In 1958, while he was still in his 20s, Chinua Achebe published “Things Fall Apart,” the story of a traditional leader named Okonkwo whose inflexible nature undermines his humanity and his ability to resist the encroachments of British missionaries. “Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 8 million copies. It is the one African novel that everyone has heard of.
Fifty years after “Things Fall Apart” and more than 20 years after “Anthills of the Savannah,” his last novel, it might seem time for Achebe to write his memoirs. But while his fellow Nigerian, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, has published five full-length memoirs, Achebe has never chosen to write his own story. He denies in his new book that he is a modest man, but he is surely a private one.
The Education of a British-Protected Child is neither a memoir nor exactly what it is advertised to be: a collection of autobiographical essays. Of the 16 essays and speeches included here, the most directly autobiographical – “My Dad and Me” and “My Daughters” – are among the briefest. The memories in the title essay are separated by ruminations on British colonialism and the character of the Igbo people. As for the 1990 car accident that cost him the use of his legs, Achebe disposes of it with a couple of sentences in his preface.
But if “The Education of a British-Protected Child” doesn’t tell us much that is new about Achebe’s life, it does tell us a lot about his views on other matters. In it, among other things, he returns to the topics of two of his most controversial older essays: “An Image of Africa,” on the racism of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and “The African Writer and the English Language,” on the use of English by African writers.
“Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature” renews Achebe’s argument with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the best-known proponent of the idea that African literature should be written in the indigenous languages of Africa. Ngugi, he says, believes that the choice of a language must be either/or, while Achebe believes one can embrace both. One of his own best poems, he says, was an elegy for the poet Christopher Okigbo, who died during the Biafran war. It was written in the Igbo language.
“Africa’s Tarnished Name” takes Conrad as the touchstone for the myth of the “dark continent.” Achebe begins by noting the paradox that Africa, though geographically so close to Europe, has come to symbolize the “farthest point of otherness,” an otherness that takes the form of regarding Africa not only as alien but as deeply inferior. That view, Achebe argues (along with scholars including Basil Davidson and C.L.R. James) was “a deliberate invention devised to facilitate two gigantic historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by Europe.”
Conrad’s role in this process, and his literary sin, was to take racist propaganda and give it the stamp of literary respectability. “Conrad managed to transform elements of transparently crude and fanciful writing about Africans into a piece of ‘serious’ and permanent literature.” And so we have the “black incomprehensible frenzy” of Conrad’s gibbering natives along the Congo, and, even worse, the half-educated African who works as a fireman on the narrator’s ship. To look at him, says Conrad, “was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.”
“This is poisonous writing,” Achebe remarks, “in full consonance with the tenets of the slave trade-inspired tradition of European portrayal of Africa.”
Achebe does not temper his language when attacking racism, colonialism, and their defenders. But that is not to say that he fails to see different points of view. The Igbo people, he says, prefer to view events not from the extremes but from the middle ground. The middle ground is a guard against fanaticism. It is “the home of doubt and indecision, of suspension of disbelief, of make-believe, of playfulness, of the unpredictable, of irony.”
And so Achebe condemns British colonial rule while recalling some of his English teachers with fondness. He honors Ngugi as a writer while finding him wrongheaded in his literary politics. And in his final essay, “Africa Is People,” he calls on the World Bank to help restore the stolen wealth of the world’s poor countries with the simple argument that Africans are people, too, and that the harsh application of economic shock treatments that no Western country would accept should be equally unacceptable in Africa.
Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”