- Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections ed. by Nana Ayebia Clarke, James Currey
eds. Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey
Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 2014.
xii + 340 pp. 9780956930767 paper.
Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections is a wonderful commemoration of Africa’s greatest writer, a book that no one who is committed to Africa and who is concerned with the way Africa explores and represents itself should be without. Africa’s greatest writer, yes. I’m not going to get into that tired old question, is it Achebe or (his compatriot) Soyinka?, and I’m not overlooking the achievements of Ngũgĩ, Gordimer, Sembene, Farah, or Mofolo. But when Achebe died in March 2013, a shock wave went round the literary world.
Of course, by then Achebe was known to be elderly and frail, confined to a wheelchair following an appalling road accident in his home country. He had not published a new novel for many years, but he had remained active as an essayist and autobiographer and had—after, it seems decades of hesitation—published There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, a major account of the most traumatic event in his life, the Nigerian Civil War. This was a book that ignited much controversy, as I’ll indicate below. [End Page 196]
Tributes and Reflections identifies Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, as the one African novel people have read even if they have read no other. It has been translated into nearly seventy languages (and counting; can anything even remotely like that be true of any other modern novel?) and with tens of millions of copies sold. In some of the essays that followed the novel—and with the novel itself as an object-lesson—Achebe argued that no non-African, not even the most gifted or well-intentioned could tell the story Africa had to tell, but only Africans themselves. And how Africans took that message on board. In his contribution to the volume, a poem given in the original Gĩkũyũ and then in his own English translation, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o records Achebe’s visit to the Kamĩrĩthũ community center (before the Kenyan authorities, terrified by Ngũgĩ’s radicalism, had it raised to the ground and Ngũgĩ imprisoned). He says, “Achebe was a man of the people / But not the Nanga [the corrupt politician of Achebe’s fourth novel] / I knew this when he came once to Kenya / I took him to Kamĩrĩthũ / Village women and men mobbed him / We send you out there to be our tongue / Tell the world of the power within us / Tell the State to stop tying up our tongues / Ask them not to drive us from where our joy springs” (43). Eloquent and courageous women and men!
To dig a little deeper into the nature of Achebe’s greatness, one of the major pieces in Tributes and Reflections is by the Nigerian scholar Ernest Emenyonu, who asks two questions: “What accounts for Achebe’s worldwide fame as a writer?” and “What is it about Things Fall Apart that makes it resonate with readers all over the world?” (157). Emenyonu’s answers are cheekily matter-of-fact: Achebe happened and the novel emerged. I’d like to offer alternative answers by comparing Achebe with Shakespeare.
Let us remember that Mandela said that Achebe was the writer in whose company the prison walls of Robben Island fell down. But also that Sonny Venkatrathnam, one of the prisoners on Robben Island, had in his cell a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, disguised as a Hindu holy book. And that at a point the book was circulated among the comrades, each of whom was asked to highlight the passage that spoke to them most directly. Not surprisingly, most of these passages resonated with the comrades’ commitment to the struggle. Mandela chose the “Cowards die many times before their death” speech from Julius Caesar.
In another fine recent book, Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World, Jonathan Bate is quoted as saying, “Shakespeare was the soul of his age [sixteenth-century England...