EXPRESSIONS Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: There Was a Country

TITLE: THERE WAS A COUNTRY

AUTHOR: CHINUA ACHEBE

PUBLISHER: PENGUIN BOOKS

PLACE OF PUBLICATION: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2012

NUMBER OF PAGES: 333

ISBN: 978-1-846-14792-0

Chinua Achebe’s book There Was a Country is one that evokes unexpected emotions as the reader travels with a writer from a somewhat stable and comfortable life to a very unsettling one. The novel talks about Chinua Achebe’s experiences during the Biafra war in Nigeria.

The book influences the reader to make an objective analysis of the events that arose during the Biafra war. Achebe’s account of the war makes me feel that something is terribly wrong; not only in Nigeria but in Africa as a whole and that it is high time solutions were found to solve the problems our continent faces.

The title of the book There Was a Country is very significant and relevant to Achebe’s memoir. This is because Biafra represented peace, justice, law and order; and no matter how brief or short-lived Biafra was, it was a model country where justice, peace and order reigned. It is very understandable that Igbos who were being slaughtered and massacred would want a model country where their problems were somehow absent or minimized and where their issues were addressed. Biafra promised them such conditions. The title, There Was a Country, which translates as ‘there was once a country called Biafra’, signifies the promise of peace and order; and without this country (Biafra) all the Igbos might have all been slaughtered.

The fact that Achebe is part of the events as they unfold in the book makes the book seem genuine or credible to the reader. His presence, participation and active role in the events surrounding Biafra makes Achebe’s word believable, especially because of the memoir’s daring bluntness. Achebe was not a distant observer in the Biafra war; he played an active role in the events that took place before, during and after the war. Chinua Achebe lived through the war and saw the slaughtering of thousands of people, and this is evident in the way he wrote the memoir. This makes his work credible. But this does not mean Achebe was not biased in his narration of the history of Biafra. He was an Igbo man after all. The fact that he was an Igbo man made the war very personal and a very emotional one to him; hence it is understandable he gave more attention to the Igbo side of the war in his memoir.

The framework of the novel keeps the story fresh and compelling all the way through. There Was a Country for me in some ways is better than some of Achebe’s other novels in terms of personal enjoyment and the narrative style. However, most of the themes may be too strong for young children, depending on their social and political maturity as well as reading experience. The memoir is therefore recommended for adults and young adults.

I realized that in some parts of the story, Achebe’s personal ideology influenced his writing. He made some political statements in the lines ‘Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted on us at the dawn of independence by our colonial masters.’ The political statements might be lost on the reader, only because the tragedy of the Igbos and other Nigerians seems much more serious, urgent and dangerous.

Achebe’s use of poetry in his memoir brings a lot of substance to the narration of the events that arose during the Biafra War. The poems alone tell the tale of Biafra’s struggle and suffering all by itself and they correlate with the chapter it precedes. Achebe has successfully juxtaposed poetry and prose in his memoir to tell complementary stories, in two different art forms.

Achebe, by providing notes at the back of the book has successfully provided more insight and elaboration on certain events in the book. He has also done a great job of translating certain Igbo words and expressions in the notes provided at the end of the book. Comparing Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country to Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the former has succeeded in providing a glossary in the notes at the back of the book while the latter has not. Adichie’s failure to include a glossary of the Igbo expressions in her story, even though she did a good job of placing most Igbo expressions in a comprehensive context, would make the reader frustrated when he or she wants to find the meaning of a term; the meaning of which at best is ambiguous in the context of the expression; but Achebe does provide a glossary excellently in the notes section of his memoir.

In the unfolding of his story, Achebe introduces the reader to the customs, foods and many aspects of Nigerian life without deviating from the subject matter. This is a unique skill in creative writing which many writers fail to achieve. Achebe creates a perfect balance of being sufficiently descriptive and elaborative while never allowing the descriptions to become tedious. He describes the downfall of a country, drawing the reader gradually towards an extraordinary ending.

There Was a Country is a constructively judged account of the personal and intimate stirrings of a man faced with the challenges of tyrannical power, ethnic conflict and military rule and Achebe voices out the subject matter creatively.


WRITER: Kofi Dzogbewu

 

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