“There Was a Country” is a book title that is loaded with sadness because of its use of the past tense: There was a country, but it is a country no longer. The country in question is Biafra, the losing side in the Nigerian civil war of 1967–1970. Chinua Achebe was its leading poet and cultural ambassador, and, now, its defining historian.
Achebe’s history is rooted in the personal, a choice that begins to seem a moral rather than an aesthetic one as “There Was a Country” proceeds. History, he seems to be saying, is something that happens to human beings, to individuals, to families, to cultures. The fates of empires and great leaders are not insignificant, but the significance of empires and great leaders is rooted not in their power, glory or reach, but rather in the disruptions and occasional blessings they visit upon individuals, families and cultures.
So Achebe, fittingly, doesn’t begin with war. He begins with memoir and family history, in the spirit of the Igbo proverb that says that “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”
That family history, and the circumstances of Achebe’s birth, education and career as a writer and intellectual, are inextricably intertwined with colonialism, which Achebe describes in a metaphor that extends and specifies the Igbo proverb:
“The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the ‘discovery’ of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.”
It was the British who came to control the region of West Africa in which Achebe was born, an area populated by over 250 ethnic groups and as many distinct languages. They were handed it, Achebe says, “like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party.”
And yet Achebe seems to love the British. He has written elsewhere of his education in the excellent British schools that rose up in Nigeria just in time for him to benefit from the riches they had to offer. He is able to do that most complicated thing: to mourn what the British took from Africa, to be the colonizer’s fiercest critic, and yet at the same time to celebrate the good things that were produced by the forced collision of European and African cultures.
A similar sentiment guides Achebe’s discussion of the displacement of traditional African religion with Christianity. He finds and embraces riches in both directions, and helpfully puts the two traditions into conversation, a use of the conflict that provokes the skeptical reader to do likewise.
It is not until 40 or so pages into the book that public events begin to impinge more darkly upon Achebe’s life. The march toward the independence of Nigeria is marked at first with an optimism that corresponds with the triumph of independence in nearby Ghana. “If Ghana seemed more effective, as some of our people like to say,” Achebe writes, “perhaps it was because she was smaller in size and neat, as if it was tied together more delicately by well-groomed, expert hands.”
It would not be so easy for Nigeria. When the British left, they left in a manner that might not have been calculated to bring great trouble, but which could not have done otherwise. Achebe is careful, when writing about the transition, to praise the efficiency of British governance, a way of speaking he characterizes as “a heresy,” and quickly qualifies, saying: “I am not justifying colonialism.”
There are two overlapping stories, Achebe says, of the handover of power from the British to the Nigerians. The first, “perhaps too wonderful to be true,” involves the accession of British-educated Nigerians, such as Achebe, to positions of governing, administrative and economic power previously held by the British. The second, less wonderful, involves the attempted rigging of the first Nigerian elections by British Gov. Gen. Sir James Robertson, the empowerment of public servants who embezzled from the nation’s wealth, and, most disastrously, the pitting of ethnic groups one against the other, against the ideal of “one Nigeria” that had been promisingly raised by intellectuals from the country’s Eastern Region.
At the same time Achebe eases the narrative in the direction of the more explosive politics that lead with awful inevitability to the civil war, he turns the examination inward, asking hard questions of himself and those most like him. What, he asks, is the role of the writer in Africa? What is an African novel, and what is its cultural function, at home and in the broader world? What political obligations attend to the writer? Does the writer have any obligation to the preservation of culture? How much of the act of writing is a personal act, and how much of it is public? What does it mean for the written word to triumph?
Poetry begins to overtake prose at some of these junctures, as though the ability of prose to reckon with questions so important has begun to break down. Only poetry, Achebe seems to implicitly say, can push language in the direction of those things we have so much trouble articulating that they lead to war. So before we get the news of the coup of Jan. 15, 1966, we get the poem “1966,” which is full of “rare artesian hatred / that once squirted warm / blood in God’s face / confirming His first / disappointment in Eden.”
In keeping with John Updike’s advice that reviewers ought not give the game away, I’ll leave to the listener Achebe’s discussion of everything that follows: the dark days, the countercoup and assassination, the pogroms, the war itself, the U.K.-France-United States triangle, the life and work of Christopher Okigbo, the massacres at Asaba and Calabar, the brief life of the Republic of Biafra, the Abagana ambush, the Ifeajuna Manuscript, the refugees, the narrow escapes, the economic blockade and starvation, what Achebe calls “The Silence of the United Nations,” the question of genocide, the state failure that follows, and the solution that Achebe offers in a spirit of prophecy that seems hopefully at odds with the story that has preceded it.
There is one crucial piece of information, though, that must be offered with great immediacy. “There Was a Country,” a book that is beautiful, moving and true when read on ink and paper, is even more beautiful and moving in the audiobook edition, because of the narration work by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who speaks in a richly cultivated African-inflected English that the listener comes to believe is Achebe’s own, owing to its compassionate authority. Of all of the audiobook narrators I’ve spent 10 to 30 hours alongside since I have been writing this column, Akinnuoye-Agbaje is the most companionable. Like Achebe, he is a fit singer of the song of Biafra: “a fine / Figure massively hewn in hardwood.”
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