Magazine article Artforum International

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Magazine article Artforum International

Chinua Achebe 1930-2013

Article excerpt

NEWS OF THE DEATH of the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who passed away on March 21 at the age of eighty-two, reached me at my office in Munich through the wildfire of the Internet. By day's end, that wildfire had spread to precincts far beyond the Web. It burned unceasingly, in phone calls and text messages and the pages of newspapers; in postings on social media and African literary LISTSERVS; in classrooms and bars, and, above all, on the bustling, teeming streets of African cities. Recollections were mixed with sorrow; collective grief was speckled with celebrations of the life of one of Africa's greatest sons. The shock of Achebe's death left me momentarily paralyzed. But sadness was joined by exhilaration as I remembered how his vivid writing acted as a kind of life-sustaining ore to be mined by members of my generation of postcolonial Africans. Even today, I remember the impact of reading his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), undeniably one of the most beloved and important books of the twentieth century. The effect had to do with the shock of recognition produced by the world he re-created on the page: an Igbo village whose inhabitants, faced with the arrival of Christian missionaries and British colonial administrators, must grapple with the devastation incurred in the uneven contact between cultural and spiritual traditions. Though it was fictional, this world was nevertheless familiar, perceptible through so many lived encounters between the past and the present. Added to this recognition was the pleasure of knowing that the prospect Achebe conjured, of a confident postcolonial literature, was part of my own imaginative inheritance.

Still, I had to come to terms with the news of his passing and reconcile myself to the fact that the sight of the old literary lion, who had been a constant presence on the African cultural landscape for so long--the image of his gentle, bemused face wrinkled by a smile--from then on could be retrieved only as memory. But now he was on a long journey of transition from earthly icon to denizen of the immortal world of ancestors. In other words, his was a life that had come full circle, like the proverbial coiled serpent of Igbo representation.

As the Igbo, the large Nigerian ethnic group to which both he and I belong, would say: Oke osisi adago (a great tree has fallen). Achebe was the "great tree" of twentieth-century African literature. His ideas were truly world-changing. Things Fall Apart, which was published when he was twenty-eight and has been in print in multiple languages ever since, quite simply transformed modern African writing. In a recollection published on the website The Root, Kwame Anthony Appiah captures this succinctly: Achebe, he writes, "established, for those who wanted to write fiction in English about African life, the first great model of how it could be done." The novel was followed by No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964); together with Things Fall Apart these works form the great trilogy of Achebe's meditation on colonialism and postcolonialism. During the years in which he wrote them, Africa was in the midst of sweeping political changes ushered in by independence and the establishment of new nation-states. For postcolonial elites, the transformation came with challenges and responsibilities: It was imperative to forge a modern, independent African consciousness and to transmit the universal values of the African experience. Achebe's contribution to this project and the great triumph of his work was his placement of African people at the center of his writing as historical subjects, as agents of a reimagined selfhood. Yet Achebe was neither utopian nor idealistic. His fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), was written at the height of the crisis of the Nigerian state and was almost prophetic in its trenchant diagnosis of endemic government corruption. The book anticipated the fateful military coup d'etat of January 15, 1966, which was the harbinger of the Nigerian-Biafran war a year later. …

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