A quick trawl through the web would suggest that Chinua Achebe was a household name. When he died in 2013 at the age of 82, literary worthies queued up to reminisce about the time they'd had lunch with him. He was compared to Shakespeare, Dickens and Nelson Mandela. The Mandela reference, I suspect, was out of journalistic laziness: Mandela was a lawyer who ended his life at the centre of the political establishment, while Achebe, an academic who died in voluntary exile in the United States, never ceased to make life difficult and embarrassing for politicians who wanted to exploit his cultural standing to make themselves look good. Of Robert Mugabe, he said, 'I used to defend him. Now it is impossible.'
Few general readers are likely to have come across Achebe, despite the fact that he is a mainstay of post-colonial literature courses. Fortunately, I had not taken one of these when I stumbled across 'Things Fall Apart', the story of stubborn, insecure Okonkwo, who is so determined not to repeat the mistakes of his debt-ridden father, that he rushes headlong towards his own equally tragic destiny. Comparisons with Shakespeare are reasonable enough -- macho flawed heroes having been his speciality, and Achebe ladles on the dramatic irony too. We all know that the colonial era is coming and that Okonkwo's resistance is doomed, just as in Shakespeare's historical and Roman plays we know how it ends even before the curtain goes up. The language is often formal and dramatic, and reads as though the speaker suspects he may have an audience lurking somewhere in his compound.
This language is one thing that makes 'Things Fall Apart' particularly enjoyable and tantalising. Achebe steadfastly refused to give in to the academic weakness for footnotes. His stories are set in a West African world where the everyone knows what a lobe of kola nut is, so it needs no explanation; the names of gods, animals and common foodstuffs are italicised or not (as the editor sees fit), but there is little, if any, digression into cultural explanation. This is an aspect of his work that Achebe delighted in defending. Hardy did not tell us what a hot posset was; Dickens did not explain the ingredients needed to make porter, and Graham Greene neglected to explain the holy trinity and transubstantiation, so why should a Nigerian writer explain what is self-evident to a reader from his own cultural background? This was a shocking idea back in 1958. Now it is merely intriguing. Should I serve palm oil with my foo-foo or save it for my yam? Or is foo-foo made out of yam? For readers in the age of the internet, such questions are quickly resolved.
Skipping forward to 1964, the third novel in Achebe's trilogy about village life, 'Arrow of God', is well worth a read -- it is probably his best book. It is the story (you guessed it) of a stubborn but principled man who stumbles towards his inevitable doom without deviating to left of right or even stopping for a sandwich. The hero, Ezeulu, is the chief priest of his village's patron god, Ulu, and Ezeulu, who keeps all his ancestors' skulls in a special hut dedicated to the deity, cannot choose but follow the dictates of tradition even it means ruin for himself and his family. Ezeulu, we are repeatedly told, is trying to trap Nte, a cricket, but 'something greater than Nte has been caught in Nte's trap'.
What is particularly clever about this book is the way that Achebe writes effortlessly from the point of view of both an Igbo priest, and a number of British officials, whose bumbling efforts to impose European style authority lead to the melt-down of the existing system of village self-government. Achebe's portrayal of the nervous new recruit, Clarke, and the pompous but vulnerable old-hand, Winterbottom, is strangely sympathetic. Rather than treating these destructive colonial officials as the villains of the story, they come across in just as human a way as Ezeulu and the other Igbo characters. This should come as no surprise --- Achebe's best known piece of criticism, 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness' (http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html), lambasted Joseph Conrad for portraying European characters in a complex and psychologically realistic way, while the Congolese are presented as alarming savages who speak in 'a violent babble of uncouth sounds.' As well as being rather offended at Conrad's obvious prejudice, Achebe objected on artistic grounds: Conrad was doing a bad job of describing life in the Congo in the late 19th century. In 'Arrow of God' Achebe succeeded in avoiding the same mistake. Achebe of course, had an advantage over Conrad -- Conrad was a mere visitor in the African continent, and it was European society he knew best. Achebe was educated by the colonial authorities and studied in Britain, so he could approach both cultures from an authoritative standpoint.
In a later work, 'Anthills of the Savannah' (1987), Achebe tried the same trick -- jumping from narrator to narrator in a political thriller about a military coup in a fictional West African country. Personally I found this a less satisfying book, perhaps because no sooner do we get to know one narrator, than another takes over. Gone, too, is the magical realism of pre-Christian village life, but Achebe, writing from the relative safety of the United States, was able to present an uncompromising critique of the Nigerian military government.
Chinua Achebe may have become a part of the furniture of the literary establishment, but old boys in oak-paneled libraries no longer find him shocking and threatening as they once did. His writing is never merely provocation or political axe-grinding, and his characters live on their own terms. The high-flown comparisons to literary bigwigs ranging right up to Shakespeare are well deserved.