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This item is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

'The African project at present employs my whole time,' declares feckless Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. 'We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.' To this satire on colonial displacement Chinua Achebe, who died in Boston on 21 March, responded with a beautiful sentence: 'By the time the River Niger gets to Onitsha it has answered many names, seen a multitude of sights; it is now big, experienced and unhurried. Its name is simply Orimili or "plenitude of waters".' Mrs Jellyby is 'disappointed in Borrioboola-Gha, which turned out a failure', its king 'wanting to sell everybody [...] for rum'. She exchanges one lost cause for another, the rights of women to sit in Parliament. In the end neither cause was entirely lost. History has translated Mrs Jellyby into an inadvertent visionary.

'Knowing robs us of wonder,' Achebe says in a poem. Knowing also gives us power over the past and therefore over the present. (Albert) Chinua(lumogo) Achebe, born in 1930 in Ogidi, was educated at a Government Secondary School in Umuahia. He changed from medical to literary studies at the University of Ibadan. He became Director of External Broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, but with the brutal Biafran war (1967-70), in which he took the Biafran side, he resigned. He founded the journal Okike, wrote and taught, latterly in the United States.

In The Education of a British-Protected Child (2009) Achebe made clear his position in the politically treacherous realm of African and Anglophone-African writing. 'I could have dwelt on the harsh humiliations of colonial rule or the more dramatic protests against it. But I am also fascinated by that middle ground [...], where the human spirit resists an abridgement of its humanity. And this was to be found in the camp of the colonized, but now and again in the ranks of the colonizers too.' There are people he admires from 'the other side' who respect the colonised and accommodate the cause without distorting or translating it. And there are people on his side whose responses lead to the 'abridgement' he at all costs wished to avoid. He distrusted the word 'universal': there was no such thing as a general truth in literature. Like James Baldwin, with whom he spent memorable days in Florida and whose essay The Fire Next Time, especially the first section, impressed him with its restraint and clarity, he resisted the generalising that surrounds big 'new' categories like 'African fiction'.

An abiding image from his own culture is that of the Mbari ceremony, in which new things - even sinister colonial novelties like the missionary's bicycle - are modelled among little figures arranged in scenarios, secondary worlds which represent the community's changing realities. A novel is an Mbari ceremony in words. 'If I am going to explore a certain kind of character, I must listen to this character. Before I can understand how his or her mind operates I must also know how he or she uses words. This is part less of verisimilitude than a wider integrity, knowing the subject as well as addressing the reader.'

But what language to listen in, to listen to, and what language to write? Much has been made of the language in Achebe's first, most celebrated novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). The originality seems to contemporary readers to be more in plot and subject than in language. Achebe's idioms and cadences are close to those of the Victorian and Edwardian writers he read at school, for example the Leatherstocking legend-writing style, combining primeval landscape and tribal communities. There is too Achebe's use of phrases and fragments of Igbo that come with the force of refrains. At no point does the reader relax into a conventional posture for reading; characters, even when they convert to Christianity, keep a distance like figures in epic.

What is familiar is the tension between fathers and sons, the great Okonkwo having to restore his name after his flute-playing, good-natured father Unoka has squandered it. Okonkwo collects three wives, makes eight children for whom he provides, and, with Ezinma, the surviving daughter of his second wife, forges an undemonstrative but intense friendship. His father was weak, he proves unbendingly strong, the one feeling he can express being rage. Ikemefuna, a delightful boy, is given to Okonkwo in payment by a neighbouring village, to settle a score. Egged on by clansmen, he kills the boy. The things so laboriously gathered together begin to fall apart. Their disintegration is accelerated by the arrival of the missionaries and the start of the tribe's conversion.

Achebe, raised as a Christian, rebelled, but he remains even-handed in the book. Okonkwo's culture is complexly real; the Christian incursion locates its points of strength and weakness. Anthony Burgess suggests that Achebe's theme is 'the threat of Western modes of corruption to native civilisations which the great world may call primitive but are in fact vital and happy'. His is a reductive reading: Achebe does not sentimentalise the culture that is being destroyed, any more than he softens the blows with which the colonial programme is implemented.

Nadine Gordimer described Things Fall Apart as 'a presentiment: Achebe is going to create what was complete before the situation in the title is to come about'. The book is less memory than recreation, hence the feeling that the characters have archetypal rather than subjective natures. Gordimer formulates a rule out of Achebe's book: he has 'the master story-teller's knowledge that the present - what is happening to his characters now - can be totally meaningful only if (the way it is in our own lives) the past that has formed these people is shown as still within them, directing their lives'. The ways in which African writers escape colonial constraints and projections and elude the artistic constructions of the colonial languages in which they compose, it would seem, is by filling in blanks, reinventing stories that colonialism erased or over-wrote.

Achebe's later novels, especially Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), extend the missing narrative. The alienating Biafran experience absolved Achebe from the kinds of political affirmation that can constrain his contemporaries and successors. Like other great founding writers, he cleared a space that remains clear so long as others occupy and extend it. His poem 'Misunderstanding' remembers his father's saying, 'Wherever Something / stands, [...] there also Something / Else will stand.' The poem is about politics, freedom, adultery. It is also about writers, and about writing. Achebe made a big space and merits Nelson Mandela's encomium, that he 'brought Africa to the rest of the world', a writer 'in whose company the prison walls fell'.

This item is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

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