Obituary: Chinua Achebe / Titan of African literature
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Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who was one of Africa's most widely read novelists and one of the continent's towering men of letters, has died after a brief illness, his publisher and agent said in London on Friday. He was 82.
Few details were immediately available.
Besides novels, Mr. Achebe's works included powerful essays and poignant short stories and poems rooted in the countryside and cities of his native Nigeria, before and after independence from British colonial rule. His most memorable fictional characters were buffeted and bewildered by the conflicting pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values.
For inspiration, Mr. Achebe drew on his own family history as part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria, a people victimized by the racism of British colonial administrators and then by the brutality of military dictators from other Nigerian ethnic groups.
Mr. Achebe burst onto the world literary scene with the publication in 1958 of his first novel, "Things Fall Apart," which has sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 45 different languages.
Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo's life is thrown into turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.
The novel, which is also compelling for its descriptions of traditional Ibo society and rituals, went on to become a classic of world literature and was often listed as required reading in university courses in Europe and the United States.
"In all Achebe's writing there is an intense moral energy," observed Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Princeton, in a commentary published in 2000. "He speaks about the task of the writer in language that captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives."
In a 1998 book review in The New York Times, the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe as "a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror -- a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned."
Mr. Achebe's political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa's woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence.
Forced abroad by Nigeria's civil war in the 1960s and then by military dictatorship in the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Achebe had lived for many years in the United States, where he was a university professor, most recently at Brown, where he joined the faculty in 2009 as a professor of African studies after teaching for 19 years at Bard College in the Hudson River valley.
He continued to believe that writers and storytellers ultimately held more power than army strongmen.
"Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior," an old soothsayer observes in Mr. Achebe's 1988 novel, "Anthills of the Savannah." "It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind."
Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, an Ibo village, during the heyday of British colonial rule. His father became a Christian and worked for a missionary teacher in various parts of Nigeria before returning to Ogidi.
As a child and adolescent, he immersed himself in Western literature. At the University College of Ibadan, whose professors were Europeans, Mr. Achebe avidly read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Tennyson. But it was the required reading of a novel set in Nigeria and written by an Anglo-Irishman, Joyce Cary, that proved to be the turning point in his education.
Titled "Mister Johnson," the 1952 book, which culminates when its docile Nigerian protagonist is shot to death by his British master, was hailed by the white faculty and in the Western press as one of the best novels ever written about Africa. But as Mr. Achebe wrote, he and his classmates responded with "exasperation at this bumbling idiot of a character whom Joyce Cary and our teacher were so assiduously passing off as a poet when he was nothing but an embarrassing nitwit!"
For Mr. Achebe, the novel aroused his first deep stirrings of anti-colonialism and a desire to use literature as a weapon against Western biases. "In the end, I began to understand," he wrote. "There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like."
The Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, shattered Mr. Achebe's hopes for a more promising post-colonial future, and deeply affected his literary output. It began in January 1966 when Ibo army officers staged a military coup and killed the top government officials, including the prime minister. Seven months later, the insurgents were ousted in a countercoup staged by military commanders from the Muslim northern region. Before the year ended, Muslim troops massacred some 30,000 Ibos living in the north. The Ibos then seceded from Nigeria, declaring the southeastern region of the country as the independent Republic of Biafra. Civil war raged through 1970 until government troops invaded Biafra and crushed the secessionist army there.
After the civil war, Mr. Achebe returned to Nigeria for two years, then accepted faculty posts at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut in the 1970s before returning home in 1979 to become a professor of English at the University of Nigeria in Lagos. During those years, he published a number of works that often took up the civil war as their theme.
But for more than 20 years, Mr. Achebe suffered from a writer's block that kept him from producing another novel. He attributed the long dry spell to a sense of personal trauma that lingered long after the bloody civil war. "The novel seemed like a frivolous thing to be doing," he told Charles Trueheart of The Washington Post in 1988.
That year, Mr. Achebe finally published his fifth novel, "Anthills of the Savannah." It is the story of three former school chums from a village in an imaginary West African nation quite obviously modeled after Nigeria. One of them becomes a military dictator, another is appointed minister of information, and the third is named editor of the leading newspaper. By the novel's end, all three are murdered under different circumstances.
Mr. Achebe barely had time to savor the critical acclaim when he suffered a car accident in 1990 on a road outside Lagos that left him paralyzed from the waist down. After extensive medical treatment in London, he moved to the United States, taking up his post at Bard. Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, the political situation grew more repressive under a succession of military dictators.
The return of civilian, democratic rule after 16 years with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as the new president in 1999 prompted Mr. Achebe to visit Nigeria for the first time in almost a decade. He met Mr. Obasanjo and cautiously praised him as the best possible leader "at this time." He also traveled to his native village, Ogidi, where he was enthusiastically received by the inhabitants. But within weeks, Mr. Achebe decided to return to the United States.
"Unfortunately, Nigeria doesn't have the health care facilities to allow a physically challenged individual like myself to live with self-reliance and dignity," he said in New York at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in a brief interview before publicly reading passages from "Home and Exile" in 2000.
His long exile did not diminish his view of himself as a writer inexorably tied to his homeland.
"People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America, since I have now been living here some years," Mr. Achebe wrote in "Home and Exile." "My answer has always been that America has enough novelists writing about here, and Nigeria too few."
First Published March 23, 2013 12:00 am