Book review: 'If something needs to be said right away, you don't put it in a novel, you write an essay'

Another Africa photographs by Robert Lyons; essay and poems by Chinua Achebe Lund Humphries pounds 19.95
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"Robert Lyons's photographs of Africa possess an essential respect for their subjects." So says Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian best-selling author (his first novel Things Fall Apart sold over eight million copies in 50 languages) and latterly professor of African literature in the United States. Robert Lyons invited him to contribute a short story to his anthology of African images, just as Naguib Mahfouz had for his previous book, Egyptian Time.

Instead, Achebe decided to contribute an essay on European perceptions of his native continent, adding a number of largely previously unpublished poems with such titles as "A Mother in a Refugee Camp", "The Nigerian Chief and the Census" and "A Wake for Okigbo", translated from Achebe's first language of Igbo, but retaining the rhythms and repetitions of the original.

Achebe, who says he's "irreducibly bilingual", increasingly works between two languages. He preferred the idea of an essay rather than a story in this context, "to heighten the atmosphere of the pictures and to be able to put an argument". The argument has altered little since he published The Trouble with Nigeria some 15 years ago: Nigeria lacks leaders of the calibre the first independent African nation deserves; tribalism remains endemic, the northern (Hausa/Fulani/Yoruba) peoples denying the Igbo full representation; and the legacy of British imperialism lives on through neo-colonialism, particularly in the economic exploitation of oil reserves, as in the recent Shell petroleum pipeline disaster.

So - "If something needs to be said right away, you don't put it in a novel, you put it in an essay." The urgency of Achebe's message is not simply for his fellow Nigerians, many of whom are already well aware of his views. "I write globally. And I have certainly long considered myself to be a pan-African: I used to make a duty to travel as much as I could in the sub-Sahara every year, simply to stay in touch." Ironically, a devastating road accident leading to severe partial paralysis forced Achebe to seek treatment first in England and then in the United States. "Yet I don't ever forget Nigeria, forget who I am. I still get homesick every day. I'd find it very difficult to write about the States, there's so much else written about it. Whereas a place like Nigeria just doesn't get written about."

His essay, which he calls "Africa's Tarnished Name", harnesses geography and history in linking Africa and Europe. Indeed, within the long and noble tradition by which African statesmen are also poets, Leopold Sedar Senghor is quoted as describing them as "joined together at the navel" across the Mediterranean. Even Greenwich Mean Time, dictating that London and Accra keep the same hours, is invoked to emphasise the proximity by which "the shores of northern Africa and southern Europe enclose, like two cupped hands, the waters of the world's most famous sea, perceived by the ancients as the very heart and centre of the world".

This mythic grandeur, celebrated alike by classical Greece and Egypt, was aborted by economic systems adopted by the ideological paraphernalia of self-justification. Slavery and colonialism, Achebe suggests, generated a "centuries-old obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa [now] bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology ..." Even Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, often credited with pioneering a serious literary consideration of western Europe's exploitation of the Congolese ivory trade at the expense of any pretensions to humanitarian considerations, is lengthily indicted for belonging to an outside world busily engaged in "inventing Africa" or at the very least "inventing its otherness".

Having denounced Conrad for regarding the Africans as "not inhuman" (equivalent, in Achebe's exegesis, to "not human") there can be little mileage in noting that the same applies to Conrad's treatment of women ("... how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own ...") or of the white middlemen (not human but "devils" of several descriptions "violence ... greed ... hot desire ... [and] a flabby weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly"). It's the inhumanity of Africans that weighs.

Nonetheless, Conrad's chosen title bears witness to the case Achebe has been advancing for the past 25 years. But there is another European-African relationship explored by Achebe: the one established between the Portuguese and Congolese in the 15th century. Here royal dynasties were mutually recognised and respected: King Mzinga Mbemba successfully criticised Portugal's legal code for its "excessive severity". Achebe could also have cited the diplomatic exchanges between the Portuguese governors and north-eastern Brazil and the Kings of Dahomey. Indeed, his life's work consists of keeping both histories and stories alive in whatever literary form he prefers. Agostinho Neto, the Angolan leader and poet, is hailed in terms worthy of a Congolese or Dahomeyan king, as "Thou Healer, Soldier and Poet!"

Igbo is the language that Achebe most easily returns to for poetry, translating his own lines in and out of English. "It's an interesting challenge, for there's really only so much you can translate before getting to a point where the poetry says 'no'. My first concern is to make sure it's working in my first language." Because of these rhythms, Achebe claims that "it'd be easier to translate Igbo into music or into the sound of Chinese, than into English." You have only to read "A Wake" to guess at what he means. Sagas are perceived as being the most natural form for Igbo stanzas and, as with lyrical verse, there can be no distinction between poetry and song. It may not be coincidental that, while the courses Achebe teaches at Bart College are all on 20th-century African literature, an exception is made for the early West African song-poems of the griots.

The newness of much written African literature allows a freedom in moving between styles that Achebe fully exploits. Its pre-European oral and musical dimensions continue to inform its cadences. Yet there is a modesty, almost a renewed innocence, in Achebe's approach and daily motivation. "I just work hard and keep doing what I'm doing. The life of the mind is always very exciting. Why are stories important to the human race? Why is everyone anxious to leave behind their own story? It matters that each and every one is brought home and celebrated. Some will always be more remarkable than others ... and yes, of course, I am preparing my own autobiography. I hope to start it very soon."