Un­civil legacy of a colo­nial past

Half of a Yel­low Sun By Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie 4th Es­tate, 433pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Delia Fal­coner

WE tell our­selves sto­ries in or­der to live, Joan Did­ion fa­mously wrote. When it comes to civil wars there is a par­tic­u­lar story the West likes to tell it­self, es­pe­cially about coun­tries that were once part of the Euro­pean em­pire.

As we watch them tear them­selves apart, we pre­fer to be­lieve they were un­civilised in the first place. Civil dis­or­der is a re­turn to old ways and thus their fail­ure, not ours.

But, as post­colo­nial lit­er­a­tures have been in­sist­ing since the 1960s, ours are not the only sto­ries. Some­times, telling their own sto­ries is a way to keep their cul­tures alive. It is ex­actly this task of his­tor­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion that 29- year- old Nige­rian nov­el­ist Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie takes on in her sec­ond novel, the win­ner of this year’s Orange Prize. While Nige­ria is re­duced in the in­ter­na­tional imag­i­na­tion to a place of lawless vi­o­lence, Adichie in­sists on show­ing us the am­bi­tious and com­plex cul­ture this chaos dis­placed. Half of a Yel­low Sun tells the dy­namic story — the tragedy — of the largely forgotten 1967- 70 Nige­ria- Bi­afra war.

In the late ’ 60s south­east Nige­ria, with its largely Igbo pop­u­la­tion, se­ceded from the Mus­lim- dom­i­nated north. But the story re­ally be­gins much ear­lier when Bri­tain cre­ated the coun­try of Nige­ria out of the many tribal and eth­nic groups north and south of the Niger River. In a pat­tern that is sadly familiar from later con­flicts, ten­sions flared af­ter in­de­pen­dence. A 1966 mas­sacre of Igbo liv­ing in the north led to their re­treat into the south­east and the cre­ation of the sep­a­rate repub­lic of Bi­afra. This was fol­lowed by a war with Western­backed Nige­ria; mass star­va­tion; the forced con­scrip­tion of boy sol­diers; and, ul­ti­mately, the purg­ing within Bi­afra of per­ceived spies and other eth­nic groups.

Adichie makes the sig­nif­i­cant choice of cen­tring her nar­ra­tive on the priv­i­leged of pre- war, early ’ 60s Nige­ria. Half of a Yel­low Sun , named af­ter the flag of the Bi­afran state, tells the story of es­tranged twin sis­ters Olanna and Kainene, daugh­ters of Igbo chief Ozo­bia ( al­though we later learn that pre­colo­nial Igbo were repub­li­cans and the ti­tle Chief is a colo­nial mis­nomer).

Lon­don- ed­u­cated Olanna is beau­ti­ful in face and spirit; plainer Kainene is cool and se­cre­tive. Both are dis­dain­ful of their par­ents’ shal­low snob­bery. When Olanna falls for Odenigbo, a proud African­ist and so­cial pro­gres­sive, she goes to join him in the dusty univer­sity town of Nsukka where he lec­tures. Kainene re­mains near the fam­ily to run its busi­nesses. But she, too, soon as­serts her in­de­pen­dence by form­ing a re­la­tion­ship with Richard, a gen­tle, white, in­tel­lec­tual drifter who has come to Nige­ria to write about its rich 9th- cen­tury tra­di­tion of ca­st­iron pots.

The novel’s other sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter is 14- year- old Ugwu, plucked from his tra­di­tional vil­lage to work as Odenigbo and Olanna’s house boy. Highly in­tel­li­gent and in­fat­u­ated with his mistress, Ugwu is the ea­ger bridge be­tween colo­nial and new Nige­ria. Through his eyes we see the pre­ten­sions and the glo­ries of the soon- to- be- up­rooted ed­u­cated class. Al­though Odenigbo puts Ugwu through school, he also al­lows him to call him Mas­ter; at home among his books, Odenigbo is ter­rorised when his su­per­sti­tious, vil­lage- dwelling mother stays and com­man­deers Ugwu’s kitchen.

It is this sense of its char­ac­ters’ flawed com­plex­ity that makes Half of a Yel­low Sun such a grip­ping read. This, and the in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nis­able dilem­mas of the mid­dle- class novel: Olanna must deal with Odenigbo’s wan­der­ing eye; Kainene bat­tles the envy of her sis­ter.

This sense of fa­mil­iar­ity is strate­gic. Adichie wants to shock the reader with the quick slip that fol­lows from do­mes­tic rou­tine to civil war. One minute th­ese well- groomed lounge- room ide­al­ists are bick­er­ing about the fu­ture of their coun­try; the next, Olanna’s fel­low Igbo in the north ( per­ceived by their coun­try­men as a wealthy mer­chant class) are set upon.

When Olanna barely es­capes a ter­ri­ble mas­sacre, things grow rapidly worse. Olanna, Odenigbo, their daugh­ter and Ugwu find them­selves on the verge of star­va­tion, hid­ing from bombs in a grim refugee camp. Again, Adichie writes of th­ese new neigh­bour­hoods with such in­ten­sity that we care greatly about what will hap­pen to the fam­ily and, by ex­ten­sion, the grow­ing cast of char­ac­ters around them. Iron­i­cally, war brings the twins to­gether. But it is much- altered Ugwu, at the book’s am­biva­lent con­clu­sion, who will act as ( par­tial) wit­ness to its hor­rors.

The Orange Prize has been crit­i­cised as passe for coralling fe­male writ­ers into a spe­cial needs cat­e­gory. Cer­tainly, it seems of­ten to re­ward books that con­form to a stereo­typ­i­cally fem­i­nine style and in­ter­ests ( al­most never show­ily clever or ex­per­i­men­tal). But Half of a Yel­low Sun, while it is cer­tainly a fam­ily saga, is smart and en­gross­ing.

Adichie, a post­colo­nial scholar, has writ­ten a book in which the war and its con­se­quences are made clear and mem­o­rable; yet her book goes fur­ther, putting a face and his­tory to all refugees from civil wars. Read­ers will dis­cover in Half of a Yel­low Sun a very dif­fer­ent coun­try from that found in the works of fel­low Nige­rian writ­ers Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri, who tend to fo­cus on vil­lage sto­ries of magic and tra­di­tion; or to the Africa as ter­ri­fy­ing puzzle in­voked by writ­ers such as Rus­sell Banks ( The Dar­ling ) or John le Carre ( The Con­stant Gar­dener ).

In­stead, what Adichie does quite beau­ti­fully is to make a com­fort­able in­ter­na­tional read­er­ship pause to won­der what thin ice its own sta­bil­ity may rest on. Delia Fal­coner is the au­thor of The Ser­vice of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Sol­diers.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

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