Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart,” published about 55 years ago, virtually introduced African-written fiction to the rest of the world. Not only that, his story of a traditional village hero, come to grief under the Western ways imported by the British, has been a huge and continuing success, translated into numerous languages, and selling a reported 12 million copies.
Now in his 80s, having written a number of other novels on African themes and taught for years at colleges in the United States — Bard and currently at Brown — Achebe has published a kind of hybrid memoir. The first and more interesting part tells of his upbringing and early days.
The second part is an account of the abortive three-year secession of his native Biafra from the rest of newly independent Nigeria in the late 1960s, and the hideous civil war that followed. There is indeed a personal element here. He was a backer of independence, went on diplomatic missions to rally support abroad, and found himself fleeing the bloody advance of the Nigerian federal forces which, together with a choking embargo, cost as many as 3 million Biafran lives, mainly children.
After Biafra’s surrender, despite promises of no reprisals by the federal government, some crippling economic measures were imposed. Achebe briefly joined in an attempt to form a party that would promote reconciliation, but found that the quarrels and compromises of political life did not suit him, and he returned to writing and teaching
This part of the story is a thinly written paraphrase of a history in which Achebe, like so many of his fellow Biafrans, was less a shaper than an unhappy and at times critical spectator. Though collaborating as an intellectual with Biafra’s strong-willed, often harsh military ruler, Odumegwu Ojukwu, he regrets his refusal to seek solutions and speculates that someone more flexible might have done better.