What, Chinua Achebe once asked in an autobiographical essay, does he have in common with Queen Victoria? "They both lost their Albert!" Born in the village of Ogidi, in the Igbo region of eastern Nigeria, in 1930, Albert Chinualomugu Achebe did much more than merely lose the imperial monicker foisted on him by devoutly Christian parents (although his mother stuck to Albert "to the bitter end"). As novelist, poet, essayist and activist, he has for half a century written and edited and taught and or-ganised a new version, and vision, of African culture.
The cliches of "post-colonial literature" now sound stale, shop- worn from a thousand turgid tracts. So, as the literary world celebrates Achebe's receipt of the second Man Booker International Prize, we need to do what he has done all his life, and strip away dead language and dead thought from lived experience. The experience, for instance, of the little boy in Ogidi who waited every week for the arrival of the yellow Royal Mail truck and called it by a local chil-dren's name that captured their "mixture of admiration and fear". This innocent-seeming amenity had the "terrible alias" of "the killer that doesn't pay back"; "in other words, a representative of anarchy in the world".
Then came the experience of a student steeped in English literature at University College, Ibadan, in the early 1950s, who read a widely praised novel by Joyce Cary entitled Mr Johnson. The student found Cary's gormless loser of a Nigerian clerk somehow acclaimed as a valid account of people like him, in places like that. Cary's book opened Achebe's eyes to "the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story". He had soon decided that "the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted or well-intentioned".
Achebe went on to tell the story of a culture, a nation and (arguably) a continent. Things Fall Apart, his debut novel and one of the most influential literary works of its century, started winning prizes not long after its appearance in 1958. As Man Booker judge Nadine Gordimer this week lauded "the father of modern African literature as an integral part of world literature", his cupboard of international awards now looks even more crowded and glittering. Yet the cost of his ambition and achievement has been steep. Achebe has, over the decades, faced and overcome mortal danger, furious political vilification, exile and disability. And that dramatic life could so easily have ended in its early prime.
In 1967, Achebe, a supporter of the breakaway Igbo republic of Biafra, returned to his apartment in the rebel stronghold of Enugu to find it bombarded by the federal Nigerian air force. His family was safe, and in the chaos he caught a glimpse of his best friend, the hugely talented poet Christopher Okigbo, "then he was gone like a meteor, for ever". Within weeks, the dashing Major Okigbo had been killed in an early battle of the Biafran conflict. The fortunes of war decreed that Achebe survived, to become not a meteor but a fixed star.
In the manner of stars, observers can often take his position and his brilliance for granted. Too much lazy criticism converts his brave and bitter struggle to develop an African literary voice into a dull set of mantras about cultural decolonisation. If the Man Booker award has any effect, it ought to be to send new readers out to discover a body of fiction as gripping, moving and robust as - to take two obvious British comparisons - the work of Thomas Hardy or Graham Greene.
Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart while working as a BBCtrained broadcaster in Lagos, in the ferment of the years of expanding self- government that culminated with Nigerian independence in 1960. His debut, two years earlier, had declared the cultural independence of a people. …