Thursday, February 21, 2013

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Biafran flag (sunrise)
Ogbunigwe land mine

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sophomore effort Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is an oeuvre of great gravitas, more so than any other African author I have read.  Achebe's simple yet powerful Things Fall Apart (the first sentence of the novel alludes to that work) and Okri's The Famished Road, a classic of magic realism, have been the gold standard for Nigerian literature.  With the Nigerian-Biafran War as a backdrop (1967-1970), the author has put a face to the conflict in a scholarly fashion.  In fact two of her grandfathers died in the war (frontispiece).  This was the war that made "Harold Wilson syndrome" (p. 338) or kwashiorkor the poster child of suffering.

The novel is narrated entirely from the point of view ("POV") of three of the leading characters: Ugwu, a 13 year old houseboy (p. 5), Olanna, his Master's (Odenigbo) wife, and Richard, lover to Kainene, Olanna's twin sister.  The reader only knows what they know, albeit sometimes limited.  The British Army has arrived "to finish us off" (p. 274) and "Lagos says Chinese soldiers are fighting for us" (p. 346).  The facts are never "authorially" approved.  We never hear from Odenigbo or Kainene. They are only observed from the outside.  For example, Olanna is brought news that Ugwu, press ganged into the Biafran army, has been killed.  We later learn he has survived.  Each chapter is told from a single POV, the leading word in each chapter is a character's name, the POV key.  Adichie crafts the POV very carefully.  just when you think she has slipped in chap. 26, Ugwu reveals that he "pretended not to have heard" (p. 293) Olanna and Muokelu talking in private !

Olanna Ozobia (p. 27) and Kainene are London School of Economics (pp. 40 and 57) graduates, the Igbo elite, Olanna beautiful, Kainene brilliant.  Kainene is lover with Richard, despite his repeated impotence (p. 63).

The book jumps around between events that took place during the early 1960s and the late 1960s in 4 sections.   This structure is used for dramatic effect, as two distinct acts of infidelity are revealed (pp. 231 and 234) to the reader well after the war is underway.  The war parties are tribal (p. 20), mainly the Hausa and the Igbo (referred to as the Jews (Holocaust reference, p. 50) of Nigeria due to racist attitudes).  The "Igbo were surly and money-loving" (p. 55).  The Igbo, under Colonel Ojukwu (p. 158), secede from Nigeria on July 6, 1967 (p. 161) to form the Republic of Biafra (named after the Bight of Biafra, p. 158).

There are 8 references to a book entitled The World was Silent When we Died, a work in progress (p. 374).  At first we ascribe it to Richard, yet he is not a finisher and we ultimately learn that Ugwu is the author (pp. 396, 433).

There is a healthy usage of the Igbo language.  Nkem means "my own" (p. 24).  "Speak with water in my mouth" (p. 226) means unheard.  An afia attack is to go behind enemy lines to buy food (p. 293).  An ogbunigwe is a Biafran land mine (pp. 317, 359).

Many English words are italicized, implying euphemisms, e.g., when Odenigbo uses the word experience (p. 186) and brief rash lust (p. 225). 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus (2003) is the debut novel from Nigeria's current leading author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Diction is very simple, reminiscent of Chinhua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.  Indeed, the book's first sentence alludes "Things started to fall apart at home..." (p. 1).  The author writes about what she knows, as she grew up in Nsukka, SE Nigeria, near Enuga, as does her lead character, Kambili Achike.  The author went to Univ. Nigeria (Nsukka) - Aunty Ifeoma teaches there.  In brief this is a story about an upper middle class family struggling to live under the abusive control of a very religious father, Eugene.  The author imbues great sensitivity to the 15-year old daughter and her coming of age, as well as brother Jaja (allusion to Jaja Opobo, King of Defiance).  Ultimately, spoiler alert, Beatrice, the mother, poisons Eugene. 
Aunty Ifeoma cultivates purple hibiscus "rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom" (p. 16).  The book’s namesake flower is a representation of freedom and hope. Jaja is drawn to the unusual purple hibiscus, bred by a botanist friend of Aunty Ifeoma. Aunty Ifeoma has created something new by bringing the natural world together with intelligence. For Jaja, the flower is hope that something new can be created. He longs to break free of his Papa’s rule. He takes a stalk of the purple hibiscus home with him, and plants it in their garden. He also takes home the insight he learns from Nsukka. As both blossom, so too do Jaja and his rebellion.
Aunty takes Kambili and her brother to a masquerade festival (p. 73), the Abagane mmuo, in which they are subject to idolatry, much to the chagrin of Eugene, who despises "pagan rituals" (p. 106). 
Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili's grandfather, tells his family how the tortoise cracked his shell (p. 157). During a famine, the animals gather. They are weakened by hunger. Lion’s roar is but a thin whine and Tortoise can barely carry his shell. Only Dog looks well. He insists because his family eats feces, they are still healthy. Since the rest of the animals won’t do what Dog does, they decide they must sacrifice their mothers to be eaten. Each week, a different mother gives up their life to feed the village. A few days before Dog’s mother is to be killed, the village hears him wailing. He tells them his mother has died of disease. They cannot eat her. A few days later, Tortoise hears Dog calling his mother. A rope descends from the sky. Tortoise learns that Dog’s mother is still alive, living in the sky with wealthy friends. Dog’s health has not suffered because he has been eating all along. Tortoise schemes, telling Dog he must take him up to the sky or else he will tell the village the truth. Dog agrees. Soon after, Tortoise becomes greedy, wanting not only his portion but Dog’s as well. Mimicking Dog, Tortoise asks for the rope to be lowered one day. Dog finds him and is furious. He calls to his mother and she cuts the rope. Tortoise lands on a pile of rocks and his shell is cracked to this day.
In Igbo legend, the tortoise is a trickster figure that deceives the other animals in the world. In this parable, the tortoise is punished for his greed. There is a parallel in this story to what is happening in Nigeria. Dog, or the government, is hoarding food during a famine. Dog lies about how he stays healthy, as the government misdirects funds into their own pockets. The greedy Tortoise aligns himself with Dog rather than telling the rest of the animals. If you are friends with those in power, no harm will come to you. 
The novel makes thinly veiled references to freedom fighters Del Giwa (as Ade Coker) and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nwankiti Ogechi, p. 201), who was hanged Nov, 1995.