Half a century ago, the world began buying in astonishing numbers a novel that was dramatic, ironic, evocative -- and at the same time highly political.
The writer, Chinua Achebe, was an African radio producer with nationalist dreams. Things Fall Apart, the title borrowed from a line in W.B. Yeats' most famous poem The Second Coming, concerned the death of a powerful Ibo warrior in southeastern Nigeria late in the 19th century. Political novels usually speak to a small cluster of the already converted, but Things Fall Apart reached exactly the audience the author wanted. Achebe's first novel became the keystone of African literature, attracted scores of imitators and laid the foundation for his career.
I remember reading it as a young book reviewer in faraway Toronto and sharing the optimism of young Africans for a free, productive future. In 1960, Nigeria would achieve independence. Achebe was a robust new voice in a continent discovering a new life.
For Achebe, it worked out beautifully. Today, at age 79, he's the much-published and much-praised professor of languages and literature at Bard College in Annandaleon-Hudson, N. Y. In 2007, he won the Man Booker prize for lifetime achievement.
But his success contrasts with the colossal failure of Africa. The downtrodden colonial Nigeria depicted in his first book has evolved into the downtrodden post-colonial Nigeria of today, afflicted by corruption, militarism, hunger, tribal warfare and AIDS. One of Achebe's characters says, "Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever." That sounds like Africa.
Achebe hasn't been on altogether good terms with Nigeria in the last four decades. In 1967, when his region broke away from Nigeria and named itself Biafra, Achebe became a spokesman for the new nation, seeking aid from Europe and the Americas. When Nigeria defeated Biafra in 1970, he briefly played a role in the new federalist order but resigned in frustration.
The other day, BBC Radio ran a documentary about Achebe on his recent trip home, his first in the 21st century. A well-intended portrait of a literary hero celebrated by his own people, it left an unhappy impression of Nigeria 59 long years after independence. As we heard Achebe's warm praise for the storytellers of Ibo who had nourished his talent, the chaos and degradation of Nigerian life kept intruding.
A five-car convoy took him from Lagos to a festival in his old home territory, so the question of Nigerian roads came up. They are by all accounts death traps, their roadsides littered with the burnt-out corpses of automobiles. (Achebe himself has used a wheelchair since a Nigerian highway accident in 1990.)
On this occasion, the convoy lost its way, cars went in different directions, and a five-hour trip took almost 10. At dusk, people started saying they didn't want to be on the road at night. Bribes were mentioned: Routinely, police expect private payment for letting people pass along ordinary roads.
Achebe talked about the rich resources of Nigeria (oil and much more) and wondered why they produce little of value for citizens. One reason, he explained, is that obscurity surrounds all national finance: "Nigeria is a country where the money simply disappears."
When he set out to be a writer, Achebe began a campaign against the treatment of Africans in European literature. He decided that writers such as John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard had pictured Africans as savages, and even Joseph Conrad, despite the sympathy he expressed in Heart of Darkness, failed to grasp how Africans saw their lives.
At one stroke, Achebe reconstructed the literary image of Africa. Fifty years ago, the London firm of Heinemann printed 2,000 copies of Things Fall Apart, hoping that with miraculous luck they might eventually sell 10,000. Instead it has remained in print for half a century and sold something like 12 million copies in 47 languages. It's appeared on just about every African Studies course, in Africa or anywhere else.
It describes a proud man who commits suicide rather than tolerate colonial authority. At the end, it shifts into chilling irony. The District Commissioner, learning of the man's suicide, sees it as material for the book he'll write back home in England. "One could almost write a whole chapter on him." After much thought, he has already chosen the book's title, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
That perfectly summarized the European attitude just as colonialism began to die. Today, Africa awaits a young version of Achebe who can condemn all those forces that so callously betrayed the promise of his continent.