial conquest through white-is-always-good-and-black-is-always-bad eyes. Achebe soon grew wiser. “That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. . . . Once I realized that [I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man], I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian . . . It is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”

For this reason alone, thanks to Achebe those of us who elect to engage in reading as a meaningful luxury surely feel (or should) that reading is as much a human right as any other.

The book burnings of Nazi Germany more than reinforce this (as someone said, You burn books and then follows the people; much as colonial attitudes of Africans being ‘half-human’ in literature persisted in real life) as much as the irate suppliers of school textbooks in Limpopo dumping their cargo all over the province; it makes sense that the 69 Pan Africanist Congress protesters who perished on March 21, 1960 in the Sharpeville Massacre first visited a police station for the sole purpose of doing away with the detested “pass book” known as dompas.

For all of that, we must know the Bantu saying, Isandla sihlamba esinye, which tells us more than the literal truth that one hand takes care of the other, but that one person alone cannot see through the struggles of life—Pablo Neruda, the Chilean great, has remarked that "there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people.”

If anything, that is what we should be grateful to Achebe for. That he dedicated much of his adult life to putting to words what could be good about this world.

The lion had finally found its spokesman.

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