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The Autumn of the Literary Patriarch: Chinua Achebe and the Politics of Remembering
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Research in African Literatures 32.3 (2001) 8-21

Chinua Achebe At Seventy

For any notable writer and cultural icon, the autumn of career, or "the doyen's December," is an acute and memorable milepost. It is the last bend of the great river. There are final obligations to be met, ancient feuds and awkward accounts to be settled, and the equivalent of a literary will to be written for generations to follow. The anxieties of influence long settled, it is the anxieties of being influential that remain to be settled. Where such a writer is also the crystallizing exemplar of a paradigm shift in literature -- postcolonial literature for that matter -- the anxieties are bound to be particularly poignant.

Arguably Africa's most influential and most admired writer of the postcolonial epoch, Chinua Achebe is also one of its most retreating and enigmatic. In him, natural habits of dignified reserve and poised restraint have matured in old age into a gnomic, sage-like reticence. Achebe is like a traditional African deity, all-knowing, all-seeing, but enveloped in a forbidding wall of silence. Not for him the coterie of devotees, the tribe of squabbling adulators, or the swarming literary lunchers. Instead, the grand old man of Nigerian -- and African -- letters has cultivated his own wise, Olympian counsel, and his rich career is distinguished by its rectitude and exemplary decorum. In an irony that would not be out of place in his own exactingly nuanced fictional labors, Achebe's fine manners, his courtesy, and infinite politeness remind one of an English gentleman rather than a long-distance cultural warrior from Africa.

A calm and contemplative character with the proverbial memory of an elephant, it is only the extremely foolhardy that will be tempted to confuse Achebe's natural reserve and equanimity with political timidity or moral cowardice. As many of his compatriots and the world at large would remember, Achebe can be outspoken and forthright to the point of political incorrectness; his natural aversion for cant and hypocrisy may lead in the direction of a radical contempt for established political norms. In 1987, his celebrated put-down of Chief Obafemi Awolowo as a tribal leader undeserving and unworthy of a state funeral drew anguished sighs of disbelief from many quarters and brought massive concussions to Nigeria's literary and political establishment, just as his stern dismissal of the Nobel prize for literature as nothing but one more instance of cultural imperialism provoked a greater earthquake.

That particular intervention was as awkward as it was ill-timed, the prize having just been awarded to his rival and great compatriot, Wole Soyinka. Having detonated his well-timed bombs, Achebe quietly withdrew behind the great wall. It might not have been his finest moment, but the point has been made: no national consensus can be forged on what he perceived to be a monumental heist. A teacher by instincts and a moral crusader by inclination, Achebe believes in the benign virtues of fiction, and for him, the essay form is often a bully platform for lambasting the ills of mankind in general and his country in particular. His philippic on the failure of leadership in Nigeria, The Trouble With Nigeria (1982), remains a classic of the genre, and his terse rebuke of the Nigerian press is as memorable as it is forthright. When he is cross, Achebe can be pithy and pitiless, and as Sir Vidiadhar S. Naipaul will discover in the current collection of essays, Achebe does not take hostages.

The foregoing explains why this new collection of essays, published under the title Home and Exile (2000), ought to be celebrated as a literary event. Apart from coinciding with Achebe's seventieth birthday, the publication comes at the end of a memorable decade for author, country, continent, and the world at large. The turn of the last decade witnessed the dramatic collapse of communism and actually existing socialists states, the global triumph of liberal democracies and its "end of history" ideology, and,of course, the intensification of metropolitan cultural imperialism under the rubric of the new phenomenon of globalizatio. (see my "The Uses of Adversity"). In moments of acute stress, the plight of...

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