Monthly Archives: May 2012

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2005. Biafra. Famine. Distended bellies. Massacres. Rock concert to raise awareness. Overwhelming military force used to conquer a short-lived breakwaway republic. Somewhere in Africa. A faraway place. A natural consequence of post-colonial self-government.

Which of these impressions did you have of Biafra? If any. Find Biafra on a map. Which country did it break from and why? Who won and who lost? How many people died? Which European country was the past colonial master and how did it respond?

If you’re like me, even if you lived through the Biafran saga – when was that again? – your knowledge is/was incomplete. Yes there was a tragedy which involved those issues and images from the first paragraph above. But the genesis of the conflict? The outcome?

The beautifully narrated Half of a Yellow Sun filled in the many gaps in my knowledge of this sad chapter in African post-colonialism. Adichie follows up her impressive debut novel Purple Hibiscus with a richly nuanced story of the Biafran separatist effort told from the perspective of five main characters: the teenage houseboy, the academic revolutionary, the twin sisters from a powerful and corrupt trading family, and the ex-pat gone native after colonial rule. Each perspective illuminates a group that suffered and survived, but not without tragedy and loss.

With intimate understanding of her tribal and national culture, of her family history, and of the impact international diplomacy had on local events, Adiche creates a compelling and powerful narrative. The main characters come of age as does the newly independent country at a time and within an environment when self-interest among nations created a disastrous situation for the innocents on the ground.

These individuals caught in the vice of history first met when struggling to make their ways in the heady world of independence. Gradually, the forces that shaped their personalities made demands that pit the individuals against their native groups and in the struggle for survival no one was blameless for the suffering of friend, family, neighbor, and countryman.


GUEST POST – Bolaño’s expanding legacy, by Tom Gething

Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a comic masterpiece—a 21st Century Don Quixote. It pits young, rebellious would-be poets against a world of drugs and sex, literature and philosophy, pimps and whores, menial jobs and aimless wanderlust. Imagine two disenfranchised youths who actually believe poetry should matter, then imagine them searching for a surrealist poet in the Sonoran desert and you have the sad arc of the story. Told in a series of first-person narratives, many of them masterful short stories in themselves, the novel gradually records the protagonists’ inevitable loss of illusion. What starts with youthful exuberance ends in a desert landscape of existential despair and imminent violence, with the outcome already foretold in the middle section.

With this prize-winning book and his novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star, Chilean-born Bolaño burst upon the literary scene at the start of this century. He was working furiously to finish what he hoped would be his magnum opus, 2666, when he died of liver failure at the age of 50 in 2003. Since his death, in addition to 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, his heirs have released a number of short story collections and several unpublished novellas and novels. The Third Reich is one of the latter.

The Third Reich possesses many of Bolaño’s addictive charms: his compelling narrative drive, his vivid and sometimes terrifying imagery, his biting sense of humor. It also contains themes that would later become obsessions: crime stories, people living in alternate realities that verge on the fantastic yet are mundanely detailed, unpredictable violence (real or imagined), and sublimated fascism (in people, games, literature).

The Third Reich is about a German tourist in Spain who is a champion wargamer (before the internet and World of Warcraft) of a board game that reenacts World War Two. Told in the first person—Bolaño’s favorite point of view—it is a suspenseful story that keeps you reading. While it lacks the thematic layering of his mature work, it is a mash-up crime story and mystery that still reads well twenty years after it was written. Odd and ominous things are happening in the Costa Brava resort town, and we’re not sure if they stem from the narrator’s imagination or are real. Meanwhile, the game must be played, and a disfigured novice gamer whom the narrator meets on the beach ends up threatening the champion. Bolaño plucks the dissonant chords of anxiety to keep the suspense going throughout. The ending is the most disappointing aspect—the story’s many threads don’t quite tie together.  At this stage in his career, Bolaño has not quite mastered his art but you can see the mastery coming. If you haven’t read Bolaño, start with his story collection, Last Evenings on Earth, or The Savage Detectives and you will likely be drawn to his lesser stuff like The Third Reich.

More by Tom Gething here.


Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

1959. Love it or hate it, Achebe’s tale of a flawed tribal patriarch is a powerful and important contribution to twentieth century literature.

Think back to 1959. Liberation from colonial masters had not yet swept the African continent when this book appeared, but the pressures were building. The US civil rights movement had not yet erupted, but the forces were in motion. Communism and capitalism were fighting a pitched battle for control of hearts and minds, for bodies and land, around the world. Africans would suffer under the proxy wars waged there to keep the Cold War cold.

Achebe tells the tale of Okonkwo, a young man of some fame throughout the nine villages and beyond for his wrestling prowess. He is a product of his land, his culture, his religion, and his people. He represents a way of life which admires and rewards strength, loyalty, hard work, a strong hand, and strict adherence to a social code.

He builds his life, takes wives, works his land, produces boys and girls to honor and carry on his legacy. When duty to the tribe makes demands, he must respond even if that response requires great personal sacrifice.

You can’t read this book through the prism of your own experience. Part of the mystery of fiction from cultures far afield from your own is the chance it affords to consider how men and women of a certain time and place grappled with the very human issue of living within an exotic social group.

Consider your own social group, and imagine how you would explain your daily and exceptional actions to someone from another religion, from another country, from another language group, from another generation, from another century. Where would you start? Perhaps by considering how you spend a normal day, then how you arrived at the great choices that formed your life. That’s a helluva task to set yourself. In my humble opinion, that was the task Achebe set for himself in writing this book.