It came to me as an epiphany as I barreled through the last few pages of this book, blanketed in my Sunday evening lethargy, marveling at Adichie's graceful evocation of a forgotten time and place and feeling the embarrassment of having known nothing about the Biafran war, that somewhere in the Gaza strip the maimed bodies of children must lie strewn amidst the debris of their former lives while vicious debates rage on twitter in which people pick a side - Israel or Hamas - to defend from criticism. As if that's what matters.
Somewhere at this very moment there may be a terror-stricken, weeping child, fleeing to find cover, unaware of what she is running from, unaware of the finality of death, shielded by the caprices of the same history she is living, perhaps. Someday she may grow up well to become another Chimamanda to write the story which is hers to tell, and time, circumstances, and health permitting, I am going to be reading that book and be reminded of the umpteenth 'war' that not even my generation of enlightened, Nobel-peace-prize winning heads of state did enough to prevent, the damage that could have been preempted, and the children who could have grown up to carry the weight of civilization some day but didn't.
The farce of this relentless cycle of mayhem, killing, pillage, rape, and starvation will hit us time and again and yet leaders of the first world will continue to look dapper in their crisp suits and appear dignified while justifying their sale of high-tech weapons to warring parties because revenue is to be earned from the spilling of blood. For the sake of self-made demarcations, for the sake of that ridiculous nonentity called national pride, for the sake of righting wrongs done in the past we'll bury our children and future in mass graves and commit more wrongs.
This book deserves 4 stars in my eyes. It's not a flawlessly written work with its frequent straying into the territory of melodramatic personal relationships and cliched characterization and Adichie's writing seems to lack polish in places. But in no way does that stop this from being a highly important work of fiction that the annals of literature ought to acknowledge with a gleaming appraisal.
This is the past transcending the barriers of time to appear before us in a surely pale imitation of its true grotesqueness. This is Adichie leading us to history of a corner of the world we only associate with food programs, the UNHCR, unstable governments and inexorable ethnic conflicts. This is Adichie telling us that history ignored isn't history blotted out.
I didn't know Biafra at all; there are not enough books on Biafra (as confirmed by Goodreads and Google Books), because only those horrors of war survive oblivion which are fortunate enough to receive the world media's stamp of approval. Not all death and devastation caused by 'civil wars' are worthy of the glory of 'crimes against humanity' like Nigeria's smooth war tactic of starving Biafran children with tacit British support wasn't.
"Starvation propelled aid organizations to sneak-fly food into Biafra at night since both sides could not agree on routes. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War."
But there was a Biafra. Not the transient existence of the nation represented by half of a yellow sun but the reality of the people who, in the paroxysms of misguided idealism, picked the losing side in a war.
Chimananda's Olanna, Ugwu and Richard, all of whom weave their way in and out of manifold conflicts of morality, identity, and survival, serve as our guides in this landscape of kwashiorkor-plagued children with pot bellies while trying to make sense of the muddle of mutual Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo animosity. And along with them the reader navigates the maze of wartime barbarity, political allegiances, and interpersonal relationships with a growing sense of unease and uncertainty - who are the ones truly responsible? who are the perpetrators? who are the victims? what was the war for and what did it achieve?
"Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved. But it was not grief that Olanna felt, it was greater than grief. It was stranger than grief."
In the end any such attempt at such neat compartmentalization makes little difference to the truth of lives destroyed in a fit of murderous passion. In all likelihood, there will be more Biafras and Srebrenicas and Rwanda-Burundis and Syrias and Gazas as there will be the burden of future tragedy and loss to be borne by hapless survivors. But there's the small assurance that there will be the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies of the world to give a human face to the solemn formality of statistics every time.