There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe’s latest book is more than a memoir, more than a history, more than the sum of its parts. There Was a Country is a beautifully woven tapestry, an incantation; it is brave; it is sad and perceptive; it is an epitaph for the nation that seceded from Nigeria in 1967. It is Achebe’s account of the war which then ensued, one of the twentieth century’s greatest humanitarian disasters.
Achebe is a master storyteller. His style is deceptively simple – almost fable-like – and quietly passionate. The chapters are generally short: some of them feel like they’re part of a novel; others are explorations of the artist’s role in times of war, and feel more like personal essays in tone. Poems written during the war are nested between interviews with the key players in the conflict. Though this ‘almost’ memoir of the Nigerian–Biafran War sometimes feels disordered, it ultimately works to create a clear-sighted, prismatic picture of Nigeria’s descent from post-independence hope to tragedy, and the colossal mistakes made along the way.
Historical analysis takes up most of the middle portion of the book. These chapters are well-researched and factual (he cites a range of sources) and, like the rest of Achebe’s writing, they are succinct, pithy. Throughout, glimpses of Achebe’s personal experience of the horror are revealed, and these stories too are told – of course – with brevity, stoically and quietly.
There are claims that Achebe’s account is partisan and polemical. The outcry against the book in Nigeria has some people calling for his classic Things Fall Apart to be banned in Nigerian schools. Perhaps There Was a Country leans toward a Biafran viewpoint, perhaps. After all, its author was Biafra’s roving ambassador during the war and he even chaired a committee charged with writing a constitution for the country. Perhaps it does, but though it is one man’s account, it goes deeper, offering multiple perspectives of a story that must be told. Above all else, it is Achebe’s eloquent plea for a better Nigeria today. It is a sad story, beautifully told.
Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.