Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: Home and Exile by Chinua Achebe

First published:- 2000

Read in:- February, 2014

Star rating:-

'The Empire Writes Back' would have been a fitting alternative title for this essay collection. (Achebe doesn't fail to pay a tribute to Salman Rushdie's essay of the same name published in 1982). Because that is what the running theme here is - a reclamation of a land and a culture that was wrested away with brutal force and made a part of an 'Empire' which still insists on viewing that period as one of glory and not characterized by the worst kind of human rights violation ever. And a heralding of the arrival of the African voice in the world literary scene.

Achebe is slowly turning into my personal literary hero. His wry humor, elegant prose, mildly sardonic tone and passion for social justice exude a righteousness that's hard not to defer to. His writings continue to make me question certain pet notions and ideas that are so deeply ingrained in each one of us that they seem like indisputable facts and consequently evade further introspection. My penchant for unconsciously comparing Latin American, South East Asian and African writing to the style, technique and language of the Americans and Europeans I admire and immediately pronouncing judgement on them on the basis of said parameters has to go away now, I realize.
It doesn't matter if African, Asian and other writers of the Commonwealth (Dear god, why do we have that ridiculous redundant grouping still? is it not there for the sole purpose of reminding us that we were once colonies?) have the same degree of grammatical precision and structural integrity to their English prose as their European and American counterparts. It matters that their voices be heard and universally acknowledged and the overlooked truths, their narratives highlight, be analyzed without bias.

Although this collection consists of 3 essays titled 'My Home Under Imperial Fire', 'The Empire Fights Back' and 'Today, the Balance of Stories' it should be considered a single body of work or discourse intended to dispel certain flawed notions about African people who are often derogatorily referred to as 'tribes' and automatically consigned to a lesser category of humanity. 
Achebe begins with his reminiscences on his early years as a young university student in Nigeria, reading literature based on Africa authored mostly by British and European scholars who, of course, liberally manufactured painfully offensive 'facts' regarding the intellectual and anatomical inferiority of his fellow brethren and propagated the theory that European acquisition of their land and sphere of existence was for the sake of their own personal benefit.

This is what Achebe says about the interlinked nature of inherently racist literature of the time (he is sophisticated enough not to use the word 'racist' even once though) and the Atlantic slave trade:-

"I will merely say that a tradition does not begin and thrive, as the tradition of British writing about Africa did, unless it serves a certain need. From the moment in the 1560s when the English captain John Hawkins sailed to West Africa and 'got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of three hundred Negroes,' the European trade in slaves was destined by its very profitability to displace trade in commodities with West Africa."

Achebe directs his suppressed ire at Anglo-Irishman Joyce Cary who was regarded as one of the finest novelists of his time and his creation 'Mister Johnson' which Achebe systematically breaks down and interprets as a text strewn with viciously hateful commentary on Africans. Another renowned novelist and polymath who had considerable first hand experience of Africa, Elspeth Huxley, isn't spared either as her criticism of Amos Tutuola's 'The Palm-Wine Drinkard' as a 'folk tale full of queer, distorted poetry, the deep and dreadful fears, the cruelty, the obsession with death and spirits, the macabre humour, the grotesque imagery of the African mind' comes off as an insidious denunciation of all African literature in general. 
Joseph Conrad, predictably, is his next victim. (Criticism of 'Heart of Darkness' seems like a recurrent theme in Achebe's essays)

Quote from 'Heart of Darkness' -

"Well, you know, that was the worst of it-this suspicion of their not being inhuman."

Achebe's deconstruction-

"A more deadly deployment of a mere sixteen words it would be hard to imagine. I think it merits close reading. Note first the narrator's suspicion; just suspicion, nothing more. And note also that even the faint glimmer of apparent charitableness around this speculation is not, as you might have thought, a good thing, but actually the worst of it! And note finally, the coup de grace of double negation, like a pair of prison guards, restraining that problematic being on each side."

Next in Achebe's line of fire is the ever controversial V.S. Naipaul and his lecture titled 'Our Universal Civilization' delivered at the Manhattan Institute and his caustic and downright obnoxious comments on Asian and African readership and cultures. Achebe brings into focus the difference in attitudes between the Indian-origin Naipaul and the famed Indian writer R.K. Narayan by stating how Narayan saw 'a million stories' every time he looked out of his window and not a 'million mutinies' like Naipaul did.

He ends by hailing story-tellers of repute like Nadine Gordimer (for her literary activism in the backdrop of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa), Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola and names like Nigerian Cyprian Ekwensi (People of the City), Guinea's Camara Laye (L'Enfant Noir), Cameroon's Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono (Houseboy), Cheikh Hamidou (Ambiguous Adventure) who have lent enormous credibility to the African literary landscape and have led readers all over the world, to take into account the complementary points of view of the people who had been, so far, deprived of a voice.

"Despite the significant changes that have taken place in the last four or five decades, the wound of the centuries is still a long way from healing. And I believe the curative power of stories can move the process forward."

P.S.:-My rating may be upgraded (or downgraded) in the future based on what I glean from a reading of A Bend in the RiverIndia: A Million Mutinies Now and a re-reading of Heart of Darkness.

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  1. I have to read Achebe's Things Fall Apart as a compulsory reading for my course and I am really looking forward to it. I haven't read anything by Achebe yet and I keep wanting to. A very well-written review!

    1. Thank you, Nidhi. I have read Achebe's poetry, Things Fall Apart and his literary criticism and find him very admirable. Hope you get to read him soon.


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