By Edwin Madunagu
Like millions of people across Nigeria, Africa and the world, I first encountered Chinua Achebe through his books. And my “relationship” with him remained largely so until he died a few weeks ago. My physical encounters with him were only two: first in December 1982 in a restaurant at Bagauda Lake Hotel, Kano; and second, at his University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus residence in January 1990. Each encounter was very brief.
The 1982 Kano encounter: My wife and I had been separately invited to a conference “Towards a progressive Nigeria” organized and hosted by the Kano State Government led by Governor Abubakar Rimi of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). We had driven from Calabar, breaking for the night in Jos, and continuing the journey the following afternoon.
By the time we arrived at the venue of the conference it was already past 9.00pm; but we were directed, nonetheless, to the restaurant. On entering I immediately observed a table surrounded by faces I had seen before, but mainly in newspapers and books. We selected our own table and then moved to the faces that first attracted us. We found, or rather confirmed, that one of the faces belonged to Chinua Achebe who was then the Deputy National President of PRP.
My wife and I paid our respects to Achebe and other writers sitting with him and then returned to our table to “arrange” ourselves. I cannot now say if what struck me about Achebe was his humility: natural, unassumed humility; or the fact that he was an author I enjoyed reading and re-reading; or the fact of his being a national leader of the PRP; or indeed that fact of his being an important member of the post-civil war Movement for Peoples Democracy (MPD) through which I was introduced in the mid-1970s to radical and socialist political activism at the national level; or for the four reasons.
The 1990 Nsukka encounter: An international conference, Achebe: eagle on Iroko, was held at Nsukka in January 1990 to celebrate Chinua Achebe’s 60th birthday anniversary. I went there from The Guardian, Lagos. During the conference I was guest to Dr. Arthur Nwankwo whose book, Before I die, I had reviewed a year earlier in Lagos. In the morning of the opening ceremony Nwankwo and I had driven straight from Enugu to Chinua Achebe’s University of Nigeria, Nsukka, campus residence.
We found that the writer was hurrying for the opening ceremony; so he had only a few minutes with us. Within that short period, however, I was again struck by the genuine simplicity around him: his home, his dress, etc. He looked to me more like an educated village head than a popular, world – renowned writer.
As I said earlier, I first met Chinua Achebe through his books. When, a couple of months before he died, a controversy broke out over his new book, “There was a country: a personal history of Biafra”, I tried to gather all his available works in one section of our library in Calabar.
My efforts yielded 12 books: the oldest, by date of acquisition, is “Arrow of God”, first published in 1964; the newest is There was a country published last year, 2012. The identity I had marked on this personal copy of Arrow of God was Mellanby Hall, University of Ibadan, October 3, 1966.
This means that I must have acquired “Arrow of God” two years after its publication and the same week I got to the University to read for a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, starting with a one-year pre-degree programme.
I must have purchased and read “Arrow of God” for pleasure since the book could not have been prescribed for a science programme in a university. I was then 20 years old.
The other 10 books are: The Drum (children’s book); No longer at ease; Things fall Apart; A man of the people; Girl’s at war (collection of short stories); Anthills of the savannah; The Trouble with Nigeria; Morning yet on creation day (a collection of essays); Hopes and Impediments (a collection of essays); The education of a British protected child (a collection of essays). I have read all these books and numerous other published works of the author over a period of at least 47 years.
I cannot now say which Achebe book I first read since I find it difficult to assume that it was Arrow of God in 1966. My assumption is that I read Things fall apart and No loner at ease before Arrow of God and that must have been in my days as secondary school student or shortly after.
I enjoy reading, and re-reading Chinua Achebe. It is difficult, for instance, to remember the number of times I have read Madman, the opening story in his Girls at war and Other Stories. I have, for my own consumption, divided Achebe’s works in my possession simply into two categories: fiction and non-fiction. A lot of things goes into non-fiction: politics, philosophy, literary theory and criticism, history, sociology, etc.
Achebe’s fictions give me a lot of pleasure: I love the lucidity of the author’s language; I love the proverbs and anecdotes many of which I have appropriated and embellished; and I love what I have called their “truthfulness” by which I mean that you can almost “see” the events embodied in Achebe’s stories happening in real life, around you. When we established the Conscientising Nigerian male Adolescents (CMA) programme in the mid-1990s I had listed Chinua Achebe as one of my references for prose-writing and the Use of English Language.
Reading Chinua Achebe’s non-fictions embodied in his books and essays (which include lectures, addresses, seminar papers and formal academic papers) also give me a lot of pleasure in addition to their being a rich source of knowledge for me – by which I mean knowing what I have not known before; clarifying what had not been clear to me; or providing a different, but strong, view-point on a matter I had previously taken a position.
But in reading his non-fictions I sometimes frown. This happens whenever I come across a view-point with which I strongly disagree politically or ideologically. But I soon overcome my discomfort and read on. Why? Simple. First, because I enjoy reading him in spite of my occasional frowns. I have learnt to avoid lying to myself.
Secondly, I have also learnt to differentiate between my ideological and political disagreements with liberal democrats and humanists, especially when they are also intellectuals and thinkers, and my disagreements with reactionaries and conservatives, however brilliant they may be, or appear to be. At the level of praxis I have also learnt to act out this differentiation.
This is why it is possible for me to retain as personal friends men and women with whom I strongly disagree politically and ideologically. These friendships have proved more useful to me than the friendships of fake comrades. Beyond all these, I have seen the practical role this differentiation plays in building popular – democratic mass movements. Revolutions are impossible without these movements.
I have been saying that I enjoy reading Chinua Achebe’s stories. I may as well give a complete picture and say that I love stories generally. Although I differentiate between the Achebe-type of stories, which I classify as serious and “popular thrillers” written by novelists like Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsyth, I still read all. But given a choice between two novels, one by Chinua Achebe and the other by any other novelist, I shall choose Achebe without hesitation.
Why? Because, as I said earlier, I can relate to Achebe’s stories: I “see” the fictional events happening around me; and as I said earlier, I love his elegance and lucidity of language; his proverbs and the embodied wisdom. In how many places have I encountered a story like Madman? In how many places have I encountered proverbs like “When rain falls it falls on the tallest man first” or “When one thing stands another thing stands beside it”?
There is, however, one particular related attribute of Chinua Achebe’s stories with which I battled silently for a long time, an attribute that became decisive in my choice of Achebe as my most favourite storyteller. I battled silently because the matter embodies a fundamental criticism of the Marxist political ideology, or rather, some of its particular tendencies.
Not too long ago, I learnt that the “elusive” attribute is actually what is called realism, the ability, of a storyteller to come as close as possible, as approximately as possible, to reality, to things as they are in reality, to events in the actual world. And you know that reality is always complex and many-sided, not simple or linear.
Let me put this point subjectively: Although I read all stories that come my way, being restrained in this only by the time factor, I am sometimes irritated by fictions that tell me loudly that they are fictions or fictions that crudely reflect the author’s partisanship. Reading Achebe’s fictions I often forget that I am reading fictions.
• To be continued.