THERE WAS A COUNTRY (a personal history of Biafra) …by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe was one of the most celebrated African writers. The reverence for his books has been in part due to excellence of his writings, but mostly for being an excellent narrator and poet of his beliefs. Chinua Achebe begins the story with his early years, and lovingly describes the parents who raised him, and the society that nurtured him. He describes his schooling, and the inherent conflicts between his traditions and Christianity.

His views on African education are illustrated by an incident that occured at his school where his teacher, with drawings on the blackboard, was giving a lesson on the geography of Great Britain.Then the village ‘madman, from nowhere, snatched the chalk from the teacher and proceeded to give an extended lesson on Ogidi, Achebe’s hometown. It was the ‘madman’, according to Chinua Achebe, who had the ‘clarity of perspective’ that Nigerian children would not only benefit from colonial education but also from ‘instruction in their own history and civilisation’.

However, the focus of the book is his first-hand observation of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, otherwise known as the Biafran War. The prelude to the Civil War was Nigeria’s march to Independence, and the great promise of a young country recently freed from the yoke of colonial rule. But within six years of independence, Nigeria had become of a ‘cesspool of corruption and misrule.’

The climax was the coup, led by an Igbo senior army officer, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. This was followed by a counter-coup staged by Northern Nigerian soldiers, leading to the brutal slaughter of one hundred and eighty five Igbo army officers, and in the next four months the massacre of over thirty thousand Igbos.

The Biafran War had started in earnest with many Igbos fleeing in terror home to Eastern Nigeria: a territory that would, with secession, be called Biafra. With failed peace talks between the Biafran and Nigerian leaders, the civil war that flared left, in the end, over three million dead Nigerians. The vast majority of these casualties were sadly children.

The major Nigerian actors in the conflict were British trained soldiers Odumegwa Ojukwu (an Igbo from a highly priviledged background), and the head of state of Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon. The rivalry and the intense hatred between the two were to become a subplot in the fighting that followed.

With neither side prepared to compromise a Biafran state was declared with its own capital, government, constitution, provinces, flag, anthem, national bank and currency. The new country took its name from the Bight of Biafra, an expanse of water into which the Niger River empties.

With the Nigerian government intent on restoring its authority over all of its territory, the army was mobilised and quickly the capital of Biafra, Enugu, fell.The odds were heavily stacked against the new state, with only two thousand trained soldiers arrayed against the overwhelming might of the state army.

This was no just war between two armies. According to some Biafrans, the Nigerian army wasn’t just fighting a war; they wanted to wipe out all Igbos from the face of the earth. The Biafrans were soon completely outgunned, and in no time completely surrounded. The net then slowly closed in on the infant state.

With humanitarian aid to the civilian victims blocked, death by hunger and disease quickly became the symbol of the Biafran War. The brief and courageous resistance of the Biafrans soon crumbled, and was supplanted by a desperate struggle for survival. In 1970, with Ojukwu having fled the country, the inevitable fall came, and Biafra was reduced to smouldering rubble. ‘The cost in human lives made it one of the bloodiest wars in human history.’

Chinua Achebe was no innocent bystander in this conflict but unashamedly served the Biafran cause. Throughout the book are his scattered confessions of missed opportunities for peace by both sides. The horror and the pain he endured during the thirty months of bloody conflict were both profound and personal. He spent the next forty years of his life living and teaching abroad.

It seems he spent most of those years pondering the dashed expectations that many had for the new Nigerian state. All the optimism they once shared, he states, had to be re-thought. Also, as former Biafrans they had to contend and adjust to realities of a country that no longer appealed to them.

As with a dying parent talking to his children, THERE WAS A COUNTRY is Chinua Achebe’s last word to his country and continent. Corruption and the roguery of African leaders, according to him, have turned Africa into a pit of despair. He significantly concludes that we can no longer pass of the continent’s ‘problems to our complicated past and the cold war, however significant these factors are’.

THERE WAS A COUNTRY is his swansong, a memoir, and his disappointment with the political problems of his country. Perhaps in time, it will be regarded as Chinua Achebe’s finest literary achievement. For me, it towers even above Things Fall Apart. Far from being polemical, it is a book written with prudence, skill and dignity. Chinua Achebe’s immense wisdom is stamped on every sentence and chapter. His style cannot be compared to any of the past great writers. He always depicts human experience in simple human language.

The book is an opportunity to conference with a unique writer of singular skill. If there is any lamentation on his part, it is from leaving this world without seeing any diminution of human misery, in a continent where the most abundant riches and most delirious possibilities still exist.

In all his works, Chinua Achebe’s mode of writing was the same. Though he gladdened and depressed us at same time, he never failed to instruct and to steer us. Even from his valedictory words one can still hear hope, despite the mangled remains of our societies, of a continent not only rising but soaring from the abyss.

 

REVIEW OF LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA…GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

Love in the Time of Cholera has to be one of the most beautiful novels ever written. Young Florentina Ariza falls hopelessly in love with adolescent Fermina Daza. He is so smitten that for two weeks he can do nothing else but sit in the park and ogle at her as she walked home with her aunt. He soon musters the courage to write her a love note: all sixty pages of it, written on both sides, which he could recite from memory. In the end he could only hand her a truncated version of the letter.

The two soon fall in love, and for the next two years there is a frenetic exchange of love letters even though they hardly talk to one another. Finally, Florentina Ariza asks Fermina Daza to marry him, and she accepts. Fermina’s father, the cunning and calculating Lorenzo Daza, gets wind of the feelings between the two and takes his daughter away so that she can forget about Florentina Ariza. Lorenzo has greater ambitions for his daughter. It is a scheme that works. When Fermina Daza finally returns to her hometown, she was disgusted with herself for ever falling in love with Florentina.

Fermina Daza is soon wooed and married by the respected, charming and rich Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The happiness in Fermina Daza’s marriage only lasted as long as her honey moon. She soon realised that her husband was a weak and passionless man without even the poetic charms of Florentina Ariza. She loathes her ‘imbecilic’ and ‘half-mad’ in-laws. She felt lonely in her large house. She even began to have indecent dreams of unclad men that a happily married woman shouldn’t have. When asked at confession if she was ever unfaithful to her husband, she abruptly and wisely leaves never to go back again.

Dr.Juvenal Urbino justifies his own weakness by blaming the institution of marriage. It was an ‘absurd invention that could only exist by the infinite grace of God,’ he railed After all it went against all reason that two people of different backgrounds, character and even gender could be expected to be committed to living with one another when they had separate destinies.

Florentina Ariza didn’t fare well either. When Fermina Daza got married, he was so tormented by her memory that he daily prayed for Dr. Urbino’s death. He embarked on startling promiscuity, and by the time Dr. Urbino dies, fifty-one years, nine months, and four days since Fermina Daza rebuffed his advances, ‘he had some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred and twenty-two names of long –term liaisons.’

I asked myself of Florentina Ariza, undoubtedly the main character in the story, as I read the book: ‘How do I describe thee? He seems to be a compound of romance which though noted is not admired, and of lust which is detested and despised. Was he stricken by obsessive-compulsive behaviour? What kind of young man would write a sixty-six page love letter to a girl he hardly knows? What sane person would wait five decades for love? If you do eventually find it, how much of it will be left to enjoy after all that time? What sane person would drink cologne so that he may know his lover’s scent?

Was he an unrepentant sadist? Hamlet uses the sword to slay his enemies. Florentina Ariza’s conquest of vulnerable women suggests rage and retaliation for his rejection. He makes no distinction between the married and the unmarried or children and adults. Even when one of his lovers is slain by a jealous husband, he continues indiscriminately and almost without lamentation with his amorous and loveless pursuits. In the end he deserts his fourteen-year old lover, and niece, to be reunited with Fermina Daza. As he stumbles in pain, self-pity, and fury through the story, one is tempted to say to him, like Laertes to Hamlet: ‘the devil take your soul’.

However it is difficult not to love the effeminate character of Florentina Ariza. Though wanton he is no cad, and his character is stained with no crime. He never stopped weeping about the rebuff from Fermina. Even the women, who fall for him, seem to do so out of pity, as he hovers like an abandoned puppy around the ruins of his love. It is as if they can, like the reader, see his devastated and prostrate soul. They offer him companionship even though they perhaps realise they cannot give him fulfilment.

When Dr. Urbino finally dies at the age of eighty one, though Florentina Ariza made a point of going to see for himself his dead rival lying in his conjugal bed at his house, he didn’t rejoice. Instead, he ‘suffered a crisis of constipation that swelled his belly like a drum.’ Thus the author leaves it to the reader to unravel these varied and confounding facets of Florentina Ariza’s tragic and yet still comic character.

The book has a wonderful end. After a year of widowhood Fermina Daza finds her heart softening towards Florentina Ariza. The two once again started writing love letters to each other again. There is something charming about the river ride on a boat that the two old lovers take. As the boat reaches its final destination, Fermina Daza sees people she knows and understandably seeks to avoid them.

Florentino Ariza coaxes the captain to raise the yellow flag of cholera, which he does. There remain no passengers aboard but Fermina, Florentino, and the Captain. No port will allow them to dock because of the reported cholera outbreak, and they are forever ‘exiled to cruise the river. You wonder, as they sail away, if the two aged lovers will indeed find the happiness that had eluded them all their lives.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez must have spent a lot of time studying humanity-an enquiry that he conducted in great depth and with great interest. In this story he delves beyond superficial emotions and deftly describes the fears, desires, and the uneasiness below the surface. He cunningly refrains from moral judgement. As one reads the book one is constantly in touch with writer’s formidable and ranging mind. Once again the reader is afflicted with a multiplicity of emotions-a rollercoaster ride of both joy and sadness.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a true classic, and an amazing celebration of literature.

 

REVIEW OF WHO KILLED KIROV…by Amy Knight

There have been other major political upheavals before the Russian October, 1917, revolution. The French revolution may have been more colourful and more romantic. But no other revolution can match that of the Russians in the nobility of its conception, in the brilliance of its ideals, in its violence, and in its tragedy,

It is a mystery to the ordinary mind, though academics will continue to speculate, how a movement once just a dream of political outcasts became such a giant as to contest the mastery of the world. Was it due to the revolutionary rhetoric: ‘workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.’? Was it its ‘vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world’? Whatever the reasons were, the communist party became the most revolutionary movement in the history of man.

It was in the heart of the gigantic political body that Sergei Mironovich Kirov lived, flourished and perished. Like many of his contemporaries his life is typical rags to hero fairy tale. He was born on the 27th of March, 1886, to a peasant family. His father abandoned his family when Kirov was five years old. His mother soon died of tuberculosis. He had to rely on the largesse of others to receive an education. He was soon ensnared in the political ferment of in Russia that heralded the Revolution in 1905.

He joined the workers’ demonstrations that followed Bloody Sunday in January 1905, when tsarist troops mowed down a demonstrating crowd killing about 200 people. He was jailed several times before the October revolution of 1917. With the communists in power he served the Bolshevik army that brutally crushed all resistance. He rose within the party until he became a member of the politburo, and later the secretary of the Central Committee.

He therefore shared the stage with some of the most fabled figures of the Russian revolution. He worked with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, the three who embodied the essence of the revolution. He served with the other architects of the Russian state Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. He was acquainted with one of the most eminent Russian writers, Emil Gorky. He knew the great General Zhukov. There are few to match these great men on the Russian pantheon. Thus to dig into the murder of Kirov is to cast a light into the lives and intrigue of very powerful men.

Sergei Kirov was shot in the neck on the 1 December, 1934, as he walked into his offices in Leningrad by Leonid Nikolaev. Kirov’s bodyguard, Borisov, who had been walking ‘too far behind’ his master, a grave breach of discipline, to even see the shooting, died a day after the crime. Did Nikolaev have a personal motive or did he have accomplices? Was Kirov’s murder an attack on Stalin and communism? Or did Stalin have Kirov killed because of his rising popularity in the party, and later used his murder as a pretext to wipe out his party enemies,

Interestingly, Nikolaev never tried to escape after the shooting: instead he was found next to his victim unconscious. The assassination of the Kirov triggered a catalogue of repressive measures. Nikolaev, after several months of torture confessed to a litany of crimes against the state and was shot. His mother, wife and siblings were also arrested and executed.

This was followed by a series of show trials in which many with even the flimsiest of connections with Nikolaev were arrested, charged and shot. Many of the old Bolsheviks were imprisoned, and the common charge was complicity in the murder of Kirov. The old guard of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin after being charged ‘with having a moral responsibility’ in Kirov’s murder met with the same fate. Others committed suicide in despair. Even the exiled Trotsky was charged with Kirov’s murder, and sentenced to death in-abstentia. Trotsky was later killed in Mexico by a Soviet agent, and most of his family members were murdered.

The executions slowly gathered force like an avalanche, and were a prelude to the Great Purge. The latter according to Whitaker Chambers in his book ‘Witness’ ‘was in the most literal sense a massacre. It was like one of those western jack-rabbit hunts in which a whole countryside forming a vast circle that finally closes in on its victims, and then clubs them to death. The purgees, like the rabbits, had no possible chance of escape’.

The reader initially flinches from the violence and the brutality in Stalin’s Russia. It precedes the murder of Kirov, and continues without respite after it.  The book fails to resolve the mystery that it set out to answer. Despite pointing a finger at Josef Stalin for the murder and even arguing compellingly about his culpability, it does not provide conclusive evidence to support its thesis.

Yet it raises a few interesting issues, and answers an even broader question. It points the finger at the powerful men who were part of the Soviet leadership and were themselves later purged. In other words the writer is saying that Kirov was not just a victim but he was also a culprit.

He had after all been an accomplice in the crimes that the young Bolshevik regime perpetrated upon its people, and he had contributed to Stalin’s rise to power’. The author asks therefore if the communist old guard with their unquestioning and mindless support of Stalin create a cult around his leadership, and thus generously feed the monster that destroyed them, and later soaked the entire Russian landscape in blood.

Who killed Kirov is a well written historical novel, and is a compelling narrative of the Kirov murder. It is also a well-researched analysis of the psychology of the Stalin years. There are no heroes in the story, but only villains and their victims. The writer portrays Stalin as the predecessor to the brutal autocrats who continue to haunt and hound humanity to this day. The book transcends the goriness of the violence by posing questions that the entire world should be asking itself. What it depicts seethes on in both rich and poor countries even in the 21st century.

 

 

REVIEW OF THE END OF THE AFFAIR….. by Graham Greene.

Many have considered this book as Greene’s confessional work about a liaison he once had with a married woman: one who loved him but refused to leave her husband. The End of the Affair is about an adulterous fling between Maurice Bendrix, and Sarah Miles.

Bendrix occasionally visited Sarah at her house, and made love to her even in her husband’s, Henry Miles, presence. Henry was aware of his floundering marriage, and even suspected that his wife had an affair. He even discusses his suspicion with Bendrix.  They talk and laugh about the matter like two old friends. For Bendrix it was easy to deceive Henry who at times seemed to be a  ‘conniver at his wife’s unfaithfulness.’

With dark certitude both knew that their affair was doomed to fail. Bendrix was intensely possessive. Due to jealousy Bendrix hated Sarah because she would not leave her husband. He also hated Henry because Sarah always went back to him. He was also aware that Sarah had other men in her life.

While Bendrix was struggling to find true love, Sarah was living in her own desert, with sorrow coming in great waves. There was ambivalence in her feelings about God. She blamed God for everything: her dead marriage to Henry, and her unhappy relationships with men. Because of her fury with Him she promises ‘to rob God of what’ He loves in her the most, and thus embarks on a stint of promiscuity. Her complete conversion to Catholicism finally came about when Bendrix survived an explosion that Sarah thought had killed him.

Bendrix later read in her diary that Sarah made a promise to God that she would break off their relationship if God allowed Bendrix to live following the bomb blast. The story is brought to a climax with the events that follow Sarah’s serious illness from a lung infection.

With The End of the Affair, Greene is able to speak to the collective human experience that in most of us there is a suffering victim desperately seeking meaning to life. To place the story during the World War 2 perhaps Greene was pointing to the faults in society, the senseless and apocalyptic power of war, which led to social wretchedness and the decay of the human spirit. Many of those who lived through this war had also witnessed the carnage of the first Great War.

In raging against society, some try to tear it apart as with Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment who commits the murder of an innocent person. However Bendrix’s rage is not manifested in political or criminal actions but against the norms of society. In believing in nothing, a vision of man without God, he had complete belief in himself.

He believed there were no frontiers that he could not take, and that he could also have anyone he desired, including someone else’s wife. But Sarah’s refusal to leave her husband refutes and even destroys this notion. She rejected their affair as a sin, and a violation of an inner moral justice. With this rejection Bendrix’s boundless self-belief was shaken, and had to disappear and be supplanted by a greater spiritual force.

In a dramatic twist, following a few intricate turns in the story, Bendrix hires the private detective, Mr. Parkis, on behalf of Henry to find out Sarah’s current favourite lover. It turns out to be God, as Sarah gradually undergoes her tortuous religious transformation and ‘fallen into belief like I fell in love’. This and other revelations in the book force Bendrix, amidst the horrors of war and death to deal with the self-effacing acceptance of the existence of God. With this, the book ends with the hope of his salvation from nihilism to a new life of faith.

When one thinks of The End of the Affair one thinks of Maurice Bendrix. In a strange way he seems to have been selected by divine grace, even though he is unworthy of it. The writer skillfully introduces us to the idea of the family. Sarah has it in her weak husband, Henry, and Bendrix doesn’t. Of the two he is the one most separated from the lifelines of existence and society. His attachment to Sarah and her husband seems like a misguided attempt to re-enter the bosom of a family. The stage for the story is mainly set in his tortured consciousness, with him drawing a sword to fight social phantoms that he cannot slay. We see ourselves in his thoughts, and we are familiar with his rage.

Sarah seems to be nature’s fire, a figure in a spiritual dimension, to force Bendrix’s redemption. Her affair with Bendrix was not a biblical blessing but a prelude to grief and the impotence of the soul: the suffering that precedes penitence. Poor Henry, the cuckold, boldly endures his pain, and is the symbol of the dignity of the human being even when humiliated.

The End of the Affair is Greene at his philosophical best. In reading The End of the Affair we find ourselves under the power of a mighty intellect and the inspiration of a sublime novel. Greene’s motive for writing the book is explicit. Its design, and indeed its genius, is to move us from our own scepticism to faith. This is a theme that the writer skilfully sustains from the beginning to the end. The movie by Neil Jordan with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore is a classic and great tribute to the novel and its author.