For many people all around the world, Chinua Achebe was their first African writer. Things Fall Apart has been read and loved (and studied) by millions. And among its many readers were a generation of other African writers for whom he blazed the trail.
Of course, that wonderful 1958 book wasn’t literally the first novel published by an African writer in a European language. But in Things Fall Apart — along with No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, the two books that followed in his trilogy about life in Igboland — Achebe established, for those who wanted to write fiction in English about African life, the first great model of how it could be done. He found ways to render the life and the language of traditional Nigerian village people, in prose that seemed so spare and natural that it is hard to appreciate how magnificent an achievement it was.
Achebe, who died Thursday at age 82, had absorbed a wide range of literature in English, both poetry and prose: the King James Bible and the English hymnal; realist and modernist novels; Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Conrad, Buchan, Greene and, of course, Yeats, who gave him the title of his first book.
And from this treasury he drew a variety of forms of diction: one, for example, to represent the voices of people speaking Igbo; another, for the language in which he described their world. From the traditions of oral literature that he heard growing up, in turn, he drew the proverbs with which the novel is peppered, the tales of gods and heroes and heroines that hover behind his narrative. The result was a way of talking about Africa in the colonial language that allowed his characters to live for us as richly specific human beings, located in a particular time and place, while at the same time resonating with readers across the planet and across generations.
Chinua Achebe’s life was divided by two great historical events. The first was Nigerian independence. Though Things Fall Apart was published two years before the beginning of the modern history of his country, the trilogy that it began was itself a great declaration of literary independence, not just for Nigerian fiction but for all of us in black Africa.
In that period of creative ferment, Achebe not only wrote these three great explorations — which run from the beginning of European colonization through to independence (along with the post-independence novel A Man of the People, set in an imaginary African country) — but also acted as midwife to scores of other writers. He did so through his editing of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which, as much as anything, bodied the concept of African literature into existence.
Then came the second great event: Nigeria’s civil war (from 1967 to 1970), during which he played a prominent role in the public life of Biafra, the short-lived state in the east of his country, which included the Igbo societies from among which his own family came. The loss of Biafra — and the monumental suffering and death that went with it — seem to have stayed his creativity. He published poetry and essays afterward and, much later, in 1986, another accomplished novel, Anthills of the Savannah. Yet his last book, published just this past year — There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra — displayed the persistence of that trauma into the present.
He lived through the jubilations and disaffections of the independence era, had seen the ways that societies could be riven and frayed in the name of unity. Still, Achebe’s literary imagination was that of the humanist who grasps the universal potency of storytelling and knows that literature can be an act of retrieval, recuperation and cohesion. Things do fall apart, but as his novels illustrate, they also come together.