Writing another Africa
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The Achebe who lashed out at Conrad was not so much a literary critic as an African nationalist
Chinua Achebe's famous 1977 essay, "An Image of Africa", split criticism of Joseph Conrad right down the middle, into a before and after. For, thus spake Achebe: "Conrad was a bloody racist... And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot." Subsequent to that, it is hard to come across any writing on Conrad's Heart of Darkness that ignores the Nigerian novelist's scathing attack on the celebrated author or his canonical text.
The long shadows that Achebe's views have cast can be gauged from the following incident. A Nigerian writer, Ogaga Ifowodo, decided not to present his own paper at a conference in Iowa in 2000, instead reading out Achebe's essay. Though for many, both Conrad and Heart of Darkness now stand nearly demystif-ied as an example of European racism, others have vehemently opposed Achebe's views. For example, soon after Ifowodo's dramatic and controversial gesture, the critic Peter Nazareth made a spirited attack on Achebe's position. Even those holding a moderate position on the subject have expressed scepticism regarding the veracity of Achebe's claims. The guarded response of Australian critic Terry Collits is indicative of this: "it was due partly to his intervention that pushed analysis to re-examine the text with the attention needed to uncover such meanings and to be sure Achebe was not right" (emphasis added). Suitably removed in time and space, it might be better to contextualise Achebe's statement and the hostile responses to his views, rather than rushing to defend either side.
It is important to remember, for example, that Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, two years after Things Fall Apart was published in 1958. Soon, the internal contradictions in the postcolonial state of Nigeria surfaced, and it became embroiled in a civil war. The Igbo-dominated Biafran Republic emerged in 1966, of which Achebe became ambassador. Achebe's nationalist credentials were without doubt. But Nigeria was not the only country to witness bloody coups and counter-coups. The most prominent was the violence in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.