Over a simple dinner of chicken breast, potatoes and ginger ale in his Hotel Palomar room, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe explains that he’s not sure when his appearance on “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer,” from which he has just returned, will make it on the air.
“There’s so much happening in the world at this time,” says the 78-year-old writer, a longtime Bard College professor touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his classic novel, “Things Fall Apart.” He smiles—a modest smile seen often by those who know him best.
Fifty years from now, of course, those events will likely be forgotten while many will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of “Things Fall Apart,” the most famous African novel of the 20th century, the book that launched African literature by nonwhites into world literature.
OK, be honest, Achebe is asked. Is it the best of your five novels?
“That’s a question I refuse to answer,” he says, the smile suddenly a grin—before he turns serious: “Each of my books is different. Deliberately ... I wanted to create my society, my people, in their fullness.”
“For every one of the five novels I have written,” he says, “somebody, or a small group of people, call it my masterpiece. ... So I feel really that I shouldn’t do anything. Just sit back and let them sort things out.”
Yet “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe’s first novel, has become a unique literary and academic phenomenon.
Since its 1958 publication in London by Heinemann, “Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 8 million copies in 50 languages. In the United States, it sells more than 100,000 copies a year, and lands on the required reading lists of high school classes, undergraduate courses in English, anthropology, folklore and other disciplines, and graduate seminars.
For many readers today, Achebe’s story of Okonkwo, the “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria whose life goes to pieces amid an influx of British colonialists who change his world forever, now stands with classic tales of Greek drama and English literature as a cornerstone of the literary universe.
While Achebe welcomes the prominence his novel has achieved, he says he tries to keep it in perspective, true to an Ibo aphorism of his father’s that recognizes life’s pros and cons: “Wherever something stands, something else stands beside it.”
“It makes one humble,” Achebe acknowledges. He never forgets, he says, “how simple we are,” and “how big and complex the world is.”
That’s one reason he resists the accolade frequently bestowed on him, “Father of African Literature.”
“It’s not a kind of music to my ears,” he says. “It’s too big a title to take on. Or to award to anybody.” Chuckling again, Achebe jokes, “Before very long, I might find myself signing things, `Chinua Achebe, Father of African Lit.’”
He never thinks, he assures, “Oh, now I’m a big writer. ... I think, why have I been blessed to represent something which is important to us as a people, the people of Ibo land of Nigeria, the people of Nigeria itself, Africans, black people, white people.”
If you hear a theme of inclusive humanity in those words, you understand what makes “Things Fall Apart” special.
As Achebe has made clear in interviews over the years, he very much wanted, as the son of a Christian from the village of Ogidi, to oppose in his work the condescension toward Africans and their culture that he found in tales such as Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
Yet instead of compensating for that tone by emphasizing the best of his native culture, he offered, in “Things Fall Apart,” protagonist Okonkwo, who beats his youngest wife, kills a child entrusted to his care, and ultimately violates core values of Ibo culture, playing into stereotypes of African violence.
“It’s a challenge,” Achebe replies, agreeing that this is exactly the core conflict of the book. “I want you to read the worst that Africa can offer. I dare you at the end to say Africans are therefore less human than myself.”
“This is the one thing I remember thinking clearly,” he recalls. “I’m going to go out of my way to find the worst things that you can say about this culture, and make sure that it is exactly there. Because I want this to be a true story about our people.”
“Every problem Okonkwo has,” he says, “has to do with the failure to understand the importance of compassion, the importance of gentleness as opposed to success and power.”
Achebe worries that the prestige of “Things Fall Apart” frightens away readers, particularly Bard students familiar with Achebe’s annual course on African literature. “I make every effort not to intimidate anybody,” he says.
Indeed, he’s adamant that “Things Fall Apart,” despite its violence, can be read by children as young as 10.
“This is an area where my culture is different from American culture,” Achebe explains. “Americans, it seems to me, tend to protect their children from the harshness of life, in their interest.”
“That’s not the way my people rear their children,” he adds. “They let them experience the world as it is.”
Achebe’s 50th-anniversary tour is no easy project for a man paralyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident. Arriving back from his PBS interview, Achebe sits patiently as his wheelchair is lowered from a van by one of his four children, Chidi Achebe, who is helping his father meet his obligations.
There are other imperfections in the rosy picture of a master basking in applause for a masterpiece.
Achebe complains politely of “underpayment” by the British publisher that inherited the rights to a work sold cheap, he says, by “a sort of bush boy from the village.”
And he bemoans the status of his beloved Nigeria. “The relationship with my people, the Nigerian people, is very good,” he says. “My relationship with the rulers has always been problematic.”
The reason is Nigeria’s post-colonial history: “One would expect this country by now to be at least in the middle rank of developing nations, and it has failed each time. ... It’s really a disgrace what Nigeria has made of her opportunities. In relation to the poor, the millions and millions whose resources are squandered and stolen, it’s still going on.”
And yet Achebe is thinking of going back home for the first time since 1999, even though his medical condition makes it “very, very risky.”
“I would not ever be fully satisfied over this thing going on with Things Fall Apart,” he says in almost a whisper, “if I don’t go home and say to my people, `Thank you.’”
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