By Edwin Madunagu
Talking about the attribute they call realism reminds me of one of the battles Leon Trotsky had to fight to save his revolutionary career, reputation, legacy and ultimately his life after the Russian revolution.
That Trotsky was not “proletarian” enough, in both his political writings and his literary theory and criticism became one of the ancillary charges that were heaped on him by forces and individuals that are now correctly described as “barracks socialists”, those who see revolution, socialism and social transformation generally like the enforcement of decrees.
If what I have said so far does not refer to what is actually meant by realism then forget the term and retain what I have said.
I used to be embarrassed whenever a work of art was dismissed on the grounds, and only on the grounds, that it was not “proletarian” or not “proletarian” enough; and conversely. I do not intend to pursue this matter beyond this point – except to say this: Any Nigerian, or indeed, African, revolutionary who intends to use literature in his or her campaign and comes across Chinua Achebe’s fictions but cannot see them as powerful weapons needs a fundamental self-examination.
Let me illustrate: I have read the following story in at least one of Chinua Achebe’s collections of essays: A snake, riding a horse along an almost deserted road, passed a tortoise who was resting by the roadside.
The tortoise laughed so loudly that the snake stopped. The tortoise went up to the snake and saluted. The snake asked why the tortoise was laughing and the tortoise replied: “Mr. Snake, that is not how to ride a horse, rolling into where you should put one of your feet! The snake quietly crawled down the horse, on to the road. “Mr. Tortoise, please show me how to ride”, the snake requested his tormentor. The tortoise quickly jumped on the horse, balanced himself property – the “normal” way – and rode down the road.
The tortoise soon returned. “Thank you very much, Mr. Tortoise. You may now come down”, said the snake to the tortoise. The tortoise jumped down from the horse and the snake crawled up into the place he usually positioned himself on the horse.
As the snake was about to ride off he said to the tortoise: “Thank you again, Mr. Tortoise, thank you for teaching me how to ride a horse. But it is better to have than to know”. This, as I said earlier, is a story I use in my ideological discussion with young people here. I use the story in preference to hundred of “proletarian” stories within my easy reach.
In a communication shortly after the death of Chinua Achebe, a veteran socialist intellectual and activist regretted that Nigerian socialists have not been able to fully recognize and utilize the works of progressive humanist writers like Achebe.
He confirmed that Achebe was the post-war convener of the Nsukka branch of the Movement for People’s Democracy (MPD). He said of Achebe: “Achebe impressed me as an urbane craftsman with quiet charms and full of courtesies. As general secretary of MPD I found Achebe a good listener, full of commitment… displaying in praxis his perception of reality..”
I said earlier that when reading Chinua Achebe’s non-fictional works I sometimes frown – mildly or deeply, briefly or for quite some time, all depending on the seriousness of my displeasure or disagreement.
But, as I also added, I quickly recover and continue with my reading. The areas of displeasure, as I also said are two: ideology as it relates to political economy, classes and class struggles and the national question.
These two areas are fully supplied in two of his non-fictional books that I have read and re-read very closely: The problem with Nigeria (1983) and There was a country: A personal history of Biafra (2012).
What I have said about Achebe’s works in general can also be said about these two books in particular: I enjoy reading them. Beyond this subjective and unquantifiable statement and beyond my strong displeasure with areas I have identified, the two books are sources of knowledge for what I had not known or had not thought about; they offer a confirmation, just one, but important confirmation, for what I had known but needed confirmations and elaborations; and they provide counter-propositions: powerful, articulate, lucid and enlightened counter –propositions, right or wrong.
The claim can be made that The problems with Nigeria is popular in Nigeria; the central thesis there, or one of the central theses, namely, that the main problem with Nigeria is that of leadership, also enjoys wide acceptance among the political class in particular.
But I reject that thesis. The problem with Nigeria, the Nigeria I have known since I became politically conscious, is capitalism – capitalism in its various historical phases and forms and through various maladies it develops as it continues on its dehumanizing and destructive trajectory.
My thesis is this: Ultimately, for individual nations and for humanity as a whole, the singular question of survival will be: How do we put an end to this mode of production and, with it, this social formation, that puts the accumulation of profits into private pockets ahead, much ahead, of human life and the fate of humanity?
Chinua Achebe’s last book has so far been controversial and has therefore received mixed reactions. That is inevitable. The subject-matter and the content, the title of the book and the stature of the author all combine to make the book inevitably controversial.
I frown from time to time when reading There was a country not because it contains falsehoods (I have so far discovered none) but because of its omissions, the failure of the dialectic “when one thing stands another thing stands beside it”; using Biafra and Igbo almost interchangeably as if they are the same; inadequate treatment of Biafra’s ethnic minorities; and, above all, almost total absence of the class and mode of production perspectives.
These four “weaknesses” are, for me, inseparable. For this reason, any critique of the book that separates them or omits any of them will suffer more “weaknesses” than the original book.
Conversely, a revision of this book that honestly tries to correct these “weaknesses” would produce a wonder: the controversies would no longer have any bases; but the main theses and propositions would still stand.
Concluding testimony before the court of history: My love of history emanated, I believe, from my love of stories generally. Later, my revolutionary consciousness made it increasingly imperative for me to be a student of history.
The history of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) has been a particular subject of my studies since that war ended. In the course of these years, I have read many accounts, listened to many debates and disputations, visited many places connected with the more frightening reports of atrocities, ferocious battles, heroism, military feats and sheer human tragedies.
I have conducted many interviews and cross-checked many charges. The least I can say in relation to the frightening events reported by Chinua Achebe in his There was a country is that far from writing a fiction, Achebe was actually restrained in the way he reported on these events. My reservation is over what he omitted rather than what he included.
I wish to bring this personal tribute to a close by offering two references for further reflection. Both of them are from Professor Biodun Jeyifo. First, check Jeyifo’s 2008 keynote address at an international conference marking the 50th anniversary of the appearance of Things Fall Apart.
The conference was held at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife. That address is one of the two essays that make up his book Things Fall Apart, Things Fall Together (Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2010).
For the second reference, see Biodun Jeyifo’s five-part review of There was a country in The Guardian under the title First, there was a country; then there wasn’t: Reflections on Achebe’s new book (December 3 and 30; 2012; January 6, 13 and 20, 2013).
Chinua Achebe was a prominent, respected and famous Nigerian before the Civil War; he was a prominent, respected and famous Biafran during the Civil War; and he became, once again, a prominent, respected and famous Nigerian after the Civil War.
Only few people whose lives had traced this particular trajectory had managed to live through it with the degree of dignity and humility commanded by, or associated with, Achebe.
Chinua Achebe’s life has again demonstrated the limitlessness of the human spirit: the wish, will and ability to continue to live in the face of serious personal adversities; not to live and nurse one’s adversity, but to live to continue to work for humanity with the skill and weapon that one still has.
Thinking of this aspect of Achebe who died on Thursday, March 21, 2013 at the age of 82, conjures the image of Antonio Gramsci, a genius of Marxist thought, one in the long list of martyrs of the socialist struggle.