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ON THE cover of Chinua Achebe's latest book is a quote from Nelson Mandela, "the writer in whose company the prison walls fell down". Mandela read the Nigerian's novels when he was in prison and on his release invited Achebe to come to South Africa to meet him. Achebe was in a wheelchair following a road accident in 1990 but his daughter told me how the two old men looked at each other, almost in recognition, before Mandela, the older by 12 years, greeted him as "my little brother".

Their faces are alike and their voice pitch is similar but they also share a dignified seriousness that suddenly cracks open with laughter and love of humanity. Sadly there is no record of that meeting but I suspect it ranged over the same themes that fill this book of essays by Africa's premier novelist. Premier in every sense. He was the first to achieve global status and his five novels remain the yardstick of African literature. Another book -- on his own Igbo people's take on the meaning of life -- is promised later this year but Achebe will be 80 in November and his last novel, Anthills of the Savannah, was published in 1987.

This book of essays, "personal and eclectic", as he says, reflects on the drivers of his life and writing. Most were originally written as lectures between 1988 and 2008 and they show a consistency in his concerns and judgments. Short and slowpaced, with the occasional stab of pain or rage, these essays read like the reflections of a gentle but passionate old radical. At times he sounds puzzled that people cannot or do not choose to see blindingly obvious truths.

The essays return constantly to theme that has filled his novels: the impact of colonialism on Africa. In the first, which gives the book its title, Achebe describes what it was like to be, as his passport stated, a "British Protected Person", a phrase, as he laconically puts it, "no one was likely to die for". Then he argues: "In my view it is a gross crime for anyone to impose himself on another, to seize his land and his history, and then to compound this by making out that the victim is some kind of ward or minor requiring protection. …


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