NEW YORK (AP) — The opening sentence was as simple, declarative and revolutionary as a line out of Hemingway:
“Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond,” Chinua Achebe wrote in “Things Fall Apart.”
Africans, the Nigerian author announced more than 50 years ago, had their own history, their own celebrities and reputations.
Achebe, the internationally celebrated Nigerian author, statesman and dissident, who died at age 82 after a brief illness, continued for decades to rewrite and reclaim the history of his native country. Achebe lived through and helped define revolutionary change in Nigeria, from independence to dictatorship to the disastrous war between Nigeria and the breakaway country of Biafra in the late 1960s.
He knew both the prestige of serving on government commissions and the fear of being declared an enemy of the state. He spent much of his adult life in the United States, but never stopped calling for democracy in Nigeria or resisting literary honors from a government he refused to accept.
Even in traffic today in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, hawkers sell pirated copies of his recent civil war memoir.
“What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war — ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery,” wrote Achebe, whose death was confirmed Friday by his literary agent, Andrew Wylie.
His eminence worldwide was rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and a handful of others. Achebe was a moral and literary model for countless Africans and a profound influence on such American writers as Ha Jin, Junot Diaz and Morrison, who once called Achebe’s work an “education” for her and “liberating in a way nothing had been before.”
His public life began in his mid-20s. He was a resident of London when he completed his handwritten manuscript for “Things Fall Apart,” a short novel about a Nigerian tribesman’s downfall at the hands of British colonialists.
Turned down by several publishers, the book was finally accepted by Heinemann and released in 1958 with a first printing of 2,000. Its initial review in The New York Times ran less than 500 words, but the novel soon became among the most important books of the 20th century, a universally acknowledged starting point for postcolonial, indigenous African fiction, the prophetic union of British letters and African oral culture.
“It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing,” the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”
“Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages. Achebe also was a forceful critic of Western literature about Africa, especially Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” standard reading for millions, but in Achebe’s opinion, a defining example of how even a great Western mind could reduce a foreign civilization to barbarism and menace.
“Now, I grew up among very eloquent elders. In the village, or even in the church, which my father made sure we attended, there were eloquent speakers. So if you reduce that eloquence which I encountered to eight words … it’s going to be very different,” Achebe told The Associated Press in 2008. “You know that it’s going to be a battle to turn it around, to say to people, ‘That’s not the way my people respond in this situation, by unintelligible grunts, and so on; they would speak.’ And it is that speech that I knew I wanted to be written down.”
His first novel was intended as a trilogy and the author continued its story in “A Man of the People” and “Arrow of God.” He also wrote short stories, poems, children’s stories and a political satire, “The Anthills of Savannah,” a 1987 release that was the last full-length fiction to come out in his lifetime. Achebe, who used a wheelchair in his later years, would cite his physical problems and displacement from home as stifling to his imaginative powers.