20 July 2007

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Harper Collins
Prize: Rs 250
Date of Publishing: 2006
Genre: War drama

‘I wrote this book because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today’ says 29 year-old Adichie, about what prompted her to write about one of Nigeria’s most bloody civil wars that happened in the late 60s.

The Biafran civil war, a terrible blot on Nigerian history and humanity has not surprisingly found voice in almost all major literary works produced in the country so far. Adichie was not born when the war happened but says that she grew up in its shadows and could never forget how she lost several of her family members to a situation, which was entirely man-made. This naturally, allows the author to recount incidents with unusual fervour, giving graphic images of the horrors that descended on Biafrans, following the breakout of military action.

What was this civil was about? While the Housa Muslim tribe populated Northern Nigeria, the South consisted of the Igbo, a Christian race. Ever since the country got freedom in 1960, there was deep resentment brewing between the Housa and other tribes who believed that the Igbos held all the prime positions in the country. A military coup by an Igbo colonel follows a counter coup by the Northern army, supported by the West. Soon, Igbo soldiers are brutally murdered all over the northern territory. Col Ojukwu, puts forth the idea of a separate Igbo state called Baifra and takes control of all the oil rich territories. The Nigerian government is not willing to take the rebellion lying down and what follows is a deadly war, which tests its victims in a shockingly inhuman way.
Even as the Nigerian army captures one Biafran region after another, the Igbo population is pushed into a corner, literally and all food links are blocked, leading to intense starvation with people scrambling for food. So while people in other parts of Nigeria worry about silk laces and their golf sessions, the other part hopelessly scrambles for food.
This is the story Adichie narrates in her book and she does it through the lives of four people living in Nigeria. The author’s central characters are twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a rich businessman. However, none of them are especially interested in their father’s wealth and choose their own paths. While Olanna starts living in with prof Odenigbo, her anti-colonial, ‘revolutionary boyfriend’ ---as the brazen Kainene prefers to call him, the latter herself dates Richard, a bashful British expatriate, who is sympathetic to the Biafra cause.
To give a glimpse of the colonial Nigeria that still existed, the author introduces us to Ugwu, a teenager, who is brought from his village to be a housekeeper to ‘master’ Odenigbo.
The book starts in the early 60’s, a comparably idyllic time when Odenigbo’s friends come over each evening and engage in heated, intellectual debates. In the dim-lit room, amidst the clinging of beer bottles and exotic, herbal stews, it’s a time, when the generation’s finest brains are working out Nigeria’s future. The coup throws the characters apart. Ollana and Odenigbo first move into a humble three-room house, quite content as long as they know they are part of the Biafra cause. But as the Nigerian army closes in, the couple, with a child (Odenigbo’s illegitimate one) in tow and Ugwu, find it find it impossible to retain even a semblance of dignity to their lives.
To the author’s credit, she weaves this long forgotten human-interest story, with a sultry, lush family tale, about love, betrayal and redemption. In fact, Adichie is clearly at her best here.
In the end, while it is important to realize the sheer magnitude of disaster that was brought down upon unsuspecting souls---this is an eerie reality we live in even today---what is also heartening is that people actually survived through it all. Olanna's character is especially remarkable, as someone who keeps the family standing even amidst insurmountable problems. With time, Odenigbo loses his revolutionary zeal and resigns himself to his fate. Ugwu, who is always a support to Olanna, is taken away forcefully to join the Biafran war. Unable to bear the stench of the toilets, Olanna is forced to bath out in the open. When a man terms her 'shameless', she screams back asking him why he wasn't supporting the Biafran forces, rather than staring at women bathing. In her steely determination, she's something of a Scarlet O Hara, only, more compassionate.
When the war recedes and the links are opened, the Biafrans are 'officially' assimilated as 'brothers and sisters' into Nigeria, but not without enduring some amount of humiliation.

The book is spectacular, epic-like in scale and monumental in design. Yes, there are portions, which go on and on…..yes, there is an attempt to have graphical images…..yes, the book is controversial and political, which could be viewed as a shameless Booker bid.
Adichie in her skill as a writer and her social consciousness is rightfully considered the literary daughter of Chinua Achebe and the future of African literature. Incidentally, this book has just won her the Orange Book Prize and looks like a hot contender for Booker as well

The book's last section, PS, has a fairly detailed interview with Adichie and other info about her favourite authors and works.


janaki said...

I'm so glad you took this book to read. So very glad indeed.

sandy said...

I'm glad I took it too....now, I'm keen to read Adichie's Purple Hisbiscus

Qalandar said...

Your wonderful review makes me want to read this book sandy -- you are on a roll over the last 1-2 months with the reviews for sure (although I disagree with the analogy between Nigeria or more broadly African states and British India; and would recommend a book called The Felt Community that touches upon these issues)...

sandy said...

Q: Since you've pointed out, I'm gonna edit that bit...
Thanks for reading and yes, I highly recommend this book to you.
With this one and The Last Mughal, it's been two very good reads in a row for me.

Qalandar said...

Recently completed this book, thanks very much for introducing me to it! I found the book very moving, in large part because of Adichie's talent for vivid characterization: unlike many novels one reads, this one is populated by a number of characters who leap off the page, including ones (such as Olanna's cousin, aunt and uncle) who make only fleeting appearances). That being said, I probably would have liked to see the relationship of the sisters Olanna and Kainene explored more.

In contrast to many "post-colonial" writers, I appreciated Adichie's ability to evoke the complex political landscape of Biafra/Nigeria WITHOUT giving off the air of a lesson in political anthropology for "foreign" audiences. "Real world" events happen in a very natural way in this book.

Excellent review here sandy, thanks!

sandy said...

Qalandar: You'll be glad to know that Chimamanda's new book is out. It's called "The Thing Around Your Neck". Any idea if it has released in the US?

John Brookes said...

Great review - I read somewhere that this book spans 40 years... is that correct? If so what years are covered?

Many thanks