Last year, at a gathering in a London bookshop, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe read poetry and mused over his long career. The evening was a sell-out, the mood adoring. At the end, a Scandinavian blonde raised a hand to ask whether, if he could do it all again, there was anything about Things Fall Apart he would change.
There was patronising laughter from the audience, tinged with disapproval. Didn’t the silly girl know the novel was perfect in every way? Achebe did not engage with the question. ‘No, I wouldn’t change a word.’
I was reminded of the exchange reading this slim book, Achebe’s first for more than 20 years. There comes a point when an artist is so admired for what he represents, rather than what he does, critical scrutiny becomes virtually impossible. Achebe, who will surely inherit the mantle of Venerated African Seer when Nelson Mandela dies, is today more living icon than contemporary writer, and that canonisation leaves us all a little poorer, because it encourages an enormous talent to rest on its laurels.
‘When Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, it marked a kind of literary full stop. An entire school of writing that looked at Africa’s inhabitants from a puzzled, purse-lipped distance became an immediate anachronism. Achebe presented the world view of an Igbo patriarch overwhelmed by Christianity’s arrival with such empathy that cultural barriers melted away.
A string of landmark novels followed: No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah. And then, in 1990, came the car crash which effectively exiled Achebe from the source of his inspiration, because Nigeria is no place, so we are told, for a wheelchair-bound elderly man.
That exile has come at a creative cost, so Achebe’s many admirers will prick up their ears at news of this collection. Their hunger will only be partially assuaged.
The Education of a British-Protected Child is subtitled ‘Essays’, but the label is misleading. Most of the entries are not essays but speeches, delivered on a variety of anniversaries between 1988 and 2008. Speeches rarely break new intellectual ground. Host organisations need to be thanked, a certain obsequiousness to the VIP in whose memory the event is being staged creeps in, a 30-minute slot rules out more than a brief skim across a few pet themes.
And here they are, those pet themes: the iniquities of slavery and the intellectual poverty of colonialism, the unrecognised racism of Joseph Conrad, the strained relations between African-Americans and their continent of origin, the wisdom of Achebe’s Igbo forebears.
This being Achebe — a writer whose sheer lucidity has always placed him in a league of his own — there is much to savour. He quietly pricks the pomposity of Africa’s former despoilers, suggesting that the coloniser might not have lost his land and freedom, but ‘paid a number of seemingly small prices, like the loss of a sense of the ridiculous, a sense of proportion, a sense of humour’. I also relished his quiet demolition of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s argument that African writers must spurn the languages of former colonial masters to find their voice. ‘The only reason these alien languages are still knocking about is that they serve an actual need,’ he argues. ‘The culprit in Africa’s languages difficulties was not imperialism, but the linguistic pluralism of modern African states.’ The voice is authoritative, gently chiding, always humane.
But having read one beautifully expressed indictment of Heart of Darkness, one is surprised to come across the same argument a few pages later, in only slightly different language. And then again. As the book proceeds, there’s a growing sense of a writer fighting old wars. The fact that the author in question played a key role in consigning those battles to history does not lessen one’s awareness of a certain repetition.
I put the book down frustrated, wishing some young pup of an editor, showing the same iconoclasm as the blonde in Foyles that evening, had dared demand more. Literary lions of Achebe’s stature tend to respond favourably to the prod of irreverence, keen to prove the creative juice still runs in their veins. Instead of serving up a compilation of something he’d prepared earlier, Achebe should have been cajoled — bullied if necessary — to dig deeper into the themes that have preoccupied him for more than half a century. Maybe he could even have been nagged into writing something about today’s Nigeria, that turbulent, fast-moving nation on which the hopes of a vast swathe of Africa will always rest.