Chinua Achebe, 82, Africa's voice of conscience

Chinua Achebe, 82, wrote "Things Fall Apart."
Chinua Achebe, 82, wrote "Things Fall Apart."
Posted: March 24, 2013

Chinua Achebe, 82, the internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman, and dissident, died Thursday in Boston after a brief illness.

He lived through times of traumatic change in Nigeria and Africa. Among his many honored works, his novel Things Fall Apart has become the most widely read novel by an African.

Mr. Achebe knew both the prestige of serving on government commissions and the fear of being declared an enemy of the state. He spent much of his adult life in the United States, but never stopped calling for democracy in Nigeria or resisting literary honors from a government he refused to accept.

In traffic in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, hawkers sell pirated copies of his recent memoir about the 1967-70 Biafra war, There Was a Country.

"What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war - ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption, and debauchery," wrote Mr. Achebe, whose death was confirmed by Brown University, where he taught.

His eminence worldwide was rivaled only by that of Gabriel García Marquez, Toni Morrison, and a handful of other writers. Mr. Achebe was a moral and literary model for countless Africans and a profound influence on such American-based writers as Ha Jin, Junot Díaz, and Morrison, who once called Mr. Achebe's work an "education" for her and "liberating in a way nothing had been before."

For Mr. Achebe, "the African context held the very question of human existence," said Lewis Gordon, professor of philosophy, religion, Jewish studies, and African American studies at Temple University. His works may have begun with Africa, but they broadened out to all humanity, says Gordon, "which is why Things Fall Apart is read all around the world."

Gabeba Baderoon, assistant professor of women's studies and African and African American studies at Pennsylvania State University, said by e-mail: "I'm so sad to hear about the passing of a writer we in African literature think of as a necessary and foundational figure. Professor Achebe inspired all of us to be fearless and original from the beginning."

A native of Ogidi, Nigeria, Mr. Achebe regarded his life as a bartering between conflicting cultures. He spoke of the "two types of music" running through his mind, Ibo legends and the prose of Dickens. He was also exposed to different faiths: His father worked in a local mission and was among the first in their village to convert to Christianity.

His public life began in his mid-20s, when Nigeria was still under British rule. He was a resident of London when he completed his handwritten manuscript for Things Fall Apart, a short novel about a Nigerian tribesman's downfall at the hands of British colonialists.

Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000. Its initial review in the New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture.

Things Fall Apart has sold more than eight million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

He also wrote short stories, poems, children's stories, and a political satire, The Anthills of Savannah, a 1987 release that was the last full-length fiction to come out in his lifetime.

Paralyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident, he lived for years in a cottage built for him on the campus of Bard College, north of New York City, where he was a faculty member. He joined Brown in 2009 as a professor of languages and literature. He used a wheelchair in his later years and said his physical problems and displacement from home stifled his imaginative powers.

Gordon pointed out that the directness and universality of Mr. Achebe's fiction also made him an important essayist: "Like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he saw the novel as an act of courage. And he saw the essay as allowing him to speak directly to people."

Mr. Achebe never won the Nobel Prize, which many thought he deserved. In 2007 he was awarded the MAN-Booker International Prize, a $120,000 honor for lifetime achievement.

"The world will miss his courageous and mountainous talent," Baderoon said. "A world without him feels unanchored."

Inquirer staff writer John Timpane contributed to this article.

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