Nige­rian au­thor was states­man, dis­si­dent

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - THE SOCIAL PAGE - By Hil­lel Italie And Jon Gam­brell

NEW YORK — The open­ing sen­tence was as sim­ple, declar­a­tive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary as a line out of Hem­ing­way:

“Okonkwo was well known through­out the nine vil­lages and even be­yond,” Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart.

Africans, the Nige­rian au­thor an­nounced more than 50 years ago, had their own his­tory, their own celebri­ties and rep­u­ta­tions.

Achebe, the in­ter­na­tion­ally cel­e­brated Nige­rian au­thor, states­man and dis­si­dent, who died at age 82 af­ter a brief ill­ness, con­tin­ued for decades to rewrite and re­claim the his­tory of his na­tive coun­try. Achebe lived through and helped de­fine rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in Nigeria, from in­de­pen­dence to dic­ta­tor­ship to the dis­as­trous war be­tween Nigeria and the break­away coun­try of Bi­afra in the late 1960s.

He knew both the pres­tige of serv­ing on government com­mis­sions and the fear of be­ing de­clared an en­emy of the state. He spent much of his adult life in the United States, but never stopped call­ing for democ­racy in Nigeria or re­sist­ing lit­er­ary hon­ours from a government he re­fused to ac­cept.

Even in traf­fic to­day in La­gos, Nigeria’s largest city, hawk­ers sell pi­rated copies of his re­cent civil war mem­oir.

“What has con­sis­tently es­caped most Nige­ri­ans in this en­tire trav­esty is the fact that medi­ocrity de­stroys the very fab­ric of a coun­try as surely as a war — ush­er­ing in all sorts of ba­nal­ity, in­ep­ti­tude, cor­rup­tion and de­bauch­ery,” wrote Achebe, whose death was con­firmed Fri­day by his lit­er­ary agent, An­drew Wylie.

His em­i­nence world­wide was ri­valled only by Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, Toni Mor­ri­son and a hand­ful of oth­ers. Achebe was a mo­ral and lit­er­ary model for count­less Africans and a pro­found in­flu­ence on such Amer­i­can writ­ers as Ha Jin, Junot Diaz and Mor­ri­son.

His pub­lic life be­gan in his mid-20s. He was a res­i­dent of Lon­don when he com­pleted his hand­writ­ten man­u­script for Things Fall Apart, a short novel about a Nige­rian tribesman’s down­fall at the hands of Bri­tish colo­nial­ists.

Turned down by sev­eral pub­lish­ers, the book was fi­nally ac­cepted by Heine­mann and re­leased in 1958 with a first print­ing of 2,000. Its ini­tial re­view in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon be­came among the most im­por­tant books of the 20th cen­tury, a uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged start­ing point for post­colo­nial, in­dige­nous African fic­tion, the prophetic union of Bri­tish let­ters and African oral cul­ture.

“It would be im­pos­si­ble to say how Things Fall Apart in­flu­enced African writ­ing,” the African scholar Kwame An­thony Ap­piah once ob­served. “It would be like ask­ing how Shake­speare in­flu­enced English writ­ers or Pushkin in­flu­enced Rus­sians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he in­vented it.”

Things Fall Apart has sold more than eight mil­lion copies world­wide and has been trans­lated into more than 50 lan­guages.

His first novel was in­tended as a tril­ogy and the au­thor con­tin­ued its story in A Man of the Peo­ple and Ar­row of God. He also wrote short sto­ries, po­ems, chil­dren’s sto­ries and a po­lit­i­cal satire, The Anthills of Sa­van­nah, a 1987 re­lease that was the last full-length fic­tion to come out in his life­time. Achebe, who used a wheel­chair in his later years, would cite his phys­i­cal prob­lems and dis­place­ment from home as sti­fling to his imag­i­na­tive pow­ers.

Achebe never did win the No­bel Prize, which many be­lieved he de­served, but in 2007 he did re­ceive the Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize, a $120,000 hon­our for life­time achieve­ment. Achebe, par­a­lyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto ac­ci­dent, lived for years in a cot­tage built for him on the cam­pus of Bard Col­lege, a lead­ing lib­eral arts school north of New York City where he was a fac­ulty mem­ber. He joined Brown Univer­sity in 2009 as a pro­fes­sor of lan­guages and lit­er­a­ture.

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