Africa's best-known novelist, Chinua Achebe, died last March aged 82, his death marked by many tributes from critics, ordinary readers - whose devotion was often intense - and fellow-writers and friends around the globe. His best-known novel, Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958 afforded a fresh perspective on Nigeria, a different spin of the ball.
Indeed, that celebrated novel has been published in fifty different languages and has sold in excess of ten million copies. As one commentator put it, in Things Fall Apart, Achebe `refashioned’ the English language to let the reader hear, for the first time, Igbo voices and concepts. Achebe’s reinvention of the African fictional wheel had a profound effect on many other African writers, and he was in effect the patriarch of African literature. Through the Heinemann African writers series, moreover, he oversaw the publication of over 100 fictional works in English by African writers.
Achebe himself published five key novels, along with a number of short stories, between the years 1958 and 1987. (He also wrote poems about the pivotal event in this book, the Biafran War of 1967- 1970.) His body of work in fiction amounts to a subtle, pithily perceptive account of Nigeria's benighted story since British colonial rule.
He was born in eastern Nigeria, in the Igbo village of Ogidi, four decades after missionaries first arrived. Anglican Protestants, Baptists, Methodists and Roman Catholics all built schools throughout the South and Middle areas of Nigeria.
His parents converted to Christianity, and his father was a teacher and evangelist at the local Anglican Mission, in the early years of the twentieth century. He lived and taught in the United States for almost forty years, and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007. In 1988, he took part in a writers conference in Dun Laoghaire and was a charming, yet low-key presence among luminaries like Joseph Brodsky and Susan Sontag.
A modest man, his sole memoir published to date concentrates on the early years and follows through on his immersion as a public figure in delicate, potentially explosive African affairs. There is no title tattle or name-dropping, no celebrity-mongering.
Rather, There Was A Country - A Personal History of Biafra affords us fascinating insights into family life, with memories of his adored elder brother John, of his father and his mother whom he saw as `a strong, silent type.’ `Mother was neither talkative nor timid but seemed to exist on several planes – often quietly escaping into the inner casements of her mind, where she engaged in deep, reflective thought,' writes Achebe. ' It was from her that I learned to appreciate the power and solace in silence.'