‘Imaginative literature’, Chinua Achebe wrote at the end of his essay The Truth of Fiction, ‘does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.’ Achebe, who died on Friday, has often been called the greatest African novelist. He was, of course, a great novelist, full stop; one of the towering figures of modern imaginative literature. But Achebe himself would have disdained such an epitaph. To be called simply a writer, rather than an African writer, he more than once observed, was a ‘statement of defeat’. Colonialism, he insisted, created ‘universal man’ by erasing the identities of the peoples whose freedom it denied. As Obierika, one of the characters in Things Fall Apart, puts it, ‘The white man has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’.
Achebe had little patience for the romanticisation of the African past, and of African cultures, of the kind often found in the Negritude movement. But he dismissed also notions of cosmopolitanism and of values rooted in the rejection of specific identities. Yet, his very use of literature and of the novel revealed his desire to reach out to more universal forms. There was always in Achebe’s writings the same kind of tension we can find in Frantz Fanon’s work, between the local and the global, the particular and the universal, between an admiration of European cultures and a detestation of the impact of such cultures. I have as ambivalent a relationship with Achebe’s ideas as I have with Fanon’s. But there is no ambivalence about his fiction. In imaginative literature, far more than in political thinking, that tension provided for creative development. ‘Storytellers’, as he put it in Anthills of the Savannah, a novel that engages with his own writing, ‘are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.’ ‘My weapon’, Achebe once observed, ‘is literature’.
The best epitaph for Achebe are his own words. So here he is in conversation last year with the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah:
And the first chapter of Things Fall Apart: