Half of a Yellow Sun is a messy journey narrated with neat precision, at times, told languidly, at other times, told with malaria-feverishness and sometimes you wonder where this is all leading, where is Biafra in all of this, etc, but then if it was a tidy story it would be an awful book. Life is a mess. This book is a mess. This is a good book, this is a great book. And sometimes, the book does drift, seemingly aimlessly. One of the main characters, Olanna goes to Kano to visit an ex-boyfriend. The purpose of this trip is not quite clear – why this restlessness other than to show that an Igbo once loved a Northerner? In any case, any seeming drift in the book is more than compensated for by the delightful story oozing from virtually every sentence. It is like sitting in a verandah in Lagos (choose your favorite Nigerian city) and reveling in raw street theater.The book’s chapters move deftly back and forth between the early sixties and the late sixties, between a gathering fear (apologies to the poet Olu Oguibe) and a relentless pogrom. This technique is effective in keeping the reader fully engaged in an absorbing story. Reading the book, I felt like I was watching a gripping movie. This should be made into a full length movie for those who choose not to or are unable to read about our history.
And three decades after that shame of a war, not much has changed. The corruption is eerily the same; actually one gets tired of reading about these things, the past posing as the present tense. Only in Nigeria.We see ourselves in virtually all of the characters – Chief Okonji – the Finance Minister is a sadly familiar caricature, not much different from today’s jokesters in Aso Rock. Refried beans must keep for ever. Too bad for Nigeria. Adichie says this book is about Biafra. It seems to me that this is more than Biafra. This is really all about the horrid fate of the long-suffering people trapped in that failed state called Nigeria. We see African intellectuals at their most unctuous and self-serving. We see them in their nakedness, aping rather uncritically Western values, trying so desperately to be white folks. Graham Greene would love this book. The intellectuals put together a babble-fest at every opportunity as they cry louder than the bereaved in alien tongues. Nothing has changed today; if anything, things have gotten worse. After all these year’s Adichie’s book is eerily contemporary because the social and cultural pathologies that gave birth to the pogrom called Biafra are roaring alive today, very much alive and hungry for another death of a dream.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie adroitly exposes the near-myth of physical geographic boundaries and sews together new geographic vistas that are not necessarily contiguous, and she challenges the reader to think out of the box of traditional relationships. Yes, the world has changed since Biafra. The reader upon reading the book can feel the palpable and lingering frustration of witnessing the fraying of hurtful memories, of injustices wilting away on the bloodied picket fences of changing boundaries and allegiances. Enemies are marrying enemies, creating new allegiances and new enemies. We do not know our friends, alas.
Adichie may be accused of reaching too much for balance, for objectivity. She is not going to endure herself to Biafra die-hards. This book is definitely not an uncritical sentimental hagiography of Biafra; indeed some people would be displeased at the searing look into the perfidy, the moral and leadership decay within the rank and file of the Biafran army. Adichie exposes the hypocrisy and the self righteousness of those who convinced the populace to go to a war they had no business fighting. Good warriors negotiate from a position of strength. From my perspective, the Biafran war was an unnecessary turkey shoot and Adichie’s story spreads the responsibility for that pogrom to all, not just the Federal side.
Half of a Yellow Sun is perhaps not the definitive book about Biafra. Those interested in an extensive reading on Biafra may do well to also do their own research, starting with the useful glossary of books at the back of Half of a Yellow Sun. War is war, full of broken limbs, bloody calabashes filled with decapitated heads and broken dreams. Adichie is not able to tell us what sets this particular war apart from the others. She does not try to and in a counter-intuitive way, I see this as one of the book’s strengths. Adichie does not try too much to please. The good news is that there is not a shortage of books about Biafra. Dr. Daniel Awduche has compiled a great list. The book’s one strength is that although it is marketed as a book about Biafra, the reader’s senses are assaulted by a panorama of images that envelopes just about every land that is trapped in that country called Nigeria. The book is an amazing journey that is best savored by actually reading it.Regardless, Adichie does a great job of confronting the enigma that was Biafra – in my view, a tragically flawed reaction to a horrid injustice
Adichie’s book is likely to stoke the debate about the use of contrived English to perhaps improved readability in the West and reach a wider market, a debate that was started with the release of Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation. In the book, the hapless character Harrison employs a version of English that is strikingly similar to Iweala’s experiment with rotten, I would say, contrived English in Beasts of No Nation: “You are not knowing how to bake German chocolate cake?” “You are not knowing what is rhubarb crumble?” (p 166) Contrived English trumps Pidgin English one more time. It is mercifully not as cloying, not as annoying as Iweala’s abuse of the technique and Adichie executes if quite well. In a sense, she may have bestowed some credibility to Iweala’s experiment. Regardless once senses that the African writer still struggles to reach a mass market in the West through the use of interesting techniques – for instance Igbo sentences are italicized and immediately translated in English: “Yes! Yes! Ojukwu, nye anyi egbe! Give us guns! Iwe di anyi n’obi! There is anger in our hearts! (p 171)
Adichie does not look back in anger, she does not look back with just a clinical detachment; she makes us look back at history galloping back in fast furious reverse to challenge our current condition. Our collective destiny is history, fast forwarded, in reverse. Adichie’s book challenges us to have courageous conversations and assign responsibilities for the pogrom to all parties so that we may never pass this way again. It is a crying shame that after all these years there are no fitting monuments, no usable museum to the memory of Biafra. Adichie’s book has put all of that to rest. The restless spirits of our victims rustle through the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. Buy a copy of this epic, read, relax and await yet another coming of our collective poor judgment.
Half of a Yellow Sun hints at shades of everything the reader has experienced, indeed we are the sum of our experiences. There are strong hints of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as the revolution that was Biafra turns into a dog-eat-dog race for survival. In his stirring poetry, the character, Okeoma the poet-warrior bears strong hints of Chris Okigbo:
With the fish-glow sheen of a mermaid,
Bearing silver dawn
And the sun attends her,
Who will never be mine.” p 324
In Half of a Yellow Sun, the telling of our story breaks the reader into a thousand emotional pieces. It is like the story teller takes a wooden bat to all of your conscience and exposes you for the fake that you are. I have not felt this way since visiting the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Hector Petersen Museum in Soweto.This book is a museum. And if you care about Nigeria, you must visit this museum.
I salute you, Chimamanda.
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