Thursday, 6 September 2012

Half of a Yellow Sun

I am getting to the end of the back catalogue of Orange Prize winners. I felt a little like I cheated with 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as I have not read it but have been listening to it on audiobook for a couple of months now. In my defence I am not sure I would have stuck it out in print as it was long and took quite some time to get into the story. It is the story of post-colonial Nigeria and the ensuing civil war and the creation and reabsorption of the state of Biafra.

If you look at a map of Africa, and compare it to a map of Europe, the first thing you should notice are all the straight lines. This is because the countries in Africa are a creation of the Scramble for Africa that occurred across the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, and have very little to do with political or tribal divisions of land that might have existed prior to that time. Right up to the present day the impact of imperialism continues to be felt throughout the continent, and the conflict in Nigeria is only the first of many that have blighted Africa's modern history. In addition of course the situation was all wrapped up with the power of oil and the fear of the spread of the Cold War. While the history of colonialism was something I studied at Polytechnic the internal history of Nigeria is something only vaguely aware of. In fact it is the ensuing famine rather than the war that I recall dominating the news at the time, images of starving children graphically portrayed to shame the world. 

The book is written slightly from a distance as the two central women, twins Olanna and Kainene, are from a wealthy, privileged background and, although they are both trying to escape the insidious influence of their parents, the war takes some time to impact on their lives. But the book is told more from the perspective of the two men who idolise them; houseboy Ugwu, who works for Ogdenigbo, Olanna's lover, and Richard, an english writer who falls in love with Kainene. They represent two different aspect of, or ways of viewing the situation; Ugwu arrives at the house of Ogdenigbo, who is a 'revolutionary' thinker, who arranges for him to be educated and inadvertently exposes him to all sorts of new political ideas. Richard on the other hand has a rather romantic idea of Africa and it's culture and ends up caught between, rejecting his britishness, coming to think of himself as african but not really accepted. I think what is interesting about the book is the variety of perspectives that you have, and the way that often the characters continue to be concerned with their personal lives while the political and then military conflict wages around them, until things become too close for comfort. People die 'off screen' as it were, and it is not until Ugwu is conscripted into the Biafran army that we are face to face with the violence. Olanna and Ogdenigbo are forcibly removed from their after dinner political discussions right into the thick of real conflict. The more conservative Kainene abandons her business interests and ends up working in a refugee camp. Chimamanda captures very vividly the fear and distrust that takes over the country as tribal divisions become dominant, how everyone looks at their former neighbours with suspicion, and accusations of disloyalty and subversion abound. The story is about the people, and you become closely attached to their fate, but it is about the country too. The westernised political elite in Nigeria got their political and economic power from the situation that was handed down to them and had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and supported by the western governments they essentially starved the Igbo people into submission. It is a very political book, designed not only to tell a story but to remind the world of the events and what the author feels is their ongoing significance. A very difficult book but important and enlightening. There is a very poignant poem in the book, which I managed to find in full over on a blog entitled Dark Continent:


'Were you silent when we died' 

Did you see photos in sixty-eight 
Of children with their hair becoming rust: 
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads, 
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust? 

Imagine children with arms like toothpicks, 
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin. 
It was kwashiorkor—difficult word, 
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin. 

You needn’t imagine. There were photos 
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly, 
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife? 

Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea 
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone 
Naked children laughing, as if the man 
Would not take photos and then leave, alone.

3 comments:

  1. Mmmm, I LOVED Half of a Yellow Sun. It's too bad it was a difficult read for you. And audiobooks aren't cheating! ;)

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  3. I had not met anyone until now, who did not immediately fall in love with "Half of A Yellow Sun". It cannot be true that it takes a while to get into the story.

    From my experience, and the experiences of others I have discussed the book with, we got so into the story immediately - such that it was hard to put the book away. I mean, I just could not let go of the book until I finished it. I enjoyed it so much that, my current copy is my third - first fell in a rail-track on Day One. Second copy was borrowed and got lost.

    You may need to try a print copy - perhaps you would appreciate the book a little.

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