Magazine article The Spectator

A Sage on His Laurels

Magazine article The Spectator

A Sage on His Laurels

Article excerpt


by Chinua Achebe

Allan Lane, £20, pp. 172, ISBN 9781846142598

£16.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Last year, at a gathering in a London bookshop, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe read poetry and mused over his long career. The evening was a sell-out, the mood adoring. At the end, a Scandinavian blonde raised a hand to ask whether, if he could do it all again, there was anything about Things Fall Apart he would change.

There was patronising laughter from the audience, tinged with disapproval. Didn't the silly girl know the novel was perfect in every way? Achebe did not engage with the question. 'No, I wouldn't change a word.'

I was reminded of the exchange reading this slim book, Achebe's first for more than 20 years. There comes a point when an artist is so admired for what he represents, rather than what he does, critical scrutiny becomes virtually impossible. Achebe, who will surely inherit the mantle of Venerated African Seer when Nelson Mandela dies, is today more living icon than contemporary writer, and that canonisation leaves us all a little poorer, because it encourages an enormous talent to rest on its laurels.

'When Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, it marked a kind of literary full stop. An entire school of writing that looked at Africa's inhabitants from a puzzled, purse-lipped distance became an immediate anachronism. Achebe presented the world view of an Igbo patriarch overwhelmed by Christianity's arrival with such empathy that cultural barriers melted away.

A string of landmark novels followed: No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah. And then, in 1990, came the car crash which effectively exiled Achebe from the source of his inspiration, because Nigeria is no place, so we are told, for a wheelchair-bound elderly man.

That exile has come at a creative cost, so Achebe's many admirers will prick up their ears at news of this collection. Their hunger will only be partially assuaged.

The Education of a British-Protected Child is subtitled 'Essays', but the label is misleading. Most of the entries are not essays but speeches, delivered on a variety of anniversaries between 1988 and 2008. Speeches rarely break new intellectual ground. Host organisations need to be thanked, a certain obsequiousness to the VIP in whose memory the event is being staged creeps in, a 30-minute slot rules out more than a brief skim across a few pet themes. …

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