Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was A Country: A Personal Narrative of Biafra, has in the last two weeks been subjected to a barrage of “reviews” by Nigerian commentators. The book has invited both harsh denunciations and effusive praise. Achebe’s place as one of the world’s most important writers is secure. Given his stature as a novelist and intellectual, it is hardly surprising that a new book by him would ring up a carnival-scale reception.
But the brouhaha over There Was A Country has pretty little to do with the book. Most of those who have either denounced the book or championed it have yet to read it. The feud over the book has to do, it appears, with the different camps’ perceptions of what the book is about. It’s a curious, quintessentially Nigerian kind of drama, this rush to pronounce on a book without first taking the time to read and absorb it (my own formal review will appear next week). Nothing more painfully illustrates the appalling state of public discourse in Nigeria than the spectacle of so many would-be critics both shrieking about There Was A Country and announcing they had not read it. In fact, one or two of the book’s most furious foes declared their intention never to read it. That’s a confession to intellectual dishonesty or a disdain for discourse.
How did so many people find themselves in a tizzy on account of an unread book?
The late Obafemi Awolowo has been the lightning rod for the “debate.” On the Internet and newspaper pages, many (mostly Yoruba) politicians, intellectuals, pundits and bloggers have sought to chastise Achebe for daring to write critically about Awo’s role in the Biafran War. At the heart of the furor is Achebe’s charge that the late politician was an architect of the war-time doctrine that starvation was a legitimate instrument of war. Besides, the author hardly pulls punches when he accuses Awo of masterminding a policy that impoverished the erstwhile Biafrans. That policy was to pay a mere twenty pounds in Nigerian currency to each Biafran adult regardless of their pre-war assets.
Many of Achebe’s bashers know about his unflattering portrait of Awo not from reading the book but because the (British) Guardian carried excerpts as an op-ed piece. Instantly, the would-be critics began to act as if the book was an all-out assault on Awo and the larger Yoruba ethnicity.
That misperception begot one of the most inelegant moments in publishing history – a sustained, near-hysterical attempt to enter into an argument against an unread text. One doubts that many other books anywhere in the world have ever been subjected to the same treatment: a willful reduction of a complex, ambitious text to its outlook on one personage. In recent literary history, one can think of only one parallel – the zealous fury that hounded Salman Rushdie after the publication of Satanic Verses.
What began as the cause of defending Awo quickly became an exercise in gratuitous vilification of Achebe and, in several cases, denigration of his ethnicity. In a fit of mischief, one attacker asked the federal government to pull Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from Nigerian classrooms. The prescriber saw in the classic novel’s title evidence that Achebe had been engineering the falling apart of Nigeria – as if that ill-conceived edifice needed any help. A few critics hoisted up an old canard: that Achebe had it in for Awo because Wole Soyinka had won the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature. Of course, the purveyors of such silliness are simply clueless. They know nothing about the warm friendship that the two literary giants have maintained for several decades.
We’ve seen a predictable outcome, for there’s no formula for engaging sensibly with a book one hasn’t read, much less digested.
One is not saying that all of Achebe’s critics would have fallen in love with his book had they waited to read it. It’s altogether possible that some of them would have found the book even more objectionable. But that’s beside the point. Even when one disagrees with a book – in fact, especially then – one is served by grasping the book’s essential points. It ought to be a fairly self-evident principle.
And because too many of the anti-Achebe warriors failed to read him first, it was no wonder that their utterance tended to be shrill, coarse and without context. Convinced that the author had degraded their icon, some Awo partisans proceeded to lob infantile insults at their presumed nemesis.
It was the perfect recipe for a Nigerian-made war. Many Igbo warriors rose to Achebe’s defense. Like Achebe’s traducers, many defenders of the author wrote without the benefit of reading There Was A Country. For all their fervor, they too could not claim to speak from a familiarity with Achebe’s book. So it came to pass that we had a sordid mini-ethnic war in progress. Innuendoes flew in every direction; stereotypes were dusted up and hurled at ethnic targets. We became a people content to throw punches in the dark, seeking to pulverize whole ethnic groups. A sad day!
What does it all mean? For one, the preemptive salvoes against a book that’s only now reaching many Nigerian hands strikes me, on some level, as a war on memory and history. As a writer and participant in the events of the Biafran War, Achebe’s witness is of inestimable value. At the end of the day, his fans as well as many of his foes are bound to realize that they owe him a huge debt for offering us the benefit of his experience of Nigeria’s tortured political evolution that culminated in war.
Achebe should feel mighty fulfilled that he’s forced Nigeria to begin some conversation about Biafra, a subject that the country has done its damndest to avoid. True, what’s transpired so far can hardly be called a conversation; a screaming match does not a conversation make. Even so, one has the hunch that, sooner than later, the violent pitch of the verbal exchanges will yield to a more sober response.
If anybody was in doubt about the imperative of talking about the war, the vociferousness with which Achebe’s book has been received in some quarters ought to dispel it. Yet, some of Achebe’s noisiest detractors have accused him of opening old wounds. That line of reasoning suggests a profound delusion. Biafra remains – will remain – an open, raw sore until Nigeria makes a conscious choice to reflect on that bloody chapter of its history. One has argued elsewhere that the tragedy of Nigeria is to proceed as if the Biafran War never happened.
Think about it: the violent convulsion in the Niger Delta, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the decimation of Odi and Zaki Biam, and the massacres in Maiduguri – to take a small sample – would most likely not have happened had Nigeria not carried on as if there had been no Biafra. The tragic reign of injustice in Nigeria is linked, at bottom, with Nigeria’s project to erase the memory of Biafra.
Achebe’s timely book has come as a rebuke to us all, an invitation to examine where the rain began to beat us – however painful the process of this searching of the soul. Once the decibel comes down, the deliberation will begin. That, or doom wins.
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