At the Crossroads Hour

Lewis Nkosi

  • Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto
    Curry, 326 pp, £25.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 253 33342 3

There are times when the act of writing becomes a burden, a fate, even a retribution for the need to be recognised or honoured; when what at first was the joy of creation and self-realisation turns into an affliction; when, in Africa especially, the vocation of writing takes its revenge on those who have tasted the thrill of representing the drama of a vast, unwieldy and refractory continent – a drama of becoming. Chinua Achebe has not escaped this penance. Reading through millions of words of public statements, of reviews and interviews, of adulation and accusation, one is struck by the high price he has paid for being Africa’s greatest indigenous novelist.

Universally regarded as the progenitor of modern African literature in English, the producer of at least three novels sure to remain part of the canon of modern African literature so long as it requires a canon, Achebe’s stature is now greater even than that of his fellow Nigerian, the Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. In fact, a tacit rivalry between the two is suggested in the mischievous title of a critical study by anoth er Nigerian, Kole Omotoso – Achebe or Soyinka? – which is bound to remind the read er of George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? After four decades of labour, there are some twenty books, including novels, short stories, children’s fiction, poetry and essays; Achebe has also edited literary journals and anthologies, and still found the time to teach and hold lectureships in universities in Nigeria, Europe and America. He is weighed down by prizes and honours (22 honorary degrees by my count). At the age of 68 he must finally be ready to assess the cost of his fame – what he has sometimes referred to as his ‘gift of responsibility’. And there is no shortage of those who would help him do it. There are now innumerable critical studies of his oeuvre and published interviews. Anyone who has ever read Achebe knows that his fictional world is a multitude of narratives. Let someone commit a minor transgression, let another evince a commendable sense of honour or courage, a third will immediately tell a story about an event which occurred in a world regrettably passed or about to pass away. For readers who are not familiar with Achebe’s background, it takes a little while to realise that from childhood his imaginat ion has been shaped by a comparable profusion of narratives.

Achebe relates one of these with seemingly unalloyed pleasure. It concerns his great-grandfather Udo Osinyi, a man of note in his village who attracted the attention of the first batch of missionaries. They were seeking shelter and support from the venerable Osinyi.

For a short while he allowed them to operate from his compound. He probably thought it was some kind of circus whose strange presence added lustre to his household. But after a few days he sent them packing again. Not, as you might think, on account of the crazy theology they had begun to propound but on the much more serious grounds of musical aesthetics. Said the old man: ‘Your singing is too sad to come from a man’s house. My neighbours might think it was my funeral dirge.’

In this narrative of childhood Achebe informs us that old Osinyi and the missionaries ‘parted without rancour’, but his own father was captured and became the first convert of the Church Missionary Society.

When my father joined the missionaries the old man does not seem to have raised any serious objections. Perhaps like Ezeulu he thought he needed a representative in their camp. Or perhaps he thought it was a modern diversion which a young man might indulge in without coming to too much harm. He must have had second thoughts when my father began to have ideas about converting him.

Achebe was baptised Albert Chinualumogu in honour of Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert. Later, on entering university, he would drop the Albert. ‘So if anyone asks you what Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria had in common with Chinua Achebe, the answer is: they both lost their Albert. A diligent and gifted schoolboy who collected scholarships as one gathers wood, he entered the newly established University College of Ibadan in 1948 to read medicine. In due course he switched to literature and graduated with a second-class degree.

Achebe is not exactly self-effacing but his demeanour makes him seem so; a soft-spoken man, modest to a fault, gently pushing a liberal humanist agenda. When I met him in 1962 at a conference of African writers I wrote in the Guardian that he looked ‘by far the calmest, most disciplined and trustworthy in what appeared to be a company of literary cut-throats’. Throughout the years I have known him that impression has not changed. One of the delights of this biography is the discovery that after joining the Nigeria Broadcasting System, of which he later became a director, he sometimes ‘experienced the excitement of Saturday nights in Lagos’, dancing High Life in night clubs, and drove a fast car. We had learned one way or another about his bibliomania. For a writer this was a minor vice even if it was contracted before he reached the age of consent. He had always loved reading. He was a boy straight from the bush when he first walked into the library of Umuahia Government College, ‘this long room with incredibly neat bookshelves, I’d never seen so many books in my life.’ A former classmate quoted in the biography recalls that fellow pupils he occasionally helped over the small intricacies of language referred to him affectionately as ‘Dictionary’. Achebe senior had been a collector of all literary trivia.

As the fifth in a family of six children and with parents so passionate for their children’s education, I inherited many discarded primers and readers. I remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an advanced stage of falling apart. I think it must have been a prose adaptation, simplified and illustrated. I don’t remember whether I made anything of it. Except the title. I couldn’t get over the strange beauty of it.

Since the publication of his first novel Things Fall Apart exactly forty years ago, Achebe has spoken and written so incessantly about his life and work that we may well feel that he has already done the work of the biographer. Should he now decide to publish his memoirs or autobiography all they could add to our knowledge of him and his cultural background would be some intimate revelations about those fluctuations of mood, thought and feeling which usually escape the brisker business of public interviews. Though Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s biography occasionally provides some interesting details, especially in the early chapters relating to Achebe’s childhood, schooling and university education, one emerges with the feeling that he might have saved himself much labour by simply collecting the transcripts of the many published interviews, the innumerable scholarly essays and excerpts from Achebe’s public addresses, stitched them together with a linking commentary and produced what would have amounted to the equivalent of a biography. Indeed, I often had a distinct feeling that Ezenwa-Ohaeto had done exactly that, even though he mentions having conducted a number of face-to-face interviews. His main procedure is to rely on extensive quotations from already well-known sources and then go on to provide a context and an occasion.

This is not to belittle the achievement of this biography, merely to indicate the limitations placed on the biographer working in an area where the glut of commentaries only narrows the possibility of original interpretation. How to free oneself from the temptation of endless quotation, or from the reviews and scholarly articles which, while purporting to discuss the books, are busily constructing the figure of a great author in front of your eyes? Worse still, Ezenwa-Ohaeto is a former student of Achebe’s; throughout the book, the pupil is stepping behind the teacher’s desk in his absence, surreptitiously rifling his papers for secrets, for book-plans and sources of inspiration, even for love letters, should there be any. There’s something here of the pupil violating the very integrity of the master’s personality and not surprisingly, Ezenwa-Ohaeto tells us in his preface that ‘it took a great effort to summon the courage to write to him … asking timidly for permission to write his biography.’

Imagine the temptation to escape chastisement by avoiding even the merest hint of criticism; to hide behind the mass of quotations and citations which seem to way lay this biography at every turn. If there is a conspicuous fault in Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s book, it is its lack of independence. Where controversial issues have to be dealt with such as Achebe’s attack on Heart of Darkness, Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s easy way out is to quote the opinion of the experts and by a simple mobilisation of quotations to convey a clear impression whose side he is on without having to commit himself. The last reference to the Conrad controversy in his book is a paraphrase without a trace of dissent: ‘Achebe illustrates the insistence on human presence in the traditional Mbari art and contrasts this with its absence in the works of Joseph Conrad.’ Well, is there no ‘human presence’ in works like Nostromo or even Lord Jim? This is not the kind of critical biography which, by offering a certain description of a life, can transform our perception of the work. On the contrary, it asks nothing of its subject except to be there, available for our attention and admiration. It makes a heroic writer an idol. I do not doubt Ezenwa-Ohaeto’s assertion that when Achebe granted him ‘permission’ to proceed with his research he also ‘made clear that he would not be involved’, but this has all the flaws of an official biography.

It is sometimes said that the vocation of a writer in Africa is to defend a culture. This, in any case, is how Achebe understands it. The privilege of taking a culture for granted is not available to modern African writers. Achebe told Chris Searle: ‘What happened to Africa in its meeting with Europe was devastating … Our people need to be healed. They are the owners of the land, and we, the élite – and among them I count the writers – are bruised in our own way …’ In Arrow of God, his most richly complex novel, the inability of the British to read the script and scripture of Igbo culture had disastrous consequences, not, as it turns out, for the British but for the Igbos. Before the imposition of British rule, the Igbos had no kings or forms of centralised authority enshrined in chieftaincies, a feature of Igbo polity which, as the novel is at pains to spell out, Lord Lugard’s policy of ‘indirect rule’ ignored. C.L. Innes describes the impact on a community that recognised only the power of its deities and the collective authority of the clan:

In 1900, the British imposed their administration upon the Igbos by dividing South-Eastern Nigeria into areas ruled by District Commissioners and appointed selected Igbos to act as warrant chiefs, clerks and messengers to assist them, a system resented by the Igbos not only because it was an alien imposition violating their own more democratic structures, but also because those who accepted appointments were men without status conferred by villagers and without allegiance to their own communities. They were often regarded as traitors.

Achebe’s novel relates in painful detail a protracted struggle between the British colonial administration and Ezeulu – the Chief Priest – whom the British mistakenly suppose should feel honoured when they offer him the chieftaincy. When Ezeulu contemptuously rejects the office, the Assistant District Commissioner is outraged. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

Confronted with the proud inattention of this fetish priest whom they were about to do a great favour by elevating him above his fellows and who, instead of gratitude, returned scorn, Clarke did not know what else to say. The more he spoke the more he became angry.

In the end thanks to his considerable self-discipline and the breathing space afforded by talking through an interpreter Clarke was able to rally and rescue himself. Then he made the proposal to Ezeulu.

The expression on the priest’s face did not change when the news was broken to him. He remained silent, Clarke knew it would take a little time for the proposal to strike him with its full weight.

‘Well, are you accepting the offer or not?’ Clarke glowed with the I-know-this-will-knock-you-over feeling of a benefactor.

‘Tell the white man that Ezeulu will not be anybody’s chief, except Ulu.’

‘What!’ shouted Clarke. ‘Is the fellow mad?’

‘I tink so, sah,’ said the interpreter.

‘In that case he goes back to prison.’ Clarke was now really angry. What cheek! A witch-doctor making a fool of the British Administration in public!

There is supporting documentary evidence for such stories. In 1953 Simon Alagbogu Nnolim, a retired corporal of the Nigeria Police Force, published ‘a tiny, socio-historical pamphlet … One passage was the story of the priest who refused chieftaincy, was imprisoned, and stubbornly refused to roast the sacred yams.’ In Achebe’s novel the priest’s inability to roast and eat the sacred yam at each full moon, as tradition requires, at once transforms Ezeulu’s resistance against the British into a three-cornered struggle that will soon draw in his own people. Threatened by famine but unable to harvest the crop without sanction from the priest of Ulu, who is languishing in prison, the villagers cast about for an alternative solution. Ironically, the only beneficiaries of Ezeulu’s gesture of resistance are the Christian missionaries, who manage to persuade many villagers to abandon their traditional religion and its priest. Achebe’s handling of this encounter between the agents of the imperial mission and those it would subject, the wedge it drives between brothers who have a common interest and the way in which a religion which is potentially an instrument of resistance turns into its opposite is undoubtedly what makes him such an important ‘novelist of transition’. The false conflict between brother and brother – in Achebe’s family between his Christian father and his ‘heathen’ uncle – is of course a distraction. Achebe’s trilogy of novels – Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God – seems to issue from a wider fracture, a place in which a new identity between the old order and the new may be possible. Achebe remarks in one interview that ‘we can talk about “transitions” – it’s a cliché, since every day’s a transition – but I think I’m much more a part of a transitional generation than any other. And this is exciting. Of course, it carries its penalties, since you’re in no man’s land.’

Achebe is not untypical of a generation of African writers and intellectuals once classified as ‘men of two worlds’, a label now impatiently brushed aside as inaccurate or pejorative. All too often it suggests a type of Western-educated intellectual who belongs to two irreconcilable culture systems but is comfortable in neither. Current post-colonial theory favours a much more negotiable category of the ‘hybrid’, which tends to soothe everyone’s nerves. But ‘hybridity’ as such is not really a new idea, only a new articulation. In his now famous autobiographical essay, ‘Named for Victoria, Queen of England’, Achebe describes himself as having been born at a ‘crossroads of cultures’. Both of his parents were devout Christians, his father one of the first converts of the Church Missionary Society who became a teacher and a catechist. According to Ezenwa-Ohaeto, his father, Isaiah Okafor Achebe, ‘was quite strict on matters of religion’ and ‘did not hesitate to flog his children if they misbehaved’. So on one arm of that crossroads, Achebe recalls, the Christian side of the family

sang hymns and read the Bible night and day. On the other my father’s brother and his family, blinded by heathenism, offered food to idols. That is how it was supposed to be anyhow. But I knew without knowing why that it was too simple a way to describe what was going on. Those idols and that food had a strange pull on me in spite of my being such a thorough little Christian.

But he retained ‘a fascination for the ritual and the life on the other arm of the crossroads’. During Sunday services,

at the height of the grandeur of Te Deum Laud amus I would have dreams of a mantle of gold falling on me as the choir of angels drowned our mortal song … Yet, despite those delusions of divine destiny, I was not past taking my little sister to our neighbours’ house when our parents were not looking and partaking of heathen festival meals. I never found their rice and stew to have the flavour of idolatry. I was about ten. If anyone likes to think I was torn by spiritual agonies or stretched on the rack of my ambivalence, he certainly may suit himself. I do not remember any undue distress.

Ezenwa-Ohaeto tells us that writers from Africa and elsewhere have ‘come to define themselves on the basis of Chinua Achebe’s books’. Yet despite this suggestion of an originating talent, he is not the first African novelist to participate in what amounts to the founding of a relatively new tradition of modern written literature in Africa. Black South Africans were already producing novels shortly after the beginning of the century. Nor is Achebe’s writing radical or innovative in terms of style: there are other novelists in French and English-speaking Africa – Yambo Ouologuem of Mali, Ayi Kwei Armah and Kofi Awoon or of Ghana – whose work makes some readers’ hair stand on end. Why, then, do so many genealogies of African literature seem to start with Achebe? This question is discussed at some length by the distinguished Ugandan scholar, Simon Gikandi, in his book on Chinua Achebe’s fiction. For Gikandi,

the inaugural function of Achebe’s texts … lies in his ability to relate the archaeological role of the novel – its narrative investigation of the social and historical conditions of African societies before and during colonisation – with the Utopian impulse that underlies the novel as a genre, that is, the desire for a mythical space in which a new society might be articulated.

Achebe succeeds, Gikandi argues, by disrupting the colonialist project at its most vulnerable point: its historical claim to absolute knowledge, in which the colonised subject is produced, as Homi Bhabha once put it, as a ‘fixed reality which is at once an “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible’. This ‘fixed reality’, with the knowledge of which the coloniser is already armed on arrival, is not of course ‘reality’ at all, only a fantasy which the colonising mission requires in order to see the native as ‘an imperfect copy of the European’, someone hopelessly benighted and in complete. Achebe’s novels and criticism are designed to resist the production of this native subject as ‘an already known’ of colonial ideology. (‘We only become what we are,’ Fanon insisted, ‘by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.’) Even in his use of language, in his endless deployment of Igbo proverbs, Achebe’s textual strategies – including his dismissive comments about a certain facile ‘universalism’ – are designed to obstruct this totalising vision of the master’s discourse.

Achebe is the author at the ‘crossroads hour’ – noon – the most potent hour of Igbo folklore, when morning merges into afternoon. The crossroads itself is a site of creative imagination for Achebe: ‘This is where the spirits meet the humans, the water meets the land, the child meets the adult – these are the zones of power, and I think this is where stories are created.’ It is, in a sense, the place where he first staked his claim to the novel as a Western genre. Confronted by an intransigently negative colonialist rhetoric, he sought to explore ‘a space’ in which ‘a different universe’ could unfold or be imagined – one which is very much a matter of textual resistance, in particular to Conrad and to Cary’s Mister Johnson: ‘One big message I try to put across is that Africa was not a vacuum before the coming of Europe, that culture was not brought to Africa by the white world … We too had our history, traditions, cultures, civilisations.’

Achebe is not without his faults. He is committed to a kind of realism that easily takes offence at any departure from its norms. What the Nigerian critic Chidi Amuta rightly describes as ‘Achebe’s reductionist reading of Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ is the unfortunate result. Ayi Kwei Armah entered the African literary canon with his first novel – a virtuoso critique of corruption under the Ghanaian regime. Armah’s brightly illuminated language owed a great deal of its inspiration to Sartre’s phenomenlogical obsession with the heightened glow of the pigment of reality. Achebe’s response, however, was grudging and sometimes openly frosty: ‘Armah is clearly an alienated writer,’ he wrote, ‘complete with all the symptoms. Unfortunately, Ghana is not a modern existentialist country.’ He believed that Armah was suffering from an ontological sickness which was foreign to Africa. Achebe’s left-wing critics have also sometimes found him insufficiently attentive to the materialist base of historical movements. His obsession with racialist epithets in Heart of Darkness, and his neglect of Conrad’s wide-ranging critique of imperial ‘conquest’ and domination, is an obvious example; the repetition of these charges far and wide has made his contributions to conferences tiresomely predictable.

Typically, what most Westerners remember about Achebe’s first novel Things Fall Apart is the terrible business – as infamous as clitoridectomy – of twins, whom Igbo tradition regards as an abomination (they must be left to die in the bush), and the ritual killing of the boy hostage, Ikemefuna. Most African readers, however, are likely to be affected by the elegiac description of a community collapsing under the pressure of colonialism. This novel, to gether with No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God and Achebe’s astringent satire Man of the People, will probably constitute his lasting legacy to African literature. He is reluctant to admit it, but the Nigerian civil war put an end to his ability to conceive of his country as a place in which the creative spirit of his fiction can flower. Anthills of the Savannah (1987) is haunted by the spectres released in the aftermath of that war – and the newer ones of feminist discourse.

In Achebe, African literature has lost an author in order to find a figure: someone who represents a quest not for individual identity but for a lost initiative whose recovery has become a project for an entire generation. Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian philosopher, argues that African writers are not concerned with ‘an inner voyage of discovery’. According to him, ‘their problem – though not, of course, their subject – is finding a public role, not a private self.’ Though Achebe cites Joyce favourably some where, he did not have to borrow the notion of the artist as the conscience of the race. Such a philosophy, as he has so often insisted, is inscribed everywhere in the artistic practices of African peoples.