By Sam Omatseye
Barely two decades ago, poet and
playwright Femi Osofisan delivered a
broadside, and it was as a keynote speaker at an annual convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors. According to the big- eyed lover of theatrics, only two serious Nigerian authors inhabited our literary
firmament: Wole Soyinka and Niyi Osundare.
Not a few writers and critics were scandalised by his claim. Many thought it was deliberately contrarian, an act of drama by a dramatist to draw attention to himself not by the pithy wisdom of his declaration but the mere vanity of it. He was a public desperado banging his shoes to gain attention.
The first question thrown at him was
predictable: What of Chinua Achebe?
Wearing a glum mien almost as defiance, he maintained his assertion and said many people paid attention to Things Fall Apart, and that was not even his most accomplished work.
At the time, I was in my mid-twenties and just beginning to overcome my illusion from my teen years. I was weaned on Things Fall Apart, read it, worshiped its creator and placed Achebe as the preeminent deity in the literary pantheon not only on the African
continent but all over the world. But how many writers did I know and how many books had I read? How skilled was I in the art of appreciating the collaborations of words into narratives?
But as I grew out of my naivety towards the end of my years at the Obafemi Awolowo University, renouncing Achebe as a god of Literature was like a shock of atheism in the church. I was abandoning the temple, unfrocking the priests and demystifying the canon. I became an apostate in the true religion. I felt conned by my breeders. I ate the poisoned diet, malnourished by untutored chefs.
Literature belongs to a complex world, and because everyone can pick a novel or play and read, the impression often comes across that it is everyone’s game. George Bernard Shaw said snidely that “vocations are a conspiracy against the laity.” He was right. Not everyone can be a medical doctor, or software analyst or Supreme Court judge. Everyone can sing but not everyone can tell
why a good song is great although they
have their personal attitudes and
predilections. Not everyone can postulate on good literature. Achebe’s works were good literature, but whether he wrote a great novel, leave that to those who know.
I never intended to write another column after last week’s in which I echoed William Shakespeare when I characterised Achebe as a self from self. That is, he struggled with alienation throughout his life.
Since the bard’s death, many people either
by subtle references or direct barbs have
tried to do two wrong things. First, they
claimed he deserved the Nobel Prize but
was deprived. Two, that Achebe was greater
than Wole Soyinka. By inference, they
claimed that Soyinka did not earn the prize
and the wise men of Stockholm ought to
have given the medal to the author of TFA.
How come the father of African literature
did not win the preeminent prize? The
phrase, made popular when he won the
Booker Prize Lifetime honour, has been
appropriated to imply that Achebe was
number one on the continent. So why did he
not win the prize? First, TFA was a great
book not because of its literary properties
but because of its ideological potency. The
Nobel Prize does not go to a novelist whose
work is signposted by sociological fixations
supplanting narratives with long pages of
how Igbo villages are organised. When
Osofisan asserted that TFA was not his best
book, he meant that more attention should
go to Arrow of God, a better book. So why
do his admirers say less of Arrow of God but
pay more encomiums on TFA. It is because
they are struck by the timely power of the
book. The West, embraced TFA for its
introduction of its peoples to the dignity of
African society, a thing they did not care to
glean from accomplished works that came
before TFA. Even the writer, Amos Tutuola,
with his Palm wine Drinkard, came long
before. But the west wanted an African to
write like them so they could applaud him.
And Achebe did it in a simple language.
Did he succeed by using the language as a
tool of subversion? Hardly. For a sampler of
that sort, read Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound
to Violence. TFA was a story of a clash of
culture, which was nothing new. He wrote
about the assertion of local pride, which was
hardly original. But it was a counter-
narrative, and it was done with gusto and
minimal dexterity, and that was enough for
them. They were amazed at the
manipulation of proverbs and other
manifestations of local colour. But the
proverbs were never original, just like many
of the proverbs in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are
Not To Blame.
The other novel often quoted was A man of
the People and critics have credited him
with prophetic insight. The novel predated
the 1966 coup. But it was hardly original
because the conversation was already in the
air on the continent. So he wrote good
works, not great works, not textured by
deeper insights that you would see in better
Achebe was nominated severally for the
Prize, but he did not get it because his
works had to be weighed against the
competition, other works also nominated by
various groups. It was the comparison that
exposed his works. If TFA was not his best
work, it goes without saying that it was a
book that thrived on popularity not subtlety.
Literature is not about the popular text. It is
about high art. If Achebe influenced a
generation of writers, that makes him a
great writer. But it is a testament to theme
and not artifice.
Soyinka, on the other hand, won based on
his plays and poems. If we were to judge by
popularity, many would pick the Lion and
Jewel and the Jero Plays as Soyinka’s
masterpieces. But far from it. They compare
in richness to TFA. Many who cavil at his
prize have probably not read the following:
Death and the King’s Horsemen, Madmen
and Specialists, Kongi’s Harvest, A dance of
the Forest, The Road, Opera Wonyosi,
among others. Each of these works is a
stunner, primed with layer after layer of
thought and meaning wrapped in
Those who read TFA like clockwork may be
put off by some of Soyinka’s opus. So they
should not obsess out of ignorance. They
should read first. If you knock Soyinka on
obscurity, you have a right. But high art is
not always easy to understand. Those who
claim to enjoy TFA cannot write a literate
essay on the book and why it is high art.
Because of his stature as a playwright, some
downplay his other gifts. In the Nobel
citation, he was also praised for his prison
Notes, The Man Died, as well as his long
poems like Ogun Abibiman, which I guess
many readers have not even heard of.
It is true that some great writers are passed
over for the prize. But few disagree that
those who win deserve the accolades. The
other Nigerian I expected to win was
Christopher Okigbo, who was tragically
lapped up by the Civil War.
Achebe was a good story teller, so was my
grandmother. Turning from a raconteur to
an art of sublimity and depth belongs to the
masters. Because of his influence on a
continent, I compare him with Samuel
Johnson of the Shakespearean era. He was
described as a great writer but not a great