Raised Eyebrows

Eleanor Birne

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2004), was ostensibly a coming of age story. A teenage girl is abused by her repressive Catholic father and, following a political upheaval, moves in with her aunt, at whose house she has a fuller life and discovers her own sexuality. But the novel’s backdrop was the changing face of Nigeria. Adichie was born in a small ex-Biafran town in 1977, ten years after the military coup that precipitated the civil war. Her first book’s first sentence made plain the company she meant to keep, with its bold reference to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: ‘Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.’ This was a story about a girl and her family, but the effect of larger events was occasionally felt, bubbling up into the girl’s narrative. Award nominations followed: Booker longlist, Orange shortlist, John Llewellyn Rhys Prize shortlist, Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Prize.

Her new novel goes further. Half of a Yellow Sun – the title refers to the emblem on the Biafran flag – is narrated in the third person and switches, chapter by chapter, between the stories of three central characters: Ugwu, from a poor village, who is employed as a houseboy by a university lecturer, Odenigbo; Olanna, rich and beautiful, who is Odenigbo’s girlfriend, and later his wife; and Richard, a white Englishman and Olanna’s sister’s lover. It spans the decade to the end of the Biafran war of 1967-70, in which more than a million people died. Its focus is the impact of the war on these characters and the characters they interact with. The war and the changes surrounding it are the novel’s catalysts, and its plot.

The book opens in an atmosphere of peace and plenty, shortly after Nigerian independence in 1960. Ugwu has just moved from his village to work for Odenigbo in Nsukka, a town built round the new University of Nigeria, the first such institution to be established without British support. (Ugwu ‘had never seen anything like the streets that appeared after they went past the university gates, streets so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them.’ After his first meal at his new master’s house he turns on the tap in the kitchen, then turns it off then on again, ‘laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach’.) Ugwu spends his days scrubbing floors, polishing saucers, washing and dusting his master’s car, compiling long shopping lists, listening to the intelligent conversation at his master’s table. Odenigbo, a progressive, treats him well. He enrolls him in the staff primary school on campus and tells him he has to be the best in the class because he will be the oldest.

Ugwu is learning, but his world tilts with the arrival of Olanna, his master’s new lover and the daughter of a wealthy Lagos businessman. She smells of coconuts and has an ‘oval face’ that is ‘smooth like an egg, the lush colour of rain-drenched earth’. He is won over by her sophistication: ‘Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language, the kind of English he heard on Master’s radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.’ He cooks an improvised version of fried rice for the couple and then, once they have retired, puts his ear to their bedroom door in order to listen to Olanna’s moans as they make love. But all this is scene-setting: his progress in the book is from innocence to experience. At the beginning he burns his master’s socks while trying to iron them; he learns taste and judgment; he becomes part of a new family and no longer fits into his old one. By the end the war has changed everybody. He is a soldier; there are gang rapes.

Olanna has been captivated by Odenigbo’s charisma and what she sees as his revolutionary zeal. She met him in a queue for a lecture. The ticket-seller caught sight of a white man in the queue and gestured for him to come forwards (‘“Let me help you here, sir,” the ticket-seller said, in that comically contrived “white” accent that uneducated people liked to put on.’) Odenigbo protested. He escorted the white man back to his place in the queue and shouted at the ticket-seller: ‘You miserable ignoramus! You see a white person and he looks better than your own people? You must apologise to everybody in this queue! Right now!’ And so Olanna loves him, partly for his wild professorial haircut, even though ‘he was not one of those who used untidiness to substantiate their radicalism.’ But – on the evidence here – his actions don’t substantiate his ‘radicalism’ either: telling a white man to wait in line isn’t such a big deal; it might have been a brave act, but it doesn’t depend on a radical thought. This episode is one of a handful in the book that somewhat cartoonishly represent a situation in the simplest possible terms, as though Adichie was afraid her readers might get the wrong idea. Odenigbo isn’t afraid of white people: therefore he must be radical. His real radicalism is more complex, and is explained gradually. He sees pan-Africanism as a European invention, as colonialism by other means. Before the British came, he says, he wasn’t African or Nigerian but Igbo – and he makes the case for the secession of Biafra from Nigeria not on grounds of ethnic solidarity but as a way of reversing the legacy of colonialism.

Olanna is Igbo too, and her experiences serve as an easy-to-read measure of the level of ethnic tension. In her privileged cosmopolitan girlhood ethnicity didn’t apply: she had a Hausa boyfriend, Mohammed; and her upwardly mobile parents used her charms as an enticement to a Yoruba government minister. On a plane journey halfway through the book she is sitting next to a beautiful dark-skinned man who wants to share with her the delightful news he has found in his paper – that the Igbo vice chancellor of the University of Lagos had been sacked. She mumblingly corrects his pronunciation of an Igbo word and he looks at her in horror: ‘Are you Igbo? But you have the face of Fulani people.’ He doesn’t talk to her after that, and she reflects mournfully that she ‘could be a Fulani woman on a plane deriding Igbo people with a good-looking stranger. She could be a woman taking charge of her own life. She could be anything.’ But she can’t, of course. She is bound by her man, and the changes in her relationship with Odenigbo are a more subtle measure of the changes brought about by war. As the Biafran enterprise turns towards disaster, Odenigbo feels that his principles have been compromised, and compromised principles are reflected in his private life throughout. He has an affair with a serving girl, and Olanna – putting aside her disillusion – insists that they bring up the resulting child, Baby, together. Odenigbo, unable to face the destruction of his political dream, starts drinking heavily; and after their flight from Nsukka to the Igbo south-east, as they are forced into a series of smaller and smaller houses, it is Olanna who holds the family together. She becomes the practical and assertive force, cooking in the communal kitchen, begging food from the relief centre and generally showing the stuff she is made of. Motherhood – and her instinct to protect Baby – has empowered her.

The weakest of the central characters – designedly so – is the Englishman, Richard. He wants to write a book about Igbo art, specifically the traditional roped pots he loves for their ‘strange rococo, almost Fabergé-like virtuosity’. The question that is constantly asked of him is whether his admiration of the pots – and his admiration of Olanna’s sister, Kainene – is anything more than colonialist condescension. But his larger problem is that he himself is the condescended-to subject. Kainene and Olanna’s parents lose interest in him as soon as they discern he has no money to speak of, and no connections; and he is constantly tortured by worries about the way he is seen. His weaknesses are literally embodied. He admits to a sudden, secret urge to cane his manservant: ‘It had always appalled him, the thought that some colonial Englishmen flogged elderly black servants. Now, though, he felt like doing just as they had done. He longed to make Harrison lie down on his belly and flog, flog, flog him until the man learned to keep his mouth shut.’ Even more shamefully, he is emasculated by Kainene – who is, to him, haughty, mysterious, a wrathful smoker – and he can’t get it up in bed. He is a soft target for a novelist with a message, and it seems too easy a conclusion to find him abandoning his historical treatise because he’s understood that Nigeria’s story isn’t his to tell: that job, he declares, is for Ugwu.

The novel’s main movement is the war. The beginnings of civil unrest are heard only as noise from offstage. Olanna is giving Baby a bath one evening as news of the coup is announced over the radio. When the deputy prime minister reads a statement saying that the government is handing over to the military, Ugwu is serving porridge. But as the emergency escalates – with suspicion growing that the organisers of the coup were Igbo – Adichie makes her characters witnesses, and finds ways for them to be involved in the action. The first air-raid comes during Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding reception: the guests throw themselves to the ground in the garden. Odenigbo dances with Baby when the secession of Biafra is declared, but when news breaks of the massacre of Igbo army officers, Kainene rocks backwards and forwards as though in a trance, with the radio burbling in the background.

Olanna is in Kano when the killings there begin. In her frantic dash to the station, she sees bodies lying in the road ‘like dolls made of cloth’. On the train, she sits next to a woman holding a calabash. Towards the end of the journey, the woman opens the calabash and tells Olanna to look inside. In the bowl she sees the head of a little girl with ‘ashy-grey skin and the plaited hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth’. Richard is at the airport when soldiers run onto the tarmac and start shooting Igbo passengers; the security guards fold their arms and watch. Richard wets his trousers; he nearly misses his plane because ‘as the other passengers walked shakily to the plane, he stood aside vomiting.’ Bodies fail.

With so much information – and interpretation – to be conveyed, it is inevitable that some of it will be rushed or caricatured. Much of the necessary background is shoehorned into dinner-table conversations: ‘“The BBC is calling it an Igbo coup,” the chin-chin-eating guest said. “And they have a point. It was mostly Northerners who were killed.” “It was mostly Northerners who were in government,” Professor Ezeka whispered, his eyebrows arched, as if he could not believe he had to say what was so obvious.’ This is embarrassingly heavy-handed, as Adichie perhaps knows – how else to explain those arched eyebrows? But the most inexplicable and impressive fact about this novel is that the frequent clunkiness of the dialogue (‘“I hope you’ve thought about coming to join us at the ministry, Olanna. We need first-class brains like yours,” Chief Okonji said’) doesn’t even register let alone hold you up. The logic of war doesn’t allow for pauses; and the narrative is breathlessly swift.

The complications of war – the absence of neat dinner-party conclusions – are enacted in the story of Ugwu’s conscription into the Biafran army. It begins with a near miss: in search of fresh water, he sees there are soldiers about, and tries to take refuge in a church. The priest won’t let him in (‘God bless Biafra,’ he says as he bars the door) and Ugwu is hauled off. Only when Olanna bribes the conscripting officer is he saved. A neat novel would have handed him over to the army at once, but war is messy and the narrative is too: a few pages later he is out on the streets again – this time in the company of a girl he can’t bear to leave behind – and is, again, met by a press gang; this time he can’t escape. The point of the girlfriend is to show how the personal leads to the general, and the point of the double conscription is to show that there is no general story: there are only individuals, who get caught up for a million individual reasons. At the training camp, Ugwu’s head is shaved with broken glass. People’s noses are broken. Ugwu turns up his nose at his fellow soldiers’ foolishnesses, at the man who can’t pronounce ‘reconnaissance’. He ‘imagined himself getting up in the moonlit quiet, leaping out, running until he got back to the yard in Umuahia and greeted Master and Olanna and hugged Baby.’ But here too it isn’t that simple: ‘he would not even try, he knew, because a part of him wanted to be here.’ He believes in the war.

Ugwu’s story is striking for its speed, and for what it leaves out. At one moment he is at home with his girlfriend; at the next, something has happened, but we don’t quite know how:

It didn’t matter that she was still seeing the officer. What mattered was the more, whom she preferred. He pulled her to him but she moved away.

‘You will kill me,’ she said, and laughed. ‘Let me go.’

‘I’ll escort you halfway,’ he said.

‘No need. Baby will be alone.’

‘I’ll be back before she wakes up.’

He wanted to hold her hand; instead, he walked so close to her that, once in a while, their bodies brushed against each other. He didn’t go far before turning back. He was a short pathway away from home when he saw two soldiers standing next to a van and holding guns.

‘You! Stop there!’ one of them called.

This is narrative that doesn’t trouble with filler, or the banalities of how X gets from A to B: there is no distinction between inside and outside, just as there is no distinction in narrative tone between the personal (her body) and the public (the army). Adichie has excised all keyed-up moments – the saying goodbye, the epiphany – and what is left is as direct as an account can be. Even the roughnesses of the language help: ‘standing next to a van and holding guns’ isn’t quite right, but it has an interesting effect, making the act of standing as aggressive as the holding of guns. It works, mysteriously, and is strange and new.