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Ed O’Loughlin and Michael Holman Review There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

There Was A Country: A Personal History of BiafraVerdict: two sticks

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.”

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Recent comments:

  • Nnena
    September 19th, 2012 @15:07 #

    I have had the pleasure of reading the book twice and it is a monumental achievement. Of course these men don't like the book
    A) Professor Achebe is writing to Igbos in particular and Nigerians in general and not to Mzungu. It will resonate deeply with the audience that it is directed at.
    B) It accuses the Nigerian government and its supporters of Genocide, some thing members of the colonial, plantation owning settler classes in Africa will hate.
    C) The narrative style that they criticise is based on deep ignorance.
    the insertion of poems in the story is a throw-back to Igbo traditional narrative styles that emanated from the oral tradition where the story itself was interspersed with chanting, singing and poetry. Professor Achebe here is making a concerted effort to embrace this “authentic African narrative structure” and is not, as some other shallow readings have suggested, just experimenting or taking artistic license.

    In the western literary tradition, narrative structure followed very strict rules. I think it was G.F.W. Hegel in the 19th century that referred to poetry as “the universal art of the mind [that] runs through all the arts and is art’s highest phase, one phase higher than music?”[1] Poetry was treated as an art form apart and was hardly ‘married with prose.” It will be difficult for someone who does not free themselves of these tethers to appreciate an alternative African rendering. As our one of my professors once said " unlearn what you have learned to learn again."


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