Chinua Achebe’s reputation as Africa’s greatest novelist rests largely on his first book, Things Fall Apart, which he wrote aged 28. When it appeared in London in 1958, it was widely (though mistakenly) touted as the first black African novel, a curiosity, of interest chiefly for its sonorous language and its evocation of precolonial life in what is now eastern Nigeria.
This was unfair. Things Fall Apart owes its enduring success to the fact that it is a great work of fiction, skilfully deploying the dramatic tools of character, symbolism, plot, incident, pacing, focus and point of view. A follow-up, Arrow of God, is at least its equal.
The author is one of Africa’s finest novelists, the subject is one of Africa’s greatest tragedies, the accusations he makes could not be more serious, and his prognosis for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is grim indeed. The combination should make for a compelling read. Instead the result is a quirky mix of opinion and autobiography, history and polemic, uneven in quality and partisan in perspective.
It has been more than forty years since Nigeria’s civil war over the breakaway state of Biafra ended and Chinua Achebe, its best known son, has at last broken his silence on the subject: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”