10/08/2012 12:10 pm ET

The Book We're Talking About: 'There Was A Country' By Chinua Achebe

"There Was A Country" by Chinua Achebe
Penguin, $27.95
October 11, 2012

What is it about?
Achebe, the author of the widely read "Things Fall Apart," in addition to scores of other stories and poems, chronicles the events surrounding the Nigerian Civil War, a three-year battle lasting from 1967-1970 and directly involving the author's home and family. Already a noted writer at the time, Achebe supported Biafran independence. This book describes the state of the country prior to war, so that readers can understand its potential, and carries on through the monstrous violence that took place.

Why are we talking about it?
Achebe's opus, "Things Fall Apart," is a classic that we very much enjoy. His criticism has made a splash in the past, too: In 1975, he gave a lecture on racism in "The Heart of Darkness" that caused controversy. We admire his ability to write non-fiction in a manner that is both poetic and declarative.

Who wrote it?
Achebe was born in southeastern Nigeria in 1930 to Christian parents. As a child, he took an interest in literature and world religions. His most popular book is a short novel called "Things Fall Apart," which is critical of British colonialism in Africa. Achebe writes all of his novels in English, and supports the use of English by African writers in spite of the stigma surrounding it. He acted as an ambassador for the Biafran people during the Nigerian Civil War, but left for America out of frustrations shortly thereafter. He is currently a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.

Who will read it?
Those wishing to learn more about African history, those interested in war stories, fans of non-fiction.

What do the reviewers say?
The Daily Beast: "This narrative stops short, as if Achebe partially subscribes to the thinking of Toni Morrison, who famously canceled a memoir, saying, “There is a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me.” For Achebe it appears that his life is only interesting within the context of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigeria-Biafra War) of 1967–70, which claimed up to 3 million lives, most of them from the Igbo ethnic group of which Achebe and I are both members."

The Guardian: "In the middle chapters, memoir gives way to largely neutral historical analysis, with Achebe citing a range of voices, media reports and books."

Impress your friends:
Achebe writes frequently about the Nigerian Igbo people, a fragmented community that at one point included speakers of over 100 languages and dialects. The most significant holiday in Igbo culture is the New Yam Festival, during which the newly harvested crops are eaten. The oldest man in the community takes on the role of eating the first yam at the New Yam Festival each year.

Opening line:
"An Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body."

Notable passage:
"We, the intellectuals, were deeply disillusioned by the ineptitude of Nigeria's ruling elite and by what we saw taking place in our young nation. As far as their relationship with the masses was concerned, Nigerian politicians, we felt, had slowly transformed themselves into the personification of the wasp--a notorious predator from the insect kingdom, Wasps, African children learn during storytime, greet unsuspecting prey with a painful, paralyzing sting; then lay eggs on their body, which then proceed to "eat the victim alive."



Best Fall 2012 Books