Regarding the outpouring of stories (fictional and non-fictional) in the aftermath of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the literary critic Njabulo Ndebele observed in 1998 that this country represents “a living example of people reinventing themselves through narrative”. One man who understood the potential of stories to shape social imagination was the late Chinua Achebe.
Virtually all of Achebe’s writings reflect a passionate interest in the telling and retelling of history, indicating that this issue lay at the core of his socio-political commitment, and influenced his |other signature sub-themes.
In 1998, Achebe explained how jaundiced colonial versions of African history (including those that were openly fictional and those that claimed to be factual) affected him as a young writer. He was aware that stories “had been used to set one people against another and that the depiction of himself and his colour and his people and his race has been less than just; he then realised that he had a task. Not necessarily to confront other people, but to save himself because he was aware that there was a story, that there was another story about himself which was not being told. And so all he was doing really was to bring that other story that was not being told, bring it into being, put it among the stories and let it interact.”
The best-selling Things Fall Apart remains one of the most iconic examples of the “other story” that has successfully challenged ”authoritative”, racialised and pejorative depictions of formerly colonised people. It is reported to have sold over eight million copies worldwide and has been translated into many languages. Achebe summed up his novels as “re-|creations of the history of Africa in fictional terms”, an artistic and ideological enterprise that spawned extensive scholarship and won him high levels of critical acclaim.
Underscoring the immeasurable value of these stories, Achebe reportedly rejected a $1 million offer from American rap star Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) to use the title Things Fall Apart for a movie. It is said Achebe saw the offer as an “insult” and his representatives reportedly said the book is “listed as the most-read book in modern African literature, and won’t be sold for even £1 billion”.
Achebe’s imaginative accounts of Africa’s past have been variously described as balanced, responsible and even “objective” by renowned scholars, some of whom go as far as suggesting that these works can serve as veritable alternative sources of historical information about recent and not-too-recent African history.
For decades now, following decolonisation, post-colonial researchers have continued to show how the dehumanising and infantilising narratives of many colonial era writers (historians, anthropologists and others) provided |justification for slavery and other forms of colonial and neo-colonial domination.
In a 1965 essay, Achebe made it clear that it was the duty of African writers to correct this historical injustice by using their art to redeem the dignity of Africa.
In a review of Achebe’s first four novels, the late Bernth Lindfors, notable scholar of African literature and long-time researcher of Ache0be’s works, observed that the task of documenting and interpreting the disorder that has characterised recent African history has posed a literary challenge to many writers. He described Achebe’s novels as the most successful of various fictional efforts to present instructive insights into “what has happened in Africa and why”.
Lindfors described the different stories in Achebe’s fiction as a historical “escort”, and a “most reliable guide” to the history of Africa’s “troubled past and troubling present”. In regard to their revision of the history of the colonial encounter, Lindfors stated that the earlier novels, especially Things Fall Apart, contain an “objective, honest and fair” representation of the series of historical events that marked the period of colonisation.
This representation consisted on the one hand of documenting, from an African perspective, how colonialism |disrupted the hitherto organised and democratic life of Igbo society. On the other hand, the pre-colonial societies that Achebe’s early fiction depicted were themselves not without internal conflict, and in a sense reflected power struggles at different stages of their histories.
As both Lindfors and Oxford-based Elleke Boehmer remarked, Achebe’s fiction demonstrated that the eventual destruction of traditional African society by colonial forces was facilitated by internal schisms.
Some scholars have expressed worry over a discernible and pervasive predeterminism in Achebe’s depiction of African history. Indeed, all his novels have tragic endings: Okonkwo commits suicide in Things Fall Apart; Obi goes to jail in No Longer at Ease; the high priest, Ezeulu, is humiliated in Arrow of God; and the main characters die violently in Anthills of the Savannah.
Former Harvard professor Abiola Irele once called this trend a “dramatic ordering of events with a rigorous fatality that transcends the individual’s ability to comprehend or arrest its pre-ordained course”. And Ghanaian critic Kofi Owusu has suggested that Achebe might even be considered by some readers as a “prophet of doom”.
But it might also be possible that Achebe’s objective was to warn post-colonial citizens that their societies could face anarchy if they do not respond productively to inevitable social changes. Indeed, his message might well be that (in the words of Lindfors), “the society that is unwilling to bend will eventually break”.
Perhaps the best illustration of Achebe’s belief in the redemptive power of narrative is in his last novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which uses myths extensively and contains an allegory about a people who have endured perverse cycles of political misfortune, oppression and war. Achebe may well have suggested that Africa’s past losses and present confusions can be contemplated and understood in the context of a broader historical |continuum – a sort of “big picture” – which confers “meaning” on events that are otherwise irrational, while providing possible directions for a better future.
Therefore, different and seemingly irreconcilable phases of experience may be brought together as united and cohesive narratives of “destiny” (as Nigerian academic Michael Echeruo put it).
As one of Achebe’s characters in the novel explained, it “is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters… it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours.”
Thus Achebe’s stories serve as purveyors of hope for a better future, not only for Africa but also for formerly colonised societies everywhere that have come through cycles of misrepresentation, war, genocide, and many other unimaginable forms of social dystopia.
For such peoples – to paraphrase the title of his memoir – Achebe’s stories offer the prospect that there may yet be a country. - published April 28