The great river of his life has fed many rivulets,
And earned for this unbounded gratitude;
Of our rivers he is the Nile,
Leisurely in its flow and steadfast,
Serving myriads on its timeless course.
â€“ From â€œChinua Achebe (An 80th Anniversary Tribute)â€
Chinua Achebe is one of the worldâ€™s writers whose fame has become so synchronised with that of his most famous work that you cannot think of one without the other. This is an honour Achebe shares, on account of being the author of Things Fall Apart, with such immortal men of letters as Homer (for the Iliad), Plato (for The Republic), Virgil (for The Aeneid), Dante (for The Divine Comedy), Chaucer (for The Canterbury Tales), Shakespeare (for Hamlet), Machiavelli (for The Prince), Goethe (for Faust), Tolstoy (for War and Peace), Dostoyevsky (for The Brothers Kazamarov), Pushkin (for Eugene Onegin), Flaubert (for Madame Bovary), Dickens (for Great Expectations), Mark Twain (for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Thomas Beckett (for Waiting for Godot), George Orwell (for Animal Farm), T. S. Eliot (for The Wasteland), Rabindranath Tagore (for Gitanjali), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (for One Hundred Years of Solitude), Pablo Neruda (for the Viente Poemas â€¦), Khalil Gibran (for The Prophet), and a handful of others.
This association of writersâ€™ names inseparably with their most famous works is apparently the result of such works having been read, studied and scrutinised for a considerable period and adjudged by those who should know to be among works of the highest literary merit, supreme legacies of belle lettres that should inspire the type of respect that borders on reverence, even a sense of wonder at the genius, effortless of otherwise, to which they owe their existence. They are, in a word, the timeless classics of world literature.
Of course, neither Achebe nor his literary achievements is new to tributes, and one of my favourites of those tributes, a good number of which I have come across, coming from such eminent writers as Nadine Gordimer and Toni Morrison, both Nobel laureates in literature, is the one Nelson Mandela paid him, to wit: â€œThere was a writer named Chinua Achebe, in whose company the prison walls fell down.â€ And so important is that writer as a pacesetter that Simon Gikandi, the distinguished African scholar and Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University, credited him with the invention of the idea of African culture on account of the impact of Things Fall Apart on his mind as a young reader. Achebe is also regarded by many African and non-African scholars as the father of the African novel.
And I unequivocally agree with this recognition; not because the African novel did not exist in some form or the other before the publication of Things Fall Apart, Achebeâ€™s first novel, but because the publication of Things Fall Apart, in 1958, marked a watershed in the evolution of what before then was a continental literature in an embryonic state of an unpredictable metamorphosis. Things Fall Apart brought it to a sudden maturity, as a work that not only dared successfully to negotiate African content and respectability for the African world on its own terms, and with absolutely no hint of grovelling for solidarity from non-African sources. It was also the work which first led African fiction like a big masquerade to perform in the global arena of letters and win for itself the enduring respect of Africans and non-Africans alike.
What is more, the publication of Things Fall Apart created a healthy culture of emulation of Achebeâ€™s writing style by other African writers â€“ members of what has become known as the Achebe school â€“ whose works together could form a distinctive corpus of African literature in English, a species of influence which did not exist in African literature until Achebeâ€™s emergence on the scene; nor has any other writer known to literary history exerted such influence on the creativity of his contemporaries and successive generations of writers alike.
Things Fall Apart was, in all, a first-rate novel truly about Africa by an African and for Africans and the world, whose author chose to celebrate Africa realistically, and whose fusion of all the attributes of a good novel were outstanding. Written in English, in what better way could the respect it has won have manifested than through its over fifty translations into other languages of peoples who, as it were, would rather make their own a groundbreaking African novel which the publishers of the Everyman Library recognised as â€œthe most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from withinâ€?
As for me, it is for having read Achebeâ€™s polemical writings that I feel the greatest measure of admiration for and indebtedness to him as a worker in the vineyard of ideas, a courageous creative thinker and a mentor of such minds without which there can be no intellectual men of courage.
Surely, it would be most unrealistic to hope to do justice to the huge and yet-evolving legacy of a man such as Achebe, the great river of whose life and works have in many ways fed (and enriched) many a rivulet, I inclusive. And as he celebrates his 80th birthday on November 16, 2010, I sincerely wish I could do more than register my gratitude to him through this medium.