by Amatesiro Dore
“I met Chinua Achebe for the first time when I was in high school, but I knew him through his works long before that. “Uncle,” as my siblings and I were told to call him, came to our house in Washington, D.C., for a tea time reception my mother had organized. She had just co-written a biography of him for children, inspired in part by my lament that there were few books about the lives of famous Africans.” Uzodinma Iweala.
My mother wrote nothing on Achebe, she hasn’t read Things Fall Apart, but she paid for my copy. I was reading the Financial Times and I saw a 1968 picture of Biafran soldiers standing on a tugboat. I gazed and noticed it was a portrait of an armed soldier sitting on a concrete platform, he wore no uniform and his face was very easily identifiable. In the background, men in mufti, about thirty of them, posed on two tugboats on the river, only two guns were visible. I took away the memory of that picture from William Wallis’s review of Chinua Achebe’s memoir in the FT. I wondered if the armed and unnamed soldier died during that conflict or if he survived the war, and if his heirs were alive.
In Nigeria, it has become an intellectual fad to write a review of Achebe’s Biafran memoir; even by people who haven’t actually read the book. I promise not to write one. I have read too many. But I have gathered some interesting reviews of Achebe’s book and I have quoted them for your reading pleasure.
“There is an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes buried in there, but this is not a book that will add much to the understanding of the war, nor one that will go down among Achebe’s great works.” William Wallis.
“But many have waited and hoped for a memoir, for his personal take on a contested history. Now at last he has written it. Although it is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’, There Was A Country is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war. Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I read Noo Saro Wiwa’s review in The Guardian. Her father wrote On the Darkling Plain, a Niger Delta narrative of the Nigerian Civil War.
“No writer is better placed than Chinua Achebe to tell the story of the Nigerian Biafran war from a cultural and political perspective. Yet, apart from an interview with Transition magazine in 1968 and a book of Biafran poems, Nigeria’s most eminent novelist has kept a literary silence about the civil war in which he played a prominent role – until now.”
One question immediately arises but remains unanswered: Why did it take Achebe 42 years to write this book? In the six years immediately preceding the war, he produced three novels, but only one in the forty-two years following. During the war poetry only, and after it, for the most part, only essays.”
“The book could benefit from a closer proofreading and fact-checking process by an informed editor. Irritating errors crop up like “maul over” for “mull over” “deferral” for “federal”, “Iwe Ihorin” for “Iwe Irohin” and St Elizabeth’s Hospital for Queen Elizabeth Hospital, but these do not detract from Achebe’s attempt to present, from his perspective, an account of those dark days. As he says in the book, “My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches”. It is clear that this is his book, his view and his own particular nostalgic ramble. Ultimately, it is important that he has shared it, warts, unevenness and all. In doing so, Achebe has helped bring the contents of my parents’ brown satchel back into the open.”
“Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.”
In summary, I hope you agree, whatever your misgivings about the book, that there indeed, was a country.
You can buy copies of There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe from Farafina Books by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji Yaba or call us on 08077364217.
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