Last Friday, while the world mourned literary icon and academic, Professor Chinua Achebe and I remembered his fame, what came to my mind was the joke about a certain woman, in her tribute to a departed hero.
The story goes that this woman, while trying to underline the fact that although the man had died, his legacy lived on, told the deceased’s wife: Although your husband is dead, his manhood is alive.
While the gloaters may gloat and the mockers rejoice over this woman’s supposed wrong use of word, the truth is that the message was clear. Therefore, in borrowing from this woman, whether the story is right or wrong, I would as well say that while Achebe may have died, his manhood lives on. Before you begin to have ideas, let us look at the meaning of manhood.
According to Thesaurus, manhood is the “qualities and attributes conventionally thought to be appropriate to a man, especially physical strength, courage, and determination.” Yes, as these relate to Achebe, his manhood lives on. Achebe was strong-willed, courageous and determined in his endeavours. He was fearless and resolute. That is the man in him. To be sure, Achebe may have died physically, but his literary works and what he stood for will continue to stare us in the face. With his books, Achebe lives.
With the cascading prose in his books, he lives. With his enduring legacy in the literary firmament and the academia, this illustrious son of Nigeria lives. Therefore, in death Achebe stands as a colossus, and, perhaps, even taller than he was in real life. Even without winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Achebe has won bigger awards in the minds of many who have read his books. Things Fall Apart, his first novel, is what I will call a living literature. No matter how many times anybody may read it, each reading of this epic novel is as fresh as in the first time.
As a secondary school boy, many years ago, I did read many literature books. Even with my little knowledge then, especially in appreciating literary works, I must confess that no book has ever made an enduring impression in me more than Things Fall Apart. The arresting effect of the book makes me continue to read the book till the end. Indeed, there is always the longing, by any reader, to find out what happens in the next paragraph, page and chapter.
I would say that Things Fall Apart is the greatest of all Achebe’s books. Reading it taught me the act of writing. The descriptive power in the book, without exaggeration, is out of the world. Whenever I read the book, I usually visualise the setting of Umuofia, the community that Achebe presented. I usually visualise Okonkwo, the lead character in the book.
I usually visualise the conflict between the ancient, represented by Okonkwo’s Umuofia, before he went on exile, and the modern, represented by the culture of the white, which, according to Obierika, in the book, did cut a knife on the things that bound the village together and the people had fallen apart. I admire Achebe’s writing style. I admire his storytelling techniques. With Things Fall Apart, this departed writer taught the world a lesson in creativity. With this book, he held the world spellbound.
For a book to be translated into many languages is not a mean feat. It shows how accepted and recognised that piece of literary work is. Indeed, it’s not always that a writer’s book will be quoted by people and continues to be quoted. It’s not always that the fame of a writer’s work will go beyond the boundaries of his country and continent, even when he never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What I admire most in Achebe is that fact that his writing did spark off some controversies.
For me, a writer who would not provoke controversy is not worth his pen and ink. A writer should write with conviction, without minding whose ox is gored. In writing, based on conviction, a writer may not appeal to the emotion of some readers. This is okay. I believe that writing is about conviction, not emotion. I suspect that Achebe knew that his end was near. That he released his last book, There was a Country, last year and died this year may not have been an accident. With the book, Achebe’s last outing was noticed.
With the controversy the book provoked, Achebe has bowed out when the ovation was loudest. A writer of his calibre shouldn’t get anything less. It is obvious that if he did not present the book at the time he did, it may have died with him or come unheralded any other time. Like a big masquerade, whose exit from the scene must be noticed, Achebe stirred the hornet’s nest and bowed out triumphantly. As we await his burial, lovers of Achebe should not grieve that he did not win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
It’s still possible that he could win posthumously. If he does, he would join Dag Hammarskjold, Swedish diplomat and second secretary general of the United Nations in 1961, who received the Nobel Prize after his death. For Nigeria, the greatest honour to Achebe is to avoid those things he hated and wrote against.
It’s not just about eulogising the icon by those in government. It’s about doing what Achebe hoped for, which he presented in his writings. It’s about fighting injustice, corruption and catering to the needs of the downtrodden. It’s about being human and living up to expectation.