Copyright The Economist
CHINUA ACHEBEâ€šÃ„Ã´S â€šÃ„ÃºThings Fall Apartâ€šÃ„Ã¹, which celebrates its golden jubilee this year, is Africaâ€šÃ„Ã´s best known work of literature. The slim novel has been translated into 50 languages and has sold 10m copies. Never once has it been out of print.
Africa was on the cusp of change when the book first came out. A handful of African countries had already become independent by 1958, but few people would have predicted then what shape change would take elsewhere on the continent. Right from the bookâ€šÃ„Ã´s very first line, â€šÃ„ÃºOkonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyondâ€šÃ„Ã¹, the reader is also launched into uncharted territory. Who was this Okonkwo and why was he so well known? Who was it that knew him? With a heightened diction and extensive use of allegory and metaphor, Mr Achebe gave Okonkwo, a famed wrestler, a heroic mien. But he is mostly alone in trying to defend the traditional society in which he was born, and when his efforts fail, in bitterness Okonkwo hangs himself.
The allusion in the title to Yeatsâ€šÃ„Ã´s poem, â€šÃ„ÃºThe Second Comingâ€šÃ„Ã¹â€šÃ„Ã®â€šÃ„ÃºThings fall apart; the centre cannot holdâ€šÃ„Ã¹â€šÃ„Ã®signalled Mr Achebeâ€šÃ„Ã´s awareness that he was living at a crossroads in history, something he regards as being good for a writer and for which he has always been grateful.
The first person to read the manuscript was Gilbert Phelps of the BBC, whom Mr Achebe had met during a short visit to London. Excited by the novelty of a voice that was not a slavish copy of European literature, but something authentically African and new, Phelps sent it on to his own publisher, William Heinemann, with a note: â€šÃ„ÃºThis is a very exciting discoveryâ€šÃ„Â¶It is full of characters who really live, and, once begun, it is difficult to put down.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Now known as the grand-daddy of African fiction, Mr Achebe has had a more difficult life. In 1990 he was involved in a car accident in Nigeria, and has since been a paraplegic. He and his wife, Christie, live in upstate New York, where he is professor of languages and literature at Bard College.
The golden jubilee of â€šÃ„ÃºThings Fall Apartâ€šÃ„Ã¹ was presaged by the announcement in June 2007 that Mr Achebe had been awarded the second Man Booker international prize. In contrast to Man Bookerâ€šÃ„Ã´s older and better known annual counterpart which lauds a single new book, the international prize celebrates an â€šÃ„Ãºachievement in fictionâ€šÃ„Ã¹. Asked what the panel had been looking for among the 80-or-so living authors whose work was considered for the prize, Nadine Gordimer, the oldest of the three judges and the only Nobel-prize-winner, gave an immediate response: â€šÃ„Ãºilluminationâ€šÃ„Ã¹. For Mr Achebe, who has won his fair share of prizes over the years, the Man Booker was especially touching for being chosen by his peers.
Elegant in his wheelchair, dressed in his Nigerian chiefâ€šÃ„Ã´s robes and his red domed hat, Mr Achebe has been receiving accolades the world over. The celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the bookâ€šÃ„Ã´s publication began in Portugal. They continued in Texas and in Nigeria, where Mr Achebeâ€šÃ„Ã´s home village, Ogidi, dedicated the Mookoche festival, the Ibo peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s Thanksgiving at the end of the rainy season, to â€šÃ„ÃºThings Fall Apartâ€šÃ„Ã¹.
The festivities continued in London earlier this month where Mr Achebe was the guest of honour at a lunch at the House of Lords and then the subject of a two-day conference at London Universityâ€šÃ„Ã´s School of Oriental and African Studies. The highlight will be a ceremony early next month at the Library of Congress just before the authorâ€šÃ„Ã´s 78th birthday.
For Mr Achebe, the end of the celebrations will mark a welcome return to his peaceful life at Bard College. â€šÃ„ÃºI feel the pressure of the paraplegia really cuts into my day,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he says. He is anxious to get back to work. An autobiographical essay, â€šÃ„ÃºReflections of a British Protected Childâ€šÃ„Ã¹, about his childhood in the British Protectorate of Nigeria, is finished and now in the hands of his agent.
His next project will be to translate â€šÃ„ÃºThings Fall Apartâ€šÃ„Ã¹ into his native Ibo for the first time. The translation Mr Achebe is striving for is not the Union Ibo that was imposed on southern Nigeria in the early 1900s by British missionaries bent on religious conversion and the distribution of the Bible. â€šÃ„ÃºEven my own village has words or expressions that are not used in a village two miles away.â€šÃ„Ã¹ For a writer for whom language and literary imagination are quite inseparable, Mr Achebeâ€šÃ„Ã´s ambition is to find the inchoate languages, varying in detail from village to village, that were the heartbeat of the Ibo nation of his birth.
Copyright The Economist