Continental Drift

Biafrans demonstrating, 1968.
Biafrans demonstrating, 1968.

IN 1956, CHINUA ACHEBE, then twenty-six years old, worked as director of external broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He was a TV exec by day, but at night he worked furiously on the manuscript for his first novel. He’d been scribbling this thing out by hand, but when he was done he wanted to have a “good-looking manuscript,” so he sent it off to a company in England that advertised its “ability to transform a manuscript through typing into an attractive document.” The naive kid then sent the only copy of his manuscript to the agency. In a few weeks he received a letter from the company acknowledging receipt of the book and requesting thirty-two pounds to produce the typed version. This was no chump change to young Achebe; it was, he notes, “a significant slice of my salary.” But he sent it anyway.

You know, of course, what happened next. Bubkes—a whole lot of nothing. Six weeks passed and Achebe heard no word, received no typed manuscript, so he wrote to the agency in London, but heard nothing back. They had the only copy of his first novel. Chinua Achebe was fucked.

Luckily, his job at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation had him working with a British woman, Angela Beattie, who’d been a producer at the BBC. Achebe talked to her about what had happened to his novel, and Beattie was so incensed that when she next traveled to England she visited the typing agency personally. She gave the manager there the kind of hell that only well-connected people are able to give: the kind that works. Weeks later, Achebe received “a handsome package in the mail.” It was his manuscript—a little novel called Things Fall Apart. Published in 1958, the book went on to become a classic of African and world literature. It’s sold more than eight million copies worldwide. There’s a good chance someone is reading it right now.

Rian Malan, roughly twenty years younger than Achebe, garnered great acclaim for his first book, too, a memoir called My Traitor’s Heart. Published in 1989, it has a mouthful of a subtitle, but it explains the gist of the book quite well: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. Malan is a white South African, an Afrikaner, who grew up in a suburban pro-apartheid household. His great-uncle was D. F. Malan, the South African prime minister who was the principal architect of apartheid in the 1940s. In 1979, Rian left South Africa and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a journalist. But by 1985 he had returned and was forced to confront the “terror and ecstasy” of his homeland.

The result of that time, and investigation, was My Traitor’s Heart. The book explores a series of racially charged murders while also delving into Malan’s family history. It, too, was a tremendous success; it even helped land him on the cover of Esquire. Malan spared no one his sharp, critical eye. Maybe the surest sign of the book’s boldness was its capacity to outrage: True to the memoir’s title, Malan had included material to offend every faction he wrote about. “There’s something in it everyone will object to—Afrikaners, the police, white liberals, black nationalists,” he told People magazine in 1990. His parents weren’t too thrilled about the book, either.

These two books made Achebe and Malan famous. But now, with Achebe eighty-one years old and Malan fifty-eight, their new books take on a different tone than the ones that announced their arrivals decades ago. Rather than introducing the world to a community, to a people, to a nation, Achebe’s There Was a Country and Malan’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight read as retrospectives—summaries of the lives of each man and each man’s country as both suffered through tumultuous times. Achebe writes about the Biafran War and Malan about life in the wake of apartheid’s end. The sweep of both books prompts the reader to imagine them as two forms of testimony, aimed at the judgments of posterity. Achebe and Malan, respectively, sitting on the witness stand in a courtroom. What do the witnesses have to say?

Achebe’s story is broken into four parts that cover, roughly, the personal and political arc of his life story. It begins with his youth and early years of professional success. It then chronicles the start of the Biafran War—when his people, the Igbo, attempted to secede from the Nigerian state and found an independent nation—and proceeds to a third section recounting the last gasp of that war and Biafra’s defeat. And finally, Achebe lays out Nigeria’s transition into a modern state, together with the rickety reintroduction of the Igbo into the greater Nigerian population. But the general plan of the book is also conveyed at the outset, with a short introduction.

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.

The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade to the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.

In other words, Achebe at least implicitly traces the origins of conflicts such as the Biafran War to the European colonization of Africa and the partition of that continent into new state-based boundaries. He seems to be saying that the African present began when these two cultures met. Regardless of whether one agrees with this fully—it seems to limit the importance of African history, and animosity, before Europeans arrived—Achebe seems to be making a point of scale. The stakes for all got higher once these new nations were created.

Malan’s condensed history of his own people, the Afrikaners, also begins when those Europeans reached African shores.

The first Malan arrived in Cape Town in 1688 and owned slaves. His sons trekked into the interior and dispossessed the Khoisan. Their sons moved even deeper into Africa and, by 1840, Malans were spreading like a plague, eating up landscapes, mowing down game, subjugating everyone they came across. My sort wound up owning almost everything and it was nice while it lasted, but by rights we should have been wiped out . . . or at least dispossessed.

These two summaries of the respective histories felt strangely touching to my American heart. While both writers admit mixed feelings about this clash—dare I say marriage?—of civilizations, neither one does any backflips to disavow or deny it. They’re still talking about the whole big, messy spectacle of Africa’s modern age. In a sometimes willfully obtuse country like mine, where the Tennessee Tea Party wants to remove mentions of the Founding Fathers having owned slaves or “intruding on” Native Americans from school textbooks because such historical facts are “an awful lot of made-up criticism,” Achebe and Malan’s forthright summaries of their nations’ complicated histories seem pretty damn mature. At least they admit that, for better and worse, the European and the African are citizens of the same country! In the United States, many of us seem to believe that shutting our eyes and covering our ears actually will make the bogeymen—or bogey-immigrants, as the case may be—disappear.

As Achebe makes clear, Nigerians could ill afford to wish away the conflict that seized their country beginning in the mid-1960s. On January 15, 1966, the ruling Nigerian government was deposed by a military coup. Achebe explains that a number of small scandals had rocked the government earlier, in 1963, ’64, and ’65, so when the coup arrives he seems disheartened and even surprised that the clowns on top have been deposed.

“The coup was led by a group of junior officers, most of them Igbo,” Achebe writes. It was called the “Nzeogwu coup” after the leader, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. What matters most here is the high concentration of Igbo in the leadership. While the initial reaction of most Nigerians upon hearing about the coup was “spontaneous, overt jubilation,” rumors soon circulated that this overthrow was actually “a sinister plot by the ambitious Igbos of the East to seize control of Nigeria.”

And that seemed to be when hell pretty much broke loose. “The weeks following the coup saw Easterners attacked both randomly and in an organized fashion.” Soon soldiers were trying to round up prominent Igbo—including Achebe, who escaped with his family. A problem familiar the world over flared up for the billionth time: ethnic conflict. (And just in case Achebe’s account of it seems remote or exotic, a fresh burst of the American brand broke out as I began writing this essay, when a domestic terrorist and white supremacist named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple near Milwaukee and killed six people who’d just shown up to pray before he was shot to death by police.)

On May 27, 1967, the leadership of Eastern Nigeria mandated that the new regional government secede and become “a free sovereign and independent state by the name and title of the Republic of Biafra.” Three days later it was official, and the war between Biafra and Nigeria had begun.

Meanwhile, since Malan is a more polemic writer more closely implicated in the implosion of his country’s ruling caste, he supplies a sharply personal account of apartheid’s final days—and the emergence of a postapartheid order. In 1994, his country was going through its own sort of coup: the end of white rule, the dismantling of apartheid, and black South Africa’s ascent to power. Malan, like Achebe, was a member of a much-maligned and mistrusted minority. (Though for fairer reasons!) That white minority was terrified about what was about to happen to them. “When the sun rose on April 27, 1994, every man was at his post, waiting for the blacks to attack,” Malan recalls.

Nothing happened, so they set off in convoy, searching for the war their leaders had prophesied. By the time the camera found them, they’d been wandering for days, children crying, wives sweaty and ill-tempered, husbands with four-day beards and the dazed, haunted look of men who were beginning to realize they’d made terrible fools of themselves.

But before the reader is allowed to enjoy a smug chuckle at these bewildered warriors, on a quest for a battle, only to discover universal disinterest in them and their ostensible plight, Malan admits that he, too, was sure of the coming race war. True, he wasn’t haunting the landscape with an arsenal of loaded guns—but he told anyone and everyone that “civil war is inevitable.” When it didn’t happen, Malan threw a tantrum.

“Unwilling to accept such humiliation, I set out to discredit the outcome. The peace is illusory, I sneered; anarchy is still coming.” He pointed out the failings that were real—crime, abandoned factories, incompetence, and corruption—but the world didn’t find the evidence compelling in the face of such historic change. “There came a day when I realized history had marched on and left me high and dry, a middle-aged white male fulminating to no effect to a tiny audience of like-minded bad losers. Anything I said was irrelevant, and I had become ridiculous.”

This moment, the largely peaceful end of apartheid, is transformational for Malan. He seems to make it his business, from then on, to try to dismantle his own preconceptions about South Africa and its potential, while also debating those who harbor views of the black-led South Africa that he deems overly romantic. He reserves a special venom for white liberals. He admits he was wrong, but then sets out to prove that everyone else was, too. As a result, Malan’s testimony from the witness-box is chiefly a summary of his attempts to truly see the new South Africa.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight doesn’t follow a sustained narrative like the one Achebe constructs in There Was a Country. Instead, it’s a series of articles that he’s published in various places: Rolling Stone, The Observer, Esquire UK, and more. It’s broken into seven sections with broad subject titles like “Politics,” “Culture,” “Disease,” and so on. The pieces were all written between 1994 and 2010, but taken together they form a portrait of postapartheid South Africa as thorough and beguiling as Achebe’s Nigeria.

One reason that Malan’s work benefits from the anthology treatment is that the man can write his ass off. He plays at some false modesty in the introduction, fearing that an old mentor would deem the book “‘a chickenshit collection’ and he’d be right.” But I’m not buying. Here, for example, is a representative scene from the book, about driving through the streets of Arusha, a town in Tanzania:

In the morning, we headed out of town on a road clogged with ancient, listing minibus taxis, all weaving back and forth as if drunk, dodging cavernous potholes. The verges were lined with spaza shops, rickety little wooden shacks with brand-new Coca-Cola signs, vivid splashes of capitalist color against a prevailing backdrop of socialist gray.

That’s top-shelf writing, and Malan casts off such descriptions so regularly that the pages of his book begin to seem like a path strewn with rose petals.

In comparison, Achebe’s writing is less lovely—but Achebe is pursuing a different narrative, and a different sort of readership, than what Malan has in mind. In his controlled bursts of reportage, Malan is writing vividly for magazine and periodical readers. Achebe is addressing his people, his country, the world; he’s taking on the role of statesman rather than storyteller. And at this point in his venerable career “statesman” seems like the proper title for the man. His tone is more sincere than Malan’s, his language more straightforward, but Achebe can still throw down. In the early pages of his book he writes—again with posterity clearly in view—about what he sees as the responsibility of the writer, about the need to engage with the world: “The writer is often faced with two choices—turn away from the reality of life’s intimidating complexity or conquer its mystery by battling with it. The writer who chooses the former soon runs out of energy and produces elegantly tired fiction.” Elegantly tired fiction! I nominate that as the finest definition of what’s ailing so much contemporary literary fiction.

Based on the evidence he presents, Achebe could be forgiven for succumbing to a sense of weariness, if not outright exhaustion, himself. To put it mildly, the Biafran War ended badly for the Igbo. On January 15, 1970, the Biafran delegation surrendered to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. “At the end of the thirty-month war,” Achebe explains, “Biafra was a vast smoldering rubble. The head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately 20 percent of the entire population. This high proportion was mostly children.” Despite claims that the Igbo were “wonderfully integrated” into Nigerian society afterward, Achebe strongly disagrees. He writes that the Nigerian state’s failure to assimilate the Igbo is “one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.”

This quote highlights one regrettable aspect of Achebe’s memoir. He doesn’t seem willing, or able, to lob much serious criticism at his own people. I’m not suggesting he say that the Biafrans and Nigerians were equally to blame for the war, or any morally relativistic crap like that. But Achebe states elsewhere that “the Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society.” And at several key points throughout the book, Achebe reaches for similar generalizations, hymning the greatness of Igbo culture without admitting much in the way of its flaws. Achebe allows just one paragraph in the whole book to acknowledge there might be some failings in the Igbo. “There is no doubt at all there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behavior that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.” But even this shortcoming, in Achebe’s account, stems from the Igbo’s “success”—which is sort of like saying, “I know I can be an asshole sometimes, but I only act that way because I’m so great.”

As a black American I can relate to Achebe’s potential wariness about publicly criticizing his own people. Decades—centuries!—of abuse by outsiders can wear a group down. Malignant portrayals of one’s people, not to mention systematic discrimination, are going to make anyone a little thin-skinned. And at that point, all public criticism is treated like betrayal. But when the members of a group, whether the Igbo or black Americans (not to mention many others), can’t bear any criticism, even the constructive kind, we risk stagnation. Our feelings won’t be hurt, but we also won’t improve. Nobody gets better without such examination. Surely Achebe counts as enough of a friend of the Igbo that he could have been more raw. Then again, maybe that’s asking too much of Achebe. He’s a man of his era, and he performed brilliantly within it. Perhaps it’s on the children of Achebe—and there are many of us around the world—to push our writing that much further, as he did in his time; to risk critiquing our own as much as we do others.

Malan, by contrast, manages to be quite rough on his people, whether he’s sizing up family members or the Boers as a whole. Think of Malan’s depiction of those white South Africans in search of a race war in 1994. Or his description of his ancestors “spreading like a plague, eating up landscapes . . . subjugating everyone they came across.” And yet, in many other places, Malan comes to the defense of his white brethren. He admits their flaws without qualification, but isn’t content to portray them simply as devils. He’s proud of their industry, their fortitude, and their culture. He wants them remembered as complex human beings rather than the caricatures bequeathed by the antiapartheid movement. His willingness to be critical earns him the leeway to be kind. I actually found myself feeling sympathetic for some people with whom, I’m guessing, I’d never want to have a beer.

Still, Chinua Achebe and Rian Malan, each in his own distinctive voice, make excellent witnesses for their respective countries, and for their moments in time. They spend their books explaining, reframing, arguing, and illuminating the tumultuous events that shaped their nations into the complex, conflicted societies they are today. And in a way, both seem to have known that the courtroom they sit in has been empty all along. The judges and juries, prosecutors and defense, left long ago. Nigeria and South Africa no doubt still feel the fallout from the upheavals at the center of these accounts, but are their citizens still talking about them as earnestly as Achebe and Malan do? That seems doubtful. Life moves on, and pretty quickly. Here in America, no one’s too awed by the election of the nation’s first black president anymore; we’re just stressed that unemployment numbers haven’t gone down steeply or rapidly enough. But the court of history is always in session. Both of these brilliant literary witnesses also know that even when the hall seems empty, the record is being kept.

Victor LaValle’s latest novel is The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). He teaches at Columbia University.