Saturday, October 27, 2012

Chinua Achebe's "There Was A Country" By Olu Obafemi

Most people who have entered into the controversy and discussion of Chinua Achebe's latest book with the quasi-eponymous title, Chinua Achebe: there Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra did so without having read the book, or even worse, without having read excerpts of the book that was widely available. This quite unfortunate, giving the heated passion, partisan anger and grandstanding posturing that have informed the various engagements with the book from ethno-nationalist, political perspectives. It is a pity that people will evaluate, judge, interpret, eulogize and denounce a book they have not read!

I have received a number of calls seeking my comments on the book and I have been point blank in my refusal to comment on a book that I have not read. Even when some of the entreaties asked me to speak purely from the position of a past President of the Association of Nigerian Authors ( ANA), Nigeria's and Africa's foremost literary Association which Chinua Achebe helped found and was the pioneer President, I still resisted the temptation, even for that reason alone to be dragged into evaluating a book that I have not read. I have now, most recently been able to read the book ( a rapid, first read in twenty-four hours of a borrowed copy), I am still reluctant to do a thorough-going critique of the book in the heat of the moment but I shall make a few cursory, tentative observations, more from a literary vantage and inevitably, as Achebe is himself the first to acknowledge, from a political angle since the writer has no business standing aloof from the controversy and reality of the moment in the interest of the future.

I fervently hope to be able to return to the book within the context of Achebe's position as literary ancestor and as a statesman. Achebe's reticence--reluctance to offer words volubly in circumstances of crisis and national incoherence is proverbial. Why speak now on a subject over which national recuperation is partial and where a foremost writer should nurture curative tendering? Does anyone have a right to censor his fundamental right to free speech, on a subject which, as is obvious has caused him so much despair and anguish, and which he may be doing himself a disservice bottling up upon and carrying to his eventual, inevitable grave? Questions galore!!

For now, let me embark on general observations and in the next serial of this stint draw tentative conclusions.

Writing from a purely literary point of view (on a book that cannot pretend to be literature, in spite of the re- hash and infusion of old poems form Beware Soul Bother and Collected Poems), and even despite the author's claim of the existence of two 'art-forms', consciously chosen or/and 'juxtapose'(d) 'to tell complementary stories', Nadine Gordimer, eulogistically raise the book to the level of exceptionality; extra-ordinariness. Hear Nadine, the Nobel Laureate from South Africa:

'Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of story-telling, and revelations from the depths of the human sub-conscious are one. The event of a new work by Achebe Is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.'

Which new genre? Juxtaposing prose and poetry? Which Kofi Awoonor (formerly Awoonor Williams) inimitably did in This Earth, My Brother, many decades ago, or the 'history of Biafra' told with the 'factuality' of historical evidence? There have been numerous gripping, tense narrative , both of the facts of Biafra's experience and the figurative rendering of it by other participants in the experience, and still, the creative/literary children and grandchildren of Achebe--the most recent of which are by Chimamanda Achidie in Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun and Akachi Ezeigbo's Roses and Bullets.

For a literary ancestor like Achebe to take us back into the mortally painful story of the cataclysmic fratricide of 1967-1970, when the curative therapy from those events is yet to blight the scars in our nation's flesh and spirit, there has to be a compelling reason, which must certainly transcend the personal 'brilliant mind and bold spirit' of a patriarchal oracle of the literary Muse. Achebe, I have said elsewhere, not in any particularly ingenious, innovative way, that has led the postcolonial narrative of Africa--by beginning the long epic of the African story in our own voice. He has been the spirit of the new age, along with the other members of his generation. Is this new work inevitable? Is it in the spirit of recuperative literature; healing our nation's blistered soul and fractured spirit? This is the question that must be addressed.

Achebe has spoken of the collective/communal (Nigeria), the ethno-nationalist (Biafra) and intrinsically personal (my (Achebe's) story). It is possible, and Achebe has done it many times in evocatively powerful and objective way, that all of the senses of narrative have come through without palpably partisan designs. Did he need to do it once again? Why not if not? Has it done as well as before? That is the explanation needed to justify this, perhaps the greatest, stridently divisive controversy in any and all of Achebe's literary oeuvre.

How has he led people on to the virulent responses to his new work? He has chosen this alarming title; There Was a Country. Nigeria or Biafra? Most likely the former and this is the crux of the matter. Too many debatable claims and arguable generalizations about places an persons. The preferences are too un-creative too justify the rabid controversies that the book has generated--about the Igbo and the rest of the country, even traceable from the superlatives and exaggerations.

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