Inside Achebe’s Heart of Darkness
CHINUA Achebe told British writer, Caryl Phillips, nine years ago that: "art is more than just good sentences; this is what makes this situation tragic. The man is a capable artist and as such I expect better from him. I mean, what is his point in that book? Art is not intended to put people down. If so, then art would ultimately discredit itself." Those were Achebe's own words nine years ago as Carly sought to dig into Achebe's bitter resentment of the literary essence of Joseph Conrad even beyond the man's 1902 novel, Heart of Darkness. Achebe's grouse with Conrad is that the old novelist deliberately set Africa up as "a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality".
Now, given the trajectory of public (and private) discourse on Achebe and his latest political book in the last two weeks, I do not know why one should not ask the literary icon whether he has not fallen into the same cesspit of mis-judgement as Conrad? And why he is "obsessed" with recreating in himself an Igbo Conrad setting up the Yoruba as the very opposite of the civilised? Shouldn't one just ask Achebe to interrogate himself with his own very words: "what is his point in that book" he just wrote about Chief Obafemi Awolowo (on a war against Awo's own people) accusing him of war policies designed for the Yoruba race to achieve its vaunting ambition of dominating Nigeria?! And why the work and its embedded bitterness (and arrogance) had to wait 42 years before the man, described by Ngozi Okonjo - Iweala as "teacher of light", gave them his breath of life?
Is it not truly tragic that the celebrated writer who has refused to let go of Conrad because of his 110 year old little book has now donned his Igbo conclave in the starkly dark Conrad costume of superior everything? And quite bold and brave, Achebe's latest missile has no need for a Marlow - a "cordon sanitaire" (to use his own words). He comes out straight, shooting down all others for his own sake and for the sake of his Igbo people. He wants us to believe that he belongs to a super, "dominant" race whose ascendancy could only be held down by an "odious policy" of scorching hunger and genocidal blitz. The same Achebe who told Conrad: "you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity" is here compromising the humanity of others to hoist his "dominant Igbo" as the very example of the industrious super race that is sinned against.
Again, Achebe, who told Conrad: "I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated..." has now quite unfortunately thrown open the Yoruba's humanity for debate in a way that unfortunately ironically threatens to devalue Achebe himself and his art. Achebe, who said Conrad was unfair in his characterisation of the African and goes to build his own literary and scholarly reputation on removing the blocks in the walls of Conrad's muse has now found it quite convenient and meet to discuss and put down others' humanity just to "illustrate" his Igbo problem in the Nigerian conundrum !
There have been quite a lot said on this current matter. I found Tony Afejuku's interrogatory response to the discourse particularly provoking: “Now we must ask: Did he expect Awo to devise a strategy for Biafra to defeat Nigeria?" Maybe he did. But Awo was not Igbo. He was a Yoruba and the Yoruba does not betray a cause he willingly accepts. Awo accepted the leadership of Nigeria at that point in the nation's challenged existence. He had a duty to Nigeria and to all its peoples (including the Igbo) and he did it so clinically with a human face. Happily, he explained this benign role before he died. And at his death, Biafra creator, Ojukwu, described him as "the best President Nigeria never had." But despite this, it is so sad that Achebe's Igbo world has continued to refuse acceptance of the error in fighting a war that was lost before it started. And I ask, 40 years after, has the Igbo not continued to wage wars against himself even within the Igbo enclave? We hear of horrendous crimes every day with the culprits' names telling their origin and Achebe does not think he should put a sun in the heart of the darkness of his land? Granted that Achebe, the PRP politician wrote the 1983 bileful The Trouble with Nigeria, to what should one blame this latest dart from the old war Lord whose Biafrian frontline was no where near the Black Scorpion but in Europe and North America, where he generously fired countless verbal missile launchers. For a man who understands the need for a “human context” in every literary activity, shouldn’t the depth of intuition seen almost always in his works, just guide him against falling once again into the filthy canal of ethnic authoritarianism?
Achebe was at a colloquium in his (Achebe’s) honour at Brown University, US when Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu (a year before his death), in three short sentences, told Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society, his final words about the war : “History does not repeat itself. But if it did, I would do exactly the same again. Excuse me." The man regretted nothing and we assume this includes all he did during that period, and probably not excluding the brutal execution of his Yoruba friend and gentleman officer, Col. Victor Banjo. In Yoruba land, there is hardly no community without a lasting memory of at least one son lost to what they call Ogun Ojukwu (Ojukwu's war). The scars are still there, and Achebe's "There was a country" and the Hitleric arrogance and self righteousness in its delivery may have poked red hot iron into them.
So, what are we saying here if the man who was the creator of the war, and its direct and indirect consequences, said he had no regrets and would do it again? And from what one has been reading, it appears the Igbo is not bothered that the road to that past of blood and starvation may well still be open.
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