Between 1958 and 1966, Chinua Achebe published four novels that secured his reputation as Africa’s foremost writer. Then disaster struck and 21 years passed before another of his novels appeared. The Nigerian civil war of 1967-70 and the secession of Achebe’s homeland under the name Biafra, which has become a byword for suffering, is the subject of this moving memoir, punctuated by poems that Achebe wrote during his enforced break from novels. His interrupted career never entailed silence. Like John Milton, he answered his country’s call, becoming a writer of commitment. Achebe’s insistence “that the writer take sides with the powerless” is complicated in that his people, the Igbo, were seen as a privileged minority after independence.
Independence and neocolonialism go hand in hand, and in post-independence Nigeria, Achebe found himself, in the words of T.S. Eliot that provide the title of his second novel, “no longer at ease”. When drunken soldiers came to his office at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation to test their guns against his pen, Achebe “realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place”. Does questioning tribal privileges amount to the “denial of merit”? Achebe never shies away from complicated questions, or from taking sides. His “personal history” is far from one-sided, but he can be passionately partisan. From being seen as leaders of independence, the Igbo became scapegoats, and Achebe saw it as the ultimate betrayal: “Having spearheaded the fight for Nigerian independence, Biafrans were later driven out by the rest of Nigeria, which waged war with the secessionist republic to conserve the very sovereignty of a nation (Nigeria) within whose walls Biafrans did not feel free, safe, or desired.” For Achebe, the Igbo flight from pogroms invites comparison with the plight of the Jews after the Holocaust, but the homeland his people sought was short-lived.
Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), takes its title from W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming, whose line “The centre cannot hold” sums up the post-independence tragedy of Nigeria, a colonial invention fought for by the Igbo, whose “individualistic ethic” meant they found themselves victimised after British rule ended in 1960. Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), closes with a coup and was published as one was launched. The writer had turned prophet. A postcolonial nation six years old descended into bitter conflict.
In Achebe’s most recent novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one line captures his approach to storytelling: “Writers don’t give prescriptions…They give headaches!” There Was a Country takes a different tack: “if a society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out”. Civil wars are open sores and healing takes time, as the case of Spain has shown. There Was a Country opens with an Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” The pages of this memoir are paper towels after a hard rain. “Biafra” is the name of a tragic interlude, a suppressed bad memory. Arguably Nigeria did not begin to come to terms with its bitter legacy until Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Adichie is a literary granddaughter of Achebe, and There Was a Country, his long-awaited reckoning with events that changed the course of his own life as a writer, reminds us of the novelist we almost lost and of the great writer whose pen ultimately helped to silence the guns.
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
By Chinua Achebe
352pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846145766 and 9780141973678 (e-book)
Published September 2012