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03.22.13

Chinua Achebe Dies: Beyond ‘Things Fall Apart,’ And His Best Books

The titan of African literature has died at the age of 82. We know him as the writer of Things Fall Apart, but here’s a primer on his other great novels and nonfiction—and his life.

The Classic

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer and statesman who changed African literature forever, has died at the age of 82. You know him as the writer of Things Fall Apart, his debut novel of 1958, about the decline and fall of the proud Okonkwo, leader of a collection of villages among the Ibo people of Nigeria who are besieged by changes wrought by British colonization. As Ruth Franklin wrote in The New Yorker, Achebe practically invented the Great African Novel. There were famous Nigerian writers before Achebe, like Amos Tutuola, who based his novels on folk tales, and Cyprian Ekwensi, who wrote memorable children’s stories. But, as Howard French wrote on the 50th anniversary of the publication, “among the greatest qualities of Things Fall Apart is the vigor of its revolt against the everyday amalgamations and condescension that treat Africa as an undifferentiated wasteland.” Things Fall Apart stood up and stood strong, as Achebe did throughout his career.

The Overlooked Novels

Things Fall Apart lives on in Achebe’s second novel, 1960’s No Longer at Ease, which follows the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi. Whereas Okonkwo’s downward spiral was Sophoclean, Obi’s path was supposed to be up, up, and up. He leaves his village, receives a British education, and takes a job as a civil servant in Lagos. But, in the end, he is “no longer at ease,” and things fall apart just as tragically.

Achebe was not only a chronicler—he’s even been considered an oracle. A Man of the People, his 1966 fourth novel, is about the conflicts of a young and educated school teacher, Odili, and his former teacher, Chief Nanga, now a corrupt minister of culture. The story ends with a coup, which anticipated a bloody one on January 15, 1966, the day the book was published. After a counter-coup and genocide, the Ibo people, of which Achebe is a member, seceded from Nigeria and formed the Republic of Biafra, leading to the civil conflict known as the Biafran War—which led to even more genocide. An estimated one million to three million people, mostly Ibo, were killed or starved when the Nigerian government blockaded the Biafran border.

The Essential Nonfictions

The Biafran War waged from 1967 to 1970, and is the subject of Achebe’s final book, the memoir There Was a Country. The accuracy of A Man of the People’s events was such that the Nigerian government that took over after the counter-coup thought that Achebe must have been a conspirator, and he was forced to flee to Britain. He fully supported the Biafran secession, and took a break from fiction, thinking that politics was more important. (He would not write another novel until his final one, 1987’s Anthills of the Savannah.) When the civil war ended in 1970 with the Nigerian government crushing the Biafra republic, Achebe increasingly took refuge in Britain and the United States. He moved to the U.S. for good when he was forced to undergo overseas medical treatment after a car accident in Nigeria that left him paralyzed from the waist down in 1990.

At the center of Achebe’s legacy is his clear analysis of Africa, which the world sees as a homogenous continent of malfunction and despair. Achebe attacks the use of Africa as an empty metaphor, which he voiced in a now-legendary Chancellor’s Lecture he gave at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, on Joseph Conrad’s racism. The classic essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” is included in Hopes and Impediments, a collection that commemorates one of the most brilliant minds of our time.