The most interesting aspect of this historical novel for me is the way in which the freshness and simplicity of its style enhances the credibility of what is in some ways an incredible tale. It is narrated with such veracity and ease that the reader will be easily persuaded that the impact of slavery on the pristine African communities of the past was exactly as portrayed here. Ngozi Achebe has crafted a story that fills several gaps not merely in world literature but also in the perception of African history as both a discipline and an emotional concern for all those whose ancestry is eternally touched by that tragic industry. Her depiction of the beginnings of slavery and the inter-phase between Portuguese slave dealers and African society is a remarkable example of the restoration of a lost era to contemporary relevance through literature. She has achieved in her first novel the remarkable feat of creating what might very well come to be regarded as a unique masterpiece.
The tale has the epic sweep of a narrative recollection of events based on irrefutable evidence. The characters devised by the author leap off the page with dramatic intensity, and none more so than the central protagonist Onaedo. This central character could be considered a beacon of modernity even by the standards of our own times and yet the setting and the social milieu described by the author is impeccably traditional and befitting to the era of antiquity in which it is located. The alliance of brilliant writing and impressive research has made the story a classic both in its content and in its moral tone. The descriptive power of her writing strengthens the accuracy of her recreation of 16th century life in olu Ndigbo, the nation of the Igbo peoples, before the intervention of Western culture. At the same time it also serves to suspend belief in the common assumption that the first and most important intercourse between these territories and the outside world were as a result of British colonial intervention.
Ngozi Achebe has actually moved our perception of ancient African history, especially of the intercourse between traditional societies like that of Ndigbo and the Western world, onto a new plane. Coming from the pen of the niece of Chinua Achebe, the great chronicler of the confrontation between Ndigbo society and the British colonisers, this book is one of the seminal literary events of new African writing for the 21st century. It is unique in its adventurous conceit of seeking to open up a chapter of the past that has been shrouded for centuries in both mystery and myth. Portuguese explorers who were the first recorded visitors from Europe to the West African coast have largely taken a back seat in scholarly chronicles of the intercourse between Europe and Africa. This novel moves the era and the extraordinary events recorded in it to the forefront of contemporary concern.
These events include the commencement of the slave trade, the first stirrings of Christian conversion of the communities of the West African coast, and trade in spices, palm oil, gold, hides and ivory. However she also examines the nature of the culture and occupations of the traditional society in depth and posits that the invasion from the West served to destroy a deep-seated philosophical commitment to a fundamentally pastoral way of life. In outlining and then building the tale around romantic disenchantment and rustic violence she establishes the core of the narrative in the disastrous demise of a family. The head of this family is Eneda the blacksmith whose provenance may very well be allied to the discovery of the fabled Igbo-Ukwu bronzes. Indeed the way in which she has integrated reflections on historical events and iconic memories into exciting parameters of storytelling serves as proof of her extraordinary talent.
Ms. Achebe has said in interviews that her inspiration came from many sources one of which is the story of those fabled artefacts. In addition to this although she was not one of the “Biafran children” evacuated to Sao Tome for safety during the Nigerian civil war her curiousity about the history of that island community also became a major inspiration. This provides the background for the latter half of the novel and elevates it beyond a simple tale of romance and adventure into a profound commentary on the relevance and character of an African society that ended up contributing to its own violation. Although this is a serious novel it remains a most exciting and entertaining narrative to read because its intellectual depth does not detract from the elements of drama, intrigue and romance that serve to carry the story forward.
One of the most remarkable abilities displayed by the author in this work is that of establishing the personality traits and defining peculiarities of both major and minor characters with extraordinary depth in a few short sentences. She deploys incidents and characters with uncanny realism even while displaying a penchant for poetic phrasing in her descriptions of places and reflections on the importance of traditional laws and morals. Her depiction of such seminal characters as Onaedo’s aunt Aku whose extraordinary gifts of telepathy and psychic foresight allied to knowledge of traditional medicine make her a formidable ally as well as foe, and Oguebie the jealous prince and traitor to the community who becomes one of the pioneers of local collaboration with foreign slave traders, reveals that she has particular strengths of observation as well as of imagination. Her characterisations gain veracity through her effective use of modern psychological evaluation even while consolidating the relevance of their place in the narrative of the past. She is also noticeably even-handed in depicting both African and European characters in terms of their universal humanity.
Onaedo is a complex but highly readable work. The prologue and the epilogue provide signposts to the contemporary relevance of the body of the work. Maxine the discoverer/editor of the manuscript in these technically slight but profoundly exploratory chapters is herself a victim of loss brought about by historical upheaval. Having seen her beloved father disappear to Nigeria during the civil war, she is confronted by a crisis as he has written to her that he is coming to visit her three decades later. Faced with this dilemma she tries to find balance in reading through a box of old diaries apparently written by an extraordinary African slave from Brazil. It would be tantamount to giving away the author’s most precious secrets for me to relate how this formula is resolved in the end but the most unexpected revelations follow with seamless regularity. The main narrative is based on Maxine’s lightly edited version of the diary. The effective power with which Ms. Achebe deploys this complex literary device is that of an accomplished author. Although she is a practicing medical doctor her work does not appear to be that of a one-volume writer. Her first book, which has now been shortlisted for the LNG Literary Prize for 2011, is no amateur’s essay. It is the powerful outpouring of an accomplished storyteller. Her famous uncle must be as proud of her as all Nigerians who read this remarkable story should be.
Publisher AfricAgenda Publications, Abuja: Reviewer: Lindsay Barrett