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). 

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