Prof Achebe wins Man Booker Prize

John Ezard
Wednesday June 13, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Man Booker International judges honour Chinua Achebe

‘Father of modern African literature’ beats formidable shortlist including Carlos Fuentes and Doris Lessing, signaling the £60,000 prize’s status as an authentic world award

The £60,000 Man Booker International prize goes today to the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in a decision which confers equal lustre on giver and receiver.

In choosing to give the award to a man who is regularly described as the father of modern African literature, the judges have signalled that this new global Booker has achieved the status of an authentic world award in only its second contest.

By honouring Achebe they have redressed what is seen in Africa – and beyond – as the acute injustice that he has never received the Nobel prize, allegedly because he has spent his life struggling to break the grip of western stereotypes of Africa. One of his most famous essays is an onslaught against Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness, a novel about a European’s descent into savagery in Africa.

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The choice of a 76-year-old also establishes the MBI as a lifetime achievement award. The shortlisted author thought to have come nearest to beating Achebe is the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who is 78.

Among mostly younger writers on a towering shortlist were Britain’s Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, Ireland’s John Banville, the Americans Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, the Canadians Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, and the dissident Israeli Amos Oz.

Achebe, the son of a mission school teacher, grew up to become the most widely translated writer Africa has produced thanks to the novel considered to be his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart (1958). The story is set in the Igbo community of Umuofia, in the years preceding colonial government. When the Christian English missionaries arrive, Achebe’s protagonist, Okonkwo, fails to convince his fellow villagers that their own society will fall apart if they exchange their cultural core for that of the English.

The decision crowns an astonishing few days for the Igbo people of southern Nigeria whose doomed bid to secede touched off the Biafra war in the late 1960s. Last week a young fellow-Igbo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a disciple of Achebe, won the Orange fiction prize with her novel about the war, Half of a Yellow Sun.

The first MBI award in 2005 went to the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. The Booker judges announce the winner of their biennial award today with a chorus of accolades. The chairwoman of the judging committee, the academic and critic Elaine Showalter, said: “In Things Fall Apart and his other fiction set in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe inaugurated the modern African novel. He also illuminated the path for writers around the world seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies.”

Showalter was joined on the judging panel by the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer and the author Colm Toíbín. Gordimer said of Achebe that he has achieved “what one of his characters brilliantly defines as the writer’s purpose: ‘a new-found utterance’ for the capture of life’s complexity. This fiction is an original synthesis of the psychological novel, the Joycean stream of consciousness, the post-modern breaking of sequence. He is a joy and an illumination to read.”

Toíbín, meanwhile, said that Things Fall Apart “manages to capture an essential moment in the colonial drama; it dramatises momentous change with clarity, sympathy and astonishing fluency and ease.”

The passion of Achebe’s convictions is shown by his refusal for many years to allow his novels to be translated into Igbo, which he still considers a bastardised missionary version of authentic village dialects. However, Things Fall Apart has been translated into 50 other languages and sold 10m copies.

His other most influential work – discussed in classrooms worldwide – is the essay An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975), which accuses Conrad of dehumanising Africans and rendering their continent as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril”.

Achebe was once asked which authors had told the story of Africa well. Hundreds, he said, “including many we don’t normally talk about and regard as literature – the oral tradition”, the village storytellers who had been active long before colonisers introduced pen and paper. “Humanity,” he said, “will always attempt to create a story.”

Achebe will receive the award and a trophy at a ceremony on June 28 in Oxford.

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