The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What I’m Reading

Posted on: April 9, 2007

I am almost done with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. It has been my companion through the long weekend: I’ve eaten with it at the dinner table, stayed up with it late into the night and my brain clung to it as I lied awake in the early morning, before I could go to sleep. The story is set in Nigeria in the 60’s, starting a few years before the Biafran War, and built around the lives of an upper middle-class Igbo family and their loved ones.

In the few reviews that I read the person always mentioned how Biafra became a byword for starvation, with parents admonishing their children at the dinner table on how Biafran children would have made a single plate of food last a week. I was born in the early 80’s and missed all this. (My mother referred to less fortunate people in general rather than any specific group.) The first major African political situation that I can remember being aware of in my childhood was the apartheid regime in South Africa. So I made the mistake of googling for it when I was barely half way through the novel and every page turned since then was done with a spirit braced for the worst.

I found the Guardian review funny because because Maya Jaggi asserts that Nigeria’s colonial past was “alluded to”. For anyone who has read the novel, I doubt that you’ll disagree that a stronger word would have been more appropriate. I don’t know how more directly Adichie could have referred to it, short of setting her book in a colonised Nigeria. There’s a paragraph in which she neatly summarises how the country was created!

The best things I love about the book are the plausible, complex, sympathetic characters and how Adichie manages to incorporate the factual into her fictional account without strangling her imagination. (You know how much I hate that.) From the jacket copy this is precisely the kind of book I would run away from, but Adichie’s writing talent is astounding. Really. I don’t know how it’s possible to write this well at her age. I imagine she’s the kind of writer who make others sigh in despair.

Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars is a funny book. And by funny, I mean odd. We have a narrator, living at the turn of the 20th century, disappointed with the prejudiced way medical minds have approached diseases. They always think about ways to cure it first, to eradicate it, they despise it, the silly birds, ignoring the value of what is right in front of them. Disease is humanity’s true state, our past and our future, health being a minor moment of little interest or import in our lives. Our narrator, keen on mental illnesses specifically, will apply his truly scientific mind to this true manifestation of human nature.

He finds all that he could ever want in a rich psychotic inmate at a luxurious asylum blessed with a horrific visage and physique who has a taste for murdering young women.

Of course you will be getting at least one excerpt. These French authors, they are something else.

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6 Responses to "What I’m Reading"

It is funny: when I read this novel, I had trouble appreciating how good it is, mainly because I was reading it in the shadow of her earlier novel. Reading what you and others are saying about it is really making me look forward to re-reading it with my bookgroup in a few months.

But, you know, I think that since the novel is far much less about the constraints of the colonial past than the post-colonial present and the efforts of the Biafrans to escape the dominance of the Nigerian influence, it isn’t completely incorrect to say it alludes to the colonial past. That provides a foundation for the story being told, and still has its echoes in the way that some of the characters act, but for me the real interest of the novel is in the sense that it has really moved on from those days. In that way, it is a nice parallel to Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss.

I can understand that completely — I love her latest but Purple Hibiscus was something very very special and hard to top — to manage to combine such delicacy and power in writing all of those characters placed it leagues above most of the novels I’ve ever read.

Now for me the post-colonial is what it is because it encompasses so much of what is colonial. From the twins’ posh boarding school to their status demanding that they obtain degrees overseas, to the need for wigs and reverence for all things foreign to the “London bridge” song Olanna sings to Baby, for me it is a subtext that runs throughout the entire novel.

What does it mean to be Nigerian in a country that was created for you by foreigners? There is tension between the Igbo and the other tribes and out of the “genocide” came the Igbo’s in eastern Nigeria’s call for independence. What was the roots of this hostility? In the book it is argued that while tribes certainly had their fights, the British came and incited the animosity which lead to such large scale violence.

And all this converges with the indigenous languages, culture, history and the feelings of nationalism first for Nigeria and then for Biafra.

I think that all of the “colonial” undercurrents of the post-colonial are so entangled with the “post”period, and run continuously throughout the novel, that when put together it emerges as something more than an “allusion”.

It may have appeared more prominent to me because, as a Jamaican, some of the attitudes were so familiar (in less extreme forms, perhaps) even into the 21st century.

Chimamanda has brought into Nigerian/African Literature a perculiar style that is somewhat similar but at the same time completely different from what Achebe had given in his novels. She is unique in this sense – her style of writing is just too great!

Now I’ll have to read Achebe. I just bought Things Fall Apart in a book sale last summer. Welcome and thanks for commenting.

I read Things Fall Apart in college, and I absolutely loved it.

I just finished Half of a Yellow Sun, and also loved it, and now I’m looking forward to reading Purple Hisbiscus.

Regarding the colonial/post colonial conversation, you might find the movie “Earth” to be interesting. It’s the story of the partition of India in 1947. Neighbors who have gotten along for hundreds of years, suddenly turning on each other in violent, hate filled ways…very similar to Half of a Yellow Sun, and also created by the British “Divide and Conquer” mentality, I think. Yes, the Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus fought before the British came in, but the massacres when the British left were horrid. It’s a wonderful film. Very powerful.

Imani, I’m so glad to find another ardent Adichie fan! Yes, I love her writing, it’s so fluid, not at all forced; she has great sympathy for her characters, who are created so well and with such nuance. I can’t wait for her third book, and yes, I’m one of those of her era who despairs at ever writing such fantastic works.

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