by Kenneth Wylie, Ph.D.
Chinua Achebe was the most successful of African novelists of our generation writing in English for good reason. His amazingly successful books, especially Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and A Man of the People, evoked a world of dramatic change, from the time of his grandparents when the Ibo homeland was conquered and ruled by the British, through his own era of independence and a terrible civil war. His greatest achievement was to link straightforward chronological narratives (such as we live) with Aristotelian tragedy, so subtle that many early readers, particularly some of his own generation of African writers, accused him of playing to a European or non-African audience.
He strongly defended his use of English for reasons that now seem obvious -- that it was obviously the language of common discourse among educated Africans, not to mention the entire world, and that a revelation of what Africans living in pre-industrial societies (across the continent) were his targets as well. The careful simplicity of his narratives, of characters who might seem too obvious stereotypes (the tragic Okonkwo a prime example) living within already eroded traditional religious and tribal worlds, and even of European overlords (barely outlined, and not real actors in his works), actually made his work, in particular Things Fall Apart, a small book, stand out as a huge artifact of loss and change. It was not by chance that he chose Yeats's The Second Coming
as his title.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Certainly there are almost sociological passages that chart small but memorable elements of Ibo life, when his grandparents’ generation were conquered and brought under military authority and when his major characters react, via simplified but memorable acts (from the perspective of Greek tragedy) that lead to awful consequences. His African critics accused him of exactly that. But Achebe, in successfully revealing the peaks and valleys of Ibo culture just at and during the coming of the white man, managed to avoid the pitfalls of some of his contemporaries, who would present the African past as idealized, if not romantic, and the ugly colonial era as unmitigated evil. Instead, he explained in later talks and writings, he only aimed at simple (therefore memorable) objectives, to create a sense of real everyday life among his people (including his own time in later works) and to display their struggles by almost set piece conflicts and conundrums from their point of view, without aiming to please either his own or those in the outer world who read him. He never fell into the trap of anti-racist essentialism, wherein all things African were better. In that accomplishment I think Achebe lifted his characters and the times they lived in to true art, to revelations of insistent tragedy, but in backgrounds of ordinary mundane life.
None of his characters is heroic, but the chi, the personal deity of his people, through all his books, is able to transcend. In that at least, I believe, millions of readers, in places far beyond Nigeria, found his straightforward narrative compelling. It was not hard to teach his work in classes ranging from History to Anthropology. It was accessible, in that it spoke directly to everyday human experience
I won't try to rank him, among African or world writers, for many great ones have come along since his time, but he is high on my list.
Kenneth C. Wylie, a freelance writer, served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone,1961-63, has studied and travelled in Africa over five decades, including several trips in the '90s to Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and is the author of several books including An Enchanting Darkness, (with Dennis Hickey, MSU Press, 1993, still in print). He received his Ph.D. in African History in 1967 at Michigan State University and his B.A. from Albion College in 1960. He has taught at Wayne State University, Lehman College of CUNY, the Maritime College of SUNY, and Michigan State University. He has published pieces on wildlife and the environment ranging from the Common Crow to the vanishing legend of Bigfoot. He is also the author of a short collection of poems centered on the magnificent landscape around his rural home near Traverse City.