Sunday, July 10, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun

When I posted not long ago on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003) I found that novel to be well-constructed and a persuasive account of bourgeois Igbo life in contemporary Nigeria. It was impressive as an homage to Chinua Achebe and explored the same elemental themes of Nigerian conflictedness. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is much more ambitious and positions C.N.A. (at a level that Purple Hibiscus, for all its merits, did not) as potentially a novelist of historic importance and not just a Very Good Writer, of which Nigeria currently has quite a few.

It is an historical novel of the Biafran War (1967-1970) when the Igbo nation, tired of violent reactionary pogroms against the culturally strong Igbos from Hausas and other less dominant groups, tried to secede from Nigeria, declaring their southeastern homelands "Biafra." As anyone who lived through those years will recall, Biafra's almost total lack of international support (both the West and the USSR supported oil-rich Nigeria) resulted in a fearsome famine that was perhaps the first major famine to be widely televised across the developed world (not that that helped Biafra). The iconic famished infant with distended stomach, stick-like limbs and glassy eyes first became part of our collective conscience then.

C.N.A. writes again from the point of view of the Igbo bourgeoisie: Odenigbo is an Igbo nationalist professor at the university town of Nsukka. His lover is the beautiful sociology professor Olanna, the daughter of well-off parents. His houseboy is Ukwu, of humble origins but with good potential. Olanna's sister, Nainene, is harder and more cynical than Olanna, the businesswoman their parents wanted. Nainene's lover is Richard Churchill, expat Englishman who has come to see himself as a Biafran partisan and citizen.

The narrative circles around this core group of people as the war emerges and runs its course. The structure is a spiral: these comfortable people slowly and then precipitously see their lives deteriorate as the Biafran cause unravels. The author has compassion for her characters and doesn't take us to a horrorshow (although a novel of this time and place would be well-justified in taking that course), but the death, debasement and destruction are presented starkly enough to serve as the document the novel is written to be.

Several reviewers have mentioned Tolstoy, C.N.A. merits that, I think, by virtue of her erudition in the actual nature of the fighting, the politics and the neighborhood lifestyle of several classes of Nigerians. War and Peace is admirable in the sure handling of war and battle, and C.N.A. also gives careful attention to this material. The 543 pages kept me coming back during an otherwise very busy week, both emotionally and intellectually absorbing. We do indeed have a major talent on our hands.

1 comment:

karlo said...

sounds like a great book to read!