To consider Chinua Achebe's "There Was a Country" a memoir, as many have, is to misunderstand it. Though it purports to be personal, opening with remembrances of youth, it is a distant document, lacking the illusion that today's memoirs proffer, that we are catching a person with their guard down. We expect Achebe's inner story, but the personal is perfunctory.
And then we get to Biafra, which was really the point all along. This is, as its subtitle promises, "a personal history of Biafra," the ill-fated republic that broke away from Nigeria in 1967, after ethnic violence against Nigeria's Igbo people. The secession sparked a three-year war, a defining moment in modern Africa.
Achebe worked in Biafra's ministry of information -- or, as Americans would call it, its propaganda office. He recounts some of that work but spends much more time on macro history and politics, inflecting them now and again with details of what he witnessed,
Those recollections are overlain with melancholy -- not just for the violence against his Igbo people, but for Africa writ large. He laments what Nigeria could have achieved but didn't, distracted first by corruption and then by war. Like the drone in a Celtic dirge, the lamentation returns, expands and finally takes over: the great writer's great Biafra book ends with an ode to Nelson Mandela. "What do Africa leaders envision for their countries and their people? I wondered yet again," Achebe writes.
It's only here, in a fatigue that Achebe imparts but does not declare, that the book feels anything near intimate. What's personal in this book is not individual; it's collective. Take, for example, this story: Achebe recalls a family that helped his sister. "The host," he writes, "proclaimed that he was, therefore, going to cook rice for my sister's family to salute my father. There were attempts to humanize our existence despite the horror that surrounded us all."
This story is not about Achebe at all, nor even about his sister. Nominally, it is about his father and an unnamed helper. But in fact it is about a collective, rendered in the generalized second person. In this book, everything is Biafra.
Achebe writes us a country -- or an ill-fated struggle of people who wanted to become a country. He stage-directs a retelling of history (leaving quite a bit out, and not without controversy, as others have noted), but he sidesteps the opportunity to reveal his private emotions, as a young man who adopted his people as a cause or as an elder who has had a lifetime to reflect on that moment of history. We read because it is Chinua Achebe, and the mastery is that, nearly without us noticing, he manages to reveal very little of himself at all.
Jina Moore is a freelance journalist who splits her time between New York City and East Africa.