African Heart, No Darkness | The Nation


African Heart, No Darkness

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A revealing question: Why has V.S. Naipaul come to be much better known in the West than the great African writer Chinua Achebe? The two men are virtually the same age; Achebe turns 70 this year, Naipaul is two years younger. Both started off in what were still British colonies, Achebe in Nigeria, Naipaul on the West Indian island of Trinidad. Both, writing in English, achieved tremendous early success; Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), a compelling look at how his ancestors in Igboland responded to colonialism, went on to become the bestselling African novel of all time, with several million copies in print. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), a compelling look at his ancestors, who were brought from East Asia under colonialism to work the Caribbean sugarcane, did not reach as large an audience, but its moving and subtle story, strengthened by wry, affectionate humor (which comes as a great surprise to those familiar only with the later, nasty Naipaul), makes it unquestionably a masterpiece.

About the Author

James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

Also by the Author

How law firms and lobbyists protect and whitewash petroleum dictatorships.

President Obama is showing little concern for international law, and none at all for Washington’s historic responsibility in Central America.

In the early sixties you might have predicted similar futures for the two men: increasing popularity in the Third World and growing recognition in the First. Both of them could have become truly world figures, indispensable witnesses as their part of the planet lived through the bright promise of formal independence, followed by the terrible letdown of economic stagnation and political strife. Together they could have used the colorful new Englishes that were emerging in their areas to chronicle the huge migration from countryside to city, part of sweeping cultural changes that had been disturbing enough in the West, stretched over several generations, but that were even more dizzying in the developing world, when compressed into a few short decades.

Yet such a hopeful prediction would have been largely wrong. Chinua Achebe did live up to his promise as a witness and chronicler of his times, and he built on his reputation in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World. Today in Africa he occupies the same wide cultural space that Dickens did in nineteenth-century England; you can say "Okonkwo" from Liberia to Kenya and down to Swaziland, and people with a high school education or more will recognize the proud, fierce, tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. But in the West, Chinua Achebe is barely known outside African studies courses.

Meanwhile, Naipaul settled permanently in England, where he did not fulfill his early humane potential. Instead, he became the last Victorian traveler, arrogant and dismissive, celebrated in the West for supposedly telling hard but necessary truths about the Third World. His sloppy, unpleasant travel books have been excerpted in leading Western journals and reviewed with reverence. In his more carefully crafted fiction, his undeniable talent remains evident, but one-dimensional misanthropy has damaged his work, particularly the books set in Africa, like In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979). In a Free State is particularly ugly; the African characters are nameless, stupid and menacing; they speak in grunts and they "stink," smelling like "rotting vegetation." Naipaul's cruelty did not prevent his lionization in London and New York, but his appeal in the Third World has remained understandably limited.

In Home and Exile, Achebe has some strong words for Naipaul, quoting a characteristically abusive passage and describing it as "downright outrageous" and "pompous rubbish." But Achebe has a much larger aim than textual analysis. He is here building on some of his earlier nonfiction work, such as the provocative essays collected in Hopes and Impediments (1989), and his introduction to a respectful book of photographs by the American Robert Lyons, Another Africa (1998).

Achebe's central purpose, advanced with passionate eloquence, is simple: to show how the West continues to insist on a view of Africa that is dark, negative and dehumanizing. Achebe's interpretation suggests a reason (although he nowhere poses the question himself) as to why Naipaul's reports and memoirs, and not his own, have appeared so widely, and in such supposedly enlightened journals, too, as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size