Chinua Achebe, African Literary Titan, Dies at 82
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who was black Africa’s most widely read novelist and one of the continent’s towering men of letters, has died after a brief illness, his publisher and agent said in London on Friday. He was 82.
Few details were immediately available.
Besides novels, Mr. Achebe’s works included powerful essays and poignant short stories and poems rooted in the countryside and cities of his native Nigeria, before and after independence from British colonial rule. His most memorable fictional characters were buffeted and bewildered by the conflicting pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values.
For inspiration, Mr. Achebe drew on his own family history as part of the Igbo nation of southeastern Nigeria, a people victimized by the racism of British colonial administrators and then by the brutality of military dictators from other Nigerian ethnic groups.
Mr. Achebe burst onto the world literary scene with the publication in 1958 of his first novel, “Things Fall Apart,” which sold millions of copies and was translated into 45 different languages.
Set in the Igbo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo’s life is thrown into turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.
The novel, which is also compelling for its descriptions of traditional Ibo society and rituals, went on to become a classic of world literature and was often listed as required reading in university courses in Europe and the United States.
But when it was first published, “Things Fall Apart” did not receive unanimous acclaim. Some British critics thought it idealized pre-colonial African culture at the expense of the former empire.
“An offended and highly critical English reviewer in a London Sunday paper titled her piece cleverly, I must admit Hurray to Mere Anarchy!” wrote Mr. Achebe in “Home and Exile,” a collection of autobiographical essays that appeared in 2000. A few other novels by Mr. Achebe early in his career were occasionally criticized by reviewers as being stronger on ideology than on narrative interest.
But over the years, Mr. Achebe’s stature grew until he was considered a literary and political beacon.
“In all Achebe’s writing there is an intense moral energy,” [/b]observed Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Princeton, in a commentary written in 2000. “He speaks about the task of the writer in language that captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.”
In a 1998 New York Times book review, the novelist Nadine Gordimer hailed Mr. Achebe as [b]“a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”
Mr. Achebe’s political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and of citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence.
Forced abroad by Nigeria’s bloody civil war in the 1960s and then by military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Achebe had lived for many years in the United States, where he was a university professor. But he continued to believe that writers and storytellers ultimately held more power than army strongmen.
“Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior,” an old soothsayer observes in Mr. Achebe’s 1988 novel, “Anthills of the Savannah.” “It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”
Achebe won the Commonwealth poetry prize for his collection Christmas in Biafra, was a finalist for the 1987 Booker prize for his novel Anthills of the Savannah, and in 2007 won the Man Booker international prize. Chair of the judges on that occasion, Elaine Showalter, said he had "inaugurated the modern African novel", while her fellow judge, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, said his fiction was "an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the postmodern breaking of sequence", and that Achebe was "a joy and an illumination to read".