Achebe and the war of stories

Last Updated: Tue, Mar 26, 2013 00:29 hrs

One day, when Chinua Achebe was a young boy, his teacher took the whole class outside for a change. They sat under the spreading branches of a mango tree; in its generous shade, the teacher began his lesson, drawing a map of Great Britain on the blackboard.

The schoolchildren listened, and so did the village madman, Achebe wrote in a memoir. The teacher spoke of the history of Great Britain, and, suddenly, the madman interrupted. He wiped the blackboard clean; he took the chalk from the teacher; and he replaced the lesson on Britain with a long talk on the history of Ogidi, Achebe's hometown.

Achebe was struck by two things: it was a madman who restored sanity and balance to the skewed history he and other Africans were taught, who reminded them that they, too, had a history; and that the teacher allowed space for the madman's stories of their village to be told.

Achebe, who died this weekend at the age of 82, left behind not just a string of great books, from Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah to There Was A Country; his true legacy was as a chronicler of the war of stories.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness starts with blank spaces on maps: "There was one yet - the biggest, the most blank, so to speak - that I had a hankering after." There is regret in the narrator's voice as he remarks that it had "got filled" since his boyhood, with rivers, lakes, names. "It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery - a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness."

That heart of darkness, Achebe argued with ferocity, had a heartbeat of its own, and enough light for those who lived there. The blank space, the delightful mystery that Conrad's protagonists wanted so badly to claim, was already alive and rustling with its own deep histories and myths, its art built, as Achebe recalled, into the walls of people's houses, into their songs, into the warp and weft of their lives.

He saw part of the history of writing as a deadly war between stories. The conqueror and the coloniser could not tell the true story of their conquests, Achebe observed. Instead, what they did, especially in Africa, was to hire storytellers with a lot of imagination to make up a more appropriate story. The job of those stories, he wrote, was to produce "forged fake title deeds".

As a boy, when he read books by Conrad, H Rider Haggard, Joyce Cary and others, he did not immediately connect the Africa in "those riveting adventure stories among savages" with himself or his homeland. It took him, as it took writers from Amos Tutuola to Wole Soyinka and more recently Chimamanda Adichie, an effort of will, determination and honesty to recover their own history from the wells of darkness into which it had been submerged.

He had little patience for the Africa of either a Conrad or a V S Naipaul. "While Conrad gives us an Africa of malignant mystery and incomprehensibility, Naipaul's method is to ridicule claims to any human achievement in Africa... Although he was writing about Africa, he was not writing for Africans." Achebe quotes from an old interview where Naipaul says, of his readers in Africa: "I can't see a Monkey - you can use a capital M, that's an affectionate word for the generality - reading my work."

By the time he wrote Things Fall Apart, in 1958, Achebe had worked his way through what he described as "the erosion of self-esteem" caused by dispossession. He had begun to reclaim his own stories, using a favourite proverb as a guide: "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."

The words Achebe used to describe the writing of Things Fall Apart are revealing: he was "possessed" by it, "seized" by it. And yet, out of naivete, he almost lost the book, sending the only copy of the manuscript he had to a typing agency in England, suffering agonies when they didn't respond for months. A friend intervened; the typed manuscript found a publisher; and Achebe's career as a griot began. One of the first responses he received was from an offended English reviewer, who objected to British imperial rule being attacked "in some backward corner of the empire by an ungrateful upstart of a native".

In his last published book, There Was A Country, the upstart was at it again: his personal memoir of Nigeria and its wars angered the militant group Boko Haram, and set off anguished debates among Nigerian writers and critics. But he had kept faith with the commitment he had set himself so many years ago, to tell history's tales truthfully. Achebe was always a great storyteller; and when he wrote the history of the hunt, he chose to tell it from the perspective of the lions.

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