Quantcast

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.

Home and Exile opens with Achebe's warm reminiscences of his home village in Igboland. Then he moves on to colonial Nigeria's University of Ibadan, to an episode that informed his career as a fiction writer. His European instructor assigned the class Mister Johnson, by the Anglo-Irishman Joyce Cary, a novel set in Nigeria that in 1952 Time called "the best novel ever written about Africa."

Achebe and his classmates disagreed heatedly, regarding the Nigerian hero, Johnson, whom their teacher considered colorful and comic, as unbelievable, a "bumbling idiot of a character." More fundamental, Achebe says, even though Cary seemed tolerant, his acclaimed book had "a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred and mockery breaks through to poison his tale."

Years later, after Achebe had successfully published some of his own novels, he turned to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with an influential essay (included in Hopes and Impediments) that shook up the Conrad academic establishment. High school students in America are still being assigned this novella, their teachers probably embarrassed by Conrad's repeated references to Africa as a place of "black and incomprehensible frenzy" inhabited by "rudimentary souls" who make "a violent babble of uncouth sounds" instead of speaking, but who justify the book by explaining that Africa is merely the backdrop, the setting, for the dissolution of the European, Kurtz, who is the real villain of the tale.

For Achebe, this excuse is not good enough. He does not deny Conrad's "great talents," evidenced even in Heart of Darkness itself. But he vigorously criticizes using

 

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

 

In Home and Exile, Achebe continues looking into the Western need to deny humanity to Africans. He cites the remarkable work of American anthropologists Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, who in The Africa That Never Was (1970) analyzed some 500 British books, tracing back the pattern of dehumanization 400 years, showing, as Achebe summarizes, "how a body of fantasy and myth about Africa developed into a tradition with a vast storehouse of lurid images to which writers went again and again through the centuries to draw 'material' for their books."

Achebe points out that the ugly literature originated to justify the slave trade. But, he continues, "on account, no doubt, of its enormous popularity as both sensational entertainment and a salve for the conscience, it also generated a life of its own, so that it did not simply expire when the slave trade was abolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but reshaped itself with the tools of trendy scholarly fantasies and pseudo-sciences."

In his essay on Conrad, Achebe anticipated some of the recent work in "whiteness studies," arguing about the need to "set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." And "the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa." So "Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray--a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate."

But Achebe is no apologist for life in Africa today. Here is what he said about his own country in The Trouble With Nigeria (1983): "It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun.... It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!"

In his novels Achebe can also be unsparing. Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (1964) portray village life before the arrival of colonialism as rich, complex and quasi-democratic, but also as sometimes violent, a place where newborn twins are left in the Evil Forest to die and a young boy is sacrificed when the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves demands it. No Longer at Ease (1960), set in the fifties, shows, with excruciating tension, a young government official sliding into corruption under the competing pressures of trying to do an honest job but simultaneously look out for his home village--the very people who helped pay for the education that qualified him for his government post in the first place.

In A Man of the People (1966), greed and tribalism undermine formal democracy in the years just after independence, clearing the way for the first of many military coups; the book's humor cannot fully obscure what is at bottom a depressing tale of hopes dashed. And Anthills of the Savannah (1987) delivers a more sinister picture of a military dictator who suppresses reports of drought and famine and then orders the death of a courageous newspaper editor who had once been his high school classmate and friend. Anthills is especially chilling because His Excellency is neither clown nor maniac but a successful, charismatic man whom Achebe shows to be subtly but inexorably corrupted by power and his fear of losing it.

Achebe's five novels are so accurate and insightful about Africa's history over the past century that you could teach an entire course in politics and culture around them. The best proof of his honesty is his continuing popularity in Africa; few Africans would remain interested in him if he were not telling the truth about how hard life there can be.

So just where does Achebe differ from Naipaul, given that on the surface both men portray an Africa marred by corruption and violence? In Home and Exile Achebe indicates the difference eloquently, explaining that the new African writers of his generation had "one common thread running through it all: the thread of a shared humanity linking the author to the world of his creation; a sense that even in the most tempting moments of grave disappointment with this world, the author remains painfully aware that he is of the same flesh and blood, the same humanity as its human inhabitants."

It is here that Naipaul and Conrad fail dismally. They see Africa as cursed, a place where evil and degradation are somehow intrinsic to its people and inherent in the dark land itself. But the crisis in parts of Africa today is by no means inevitable, nor are its origins entirely local. It is the product of human actions, of stagnation caused in large part by an unjust international economic order, including crushing levels of debt, and by the global trade in weapons and diamonds. This economic depression has contributed to the rise of dictators (often backed by the West, openly or tacitly) in some places and failed states and vicious profiteering warlords in others.

An imperfect but useful parallel would be Europe in the thirties--high rates of unemployment, unstable, disfigured by dictatorships and war (in Spain) that would spread across the continent. Europe's rapid recovery after 1945 proves that chaos was neither ingrained in its people nor embedded in the European landscape.

In the end Achebe is not asking the rest of the world to go to the other extreme, to revere Africa as a source of superior, tribal wisdom. All he wants, as he writes in critiquing Conrad, is for the West to start to look at Africa as "quite simply a continent of people--not angels, but not rudimentary souls either--just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society."

Achebe's own exemplary life and work are helping to make this eloquent request real. He is by no means the only writer who portrays Africa's complexity and humanity. Others of this generous spirit include his fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka; Ngugi wa Thiong'o, exiled from Kenya; the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembène Ousmane; and Bessie Head, who fled apartheid to live and write in Botswana before her untimely death in 1986.

Chinua Achebe's influence should go on and on, outliving petty African warlords and small-minded Western writers alike, teaching and reminding that all humankind is one.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.