opinionBy David Omoghene
Barrister IkeazorAkaraiwe has definitely created a roaring appetite in me for ChimamandaNgoziAdichie's latest book so I can take a closer look at the characters for myself. There is an uncanny knack African writers have for creating characters that reflect their society;
and it seems as if there is devolution in the characters that people Chimamanda's books and indeed African literature. But given our lacklustre book marketing network, and the comatose book industry brought about by a combination of a non-existent reading culture, and the over bearing presence of the digital age, I wonder whether I will be able to lay hands on a copy soon.
I really hope the internet does not eventually swallow up the global book industry; at least, not completely. It is like Johannes Gutenberg the German founder of the printing press has suddenly fallen out of favour in heaven!
While I wait expectantly for my copy however, I can already perceive a movement away from the traditional themes, characters and settings of African literature that the likes of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o gave to us. Effectively, we can say that African literature is entering its third generation. Apart from a few scattered writings by freed African slaves in the New Word, the first breeds of writers we had were Amos Tutuola, D O Fagunwa, James EneHenshaw and a rash of unknown Onitsha Market Literature writers. Literature had not fully found its feet in Africa. The convoluting Palm-wine Drinkard that Tutuola unwittingly wrote in the stream-of-consciousness style was actually one of the first novels from these shores and it received worldwide acclaim, even if it is not in the class of Things Fall Apart.
By the time Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Kenneth Kaunda, NgugiwaThiong'o, Tawfik al Hakim and the Negritude movement came on stream, African literature had come of age. The central characters in these second generation writings were mostly pioneers, idealists and local (and sometimes national) politicians and freedom fighters. They were mostly well meaning local men emerging from the African traditional set up and colonialism into quasi-modern statehood. Achebe's Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart was an unbeatable wrestler with heroic characters.
However, he was baffled by Christianity. His world view could not cope with the new reality and he got consumed in it. Mazisi Kunene's Shakain Emperor Shaka the Great won everyone's admiration with his selflessness and titanic struggles to found the Zulu empire. He refused to marry so that family interest would not clash with state interest. He reformed the Zulu military and developed a weapon of warfare that was very effective, just like Genghis Kahn, or his illustrious contemporary, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Mbogbosi of the Mountains in the same epic poem reminded you of the mighty men of David in the Bible. He fought bravely and selflessly alongside his friend, Shaka. At the end of the wars he disappeared into the mountains he came from, without spoils. Work was finished and he was gone. Those were heroic characters, the rival of any other, both classical and modern!
Ngotho and his son Njoroge were crushed under the boots of the brutal colonial police in Weep Not Child by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. How did they hope to withstand the tide that swept off the legendary Dedan Kimathi? The Mau-Mau Revolt did not stand a chance. The important thing, however, was that these large hearted men and women were fighting for the general good. By this time though sinister, unscrupulous and selfish characters were already beginning to appear in the person of Jacobo - a local Gikuyu man who was in league with the colonial authority and the police to marginalise his own people. Jacobo was clearly portrayed as villain. No one was left in doubt about his character.
But what do we have today? We are seeing the emergence of the third generation of African writers that are mirroring present realities; and what is coming out of their pen (or should I say laptops?) is not flattering. It was like Africa experienced a still-birth when she was transiting from traditionalism to modernity. In the throes of the continent's travail to bring forth, an accident happened. The unholy alliance of greedy and unscrupulous colonial masters, corrupt local politicians and unethical multinationals formed themselves into a brutal avalanche that crushed the well-meaning idealists and hapless common masses.
Hence Shaka in Mazisi Kunene's Emperor Shaka the Greatwas betrayed by his own people. On his death bed he prophesied the Apartheid! We all witnessed what happened to our own Ken SaroWiwa. That was not literature; it was real life. However, the literature created by SaroWiwa was already showcasing the despair and ennui that came out of Africa's still-birth.
I remember reading another review a while ago, this time in Sun newspaper of 16th Sept 2012, by Toni Kan. She was reviewing Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's debut novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance. Interestingly, it is a book peopled by drop-outs and unemployed graduates. There are no more "well-meaning idealists and local heroes fighting for the general good". No, these are fraudsters, the ubiquitous 419-ners, out to inflict revenge on the society that has short changed them.
Their aim is to acquire maximum gain for themselves by inflicting maximum pain, but tragically, on innocent targets. Then recently, I came across Barrister Akaraiwe's review of Chimamanda'sAmericanah. Now, I have not read either book. But it was obvious Barrister Akaraiwe could not make up his mind if the central characters were heroes or villains! That was what I found to be very strange, to say the least. His comment about truncated poetic justice was disturbing. Could this be because he did not see any heroic deeds performed by the characters in the novel? I honestly believe that heroes and heroic deeds are becoming very scarce commodities not only in literature but even more in the society.
I stumbled on Purple Hibiscus also by Chimamanda sometime back. I just skimmed through it for lack of time; but I saw a newspaper publisher in there who was willing to publish the truth at a huge cost to his family and his business under a repressive military regime. I saw academics fighting a corrupt university system and getting hurt. They could not bear the punishment so they fled the scene to God's own land. These were heroic deeds. People had the common good in their hearts. They were making effort, even if it was not enough, to set things right. The poetic justice in Purple Hibiscus was stark, even if it was skewed against the heroic characters. But today the Barristers is bemused that Ifemelu gobbled down her cake and yet ended up with the thing still hot and gleaming, sitting smugly on a golden platter. She rode rough shod over delicate hearts, unfazed, and ended up still having her way. Are we seeing a reflection of our modern Africa here? He ended his review on a melancholic note, saying the book reveals much of the acquisitive sociology, bankrupt philosophy and moral relativism which undergird the modern African elite.
It is a little ironic that Chimamanda is today writing African literature from God's own country. Somebody said the other day that if she had remained in Nigeria, at best she would be running an obscure medical practice or plying the noble Hippocratic trade in a teaching hospital, most probably University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital. But she had the good sense (if good sense it can be called) to flee; and today she is famous. Why could she not do it here? The answer is easily provided by her old role model, Achebe: Things have fallen apart. The centre is no longer holding and the arrow of God is no longer at ease. The old sage will be telling every departed soul that cares to listen in the great beyond: I told them but they would not hear! --
Omoghene writes from Suleja,