“Lost Ones,” The Yale Review of Books, Spring 2007
Knopf, 440 pp. $24.95
What is the What, Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s Books, 475 pp. $26.
The heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis.
–Joan Didion, Democracy
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, foregrounds its family drama, offering only gentle intimations of a 90s-era Nigerian police state. In Adichie’s newest work, Half of a Yellow Sun, the folding screen is whisked away, laying bare the history and tragedies of the three-year intra-Nigerian conflict, reduced in today’s parlance to a single bullet point: Biafra. Adichie’s approach to writing about the story of Biafran War is not uncommon—she follows a 1966 military coup, as ethnic tensions erupted into mob violence targeting members of the Igbo ethnic group in northern Nigeria, and forcing thousands into a hasty, fearful retreat to the east. Igbo political players and military authorities responded with outrage to the mass killings, declaring in 1967 that the southeastern part of Nigeria below the Niger River would be henceforth Biafra—a new and sovereign state.
In the novel, the massacres arrive begin as Ugwu, a houseboy and one of the novel’s three narrators, is listening to the radio:
Ugwu no longer listened. It started in Kano rang in his head. He did not want to tidy the guest room and find bedsheets and warm the soup and make fresh garri for them… He wanted the radio announcers to be silent, too, but they were not. They repeated the news of the killings in Maiduguru until Ugwu wanted to throw the radio out of the window, and the next afternoon, after the men left, a solemn voice on ENBC radio Enugu recounted eyewitness accounts from the North; teachers hacked down in Zaria, a full Catholic church in Sokoto set on fire, a pregnant woman split open in Kano…
Once flowing, the horrors of this war will not be staunched. For nearly a decade, the novel follows Ugwu, his employers Olanna and Odenigbo, and their associates through a romantic, turbulent arc of the secession and war, as rations thin, soldiers kill loved ones, and bombs and suspicion penetrate their lives.
These characters, a few among some of the many thousands of Nigerians turned suddenly Biafran, are the raw materials of a tremendous work of historical fiction. Their experiences allow Adichie to reanimate this painful history—discussion of which, Adichie writes, she has said is largely verboten among Nigerians today. Ugwu’s urge to shut off the radio has an eerie prescience—there are many still who still would rather not hear or remember the shocks of ethnic violence. But silence among those older generations leaves nothing of history for those who did not live through the conflict, to those silent because they have not known the caustic aftertaste of war.
Adichie has set her mind to exorcizing that ellipsis in contemporary Nigerian culture. History books have been written about Biafra, with statistics, figures and at times vivid and compelling analyses of the conflict—but Yellow Sun, as a novel, is particularly well-suited to the task of shading depicting in the events of the unsavory past. Edward Said has said that novels fill gaps in an incomplete archive. Grounded in tender description across class, culture and political leanings, Adichie’s Nigeria is a generous sealant.
Also pulsing through the imagined Biafra is a critique of history itself, of the role that conventional narratives play in cultural memory. Adichie refuses to treat the past as a sedentary object; news like that screaming out of Ugwu’s radio is history made fresh and urgent in the retelling. As if to highlight the ambiguous space that the historian/novelist occupies, Adichie intersperses a nonfiction account of the same war. Styled as excerpts from a book, “The World Was Silent When We Died”, this drier, anthropological language is meant to educate the reader about the war’s so-called objective history.
He writes about starvation. Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war. Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did.
The reader later discovers that a central character has written this treatise—a masterful play on time and the subjective nature of “history”—but as the “nonfiction” glosses Adichie’s own fictional telling, and vice versa, the relevant distinctions between fact and fiction seem to evaporate.
This must be the point. This novelistic demonstration recreation of history, via via characters who negotiateting a beautifully crafted vision of time and place, rehabilitates Biafra as an idea and places it securely inrestores examination to the archive. It is pleasing to see that the book was released in Nigeria this October, published and distributed by Farafina Books, a young local imprint. As the novel comes into the world, is read and circulated, Adichie’s skillful redeployment of a seminal Nigerian social moment will serve as an example of how historical literature can repair certain ruptures of social dialogue.
Likewise, Dave Eggers’ new book deals in exorcism. This fictionalized memoir of one Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee, narrates a journey out of war, but also out of the quiet of marginalization and into mainstream notice.
Achak lives in America now, which is nothing short of a miracle. To arrive in the land of the free, in which the freezer is a mysterious, untrustworthy object, Achak has accomplished the unthinkable—walking from tiny Marial Bai in southwestern Sudan across a desert and into Ethiopia, and then Kenya—all the while experiencing a embarrassment of traumas, from abandonment and starvation to watching those closest to him die deaths both bloody and resigned. These wrongs are deep, and perhaps outside of the possibilities of linguistic articulation, but Eggers and Achak give it a heroic shot; at every turn their collaborative journey suggests that words offer recourse to injury.
The memoir is rendered in tight focus—somehow, much of the drama unfolds in a single room—yet Achak’s singularity collides with collective history to stunning affect. His experience as one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan must speak for many. So he is a conscientious narrator, whose offbeat innocence challenges a presumption of faceless victimhood in vague, ‘African’ contexts. At times the novel even plays with this trope of African ‘otherness.’ When an American antagonist drops a phone book on his head, as if foreignness were akin to being an insect, Achak deadpans: “the pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.” This wry interiority is a fine way to reveal the impact of violent conflict and its aftermath. As we love Achak in his wittiness, literalisms and idiosyncrasies, displayed with fondness and assurance by Eggers, we hate those forces, human and fatal, that cause him pain.
One is reflexively appalled at the tragedies that assail the walking trickle of boys, abandoned on their journey to another wasted stretch of sand. The ordeal is sketched in vivid language that does not flinch from the outrageousness of the situation. Clawing a hole into dry ground in order to keep the body of his dead friend from circling vultures, Achak instantly recognizes that “it was a broken world … that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K.”
This scene is the last sadness that parents, siblings, extended relatives—families—seek to protect children from. But then Achak has no such allies. He comes to realize that childhood needs anchors in something other than “deprivation and calamity”—the raw materials of his life to date.
Speaking out, it seems, repairs this “broken world” for Achak, who thereby wills a random family into existence. The dozen homeless years spent in camps and on the move has produced an adult who builds his home with words. We hear that “the stories emanate from me all the time I am awake and breathing, and I want everyone to hear them… It is my right and obligation to send my stories into the world, even if silently, even if utterly powerless.” We know that the real Achak Deng has told his story countless times, has found new friends and family as a result, and most importantly, has found Dave Eggers to spread the word further.
Eggers—also orphan, author, advocate—transfers real power to this urge to express. Flagging down the attention of bystanders in his narrative—a hospital orderly, the early-morning gymgoers that pass through Achak’s place of thankless employment, a young boy watching TV in his apartment—Eggers’ Achak transforms people into audience. There is anger and instruction in this act. “Be grateful, TV Boy. Have respect. Have you seen the beginning of a war? Picture your neighborhood, and now see the women screaming, the babies tossed into wells. Watch your brothers explode. I want you there with me.” Like Adichie’s nonfiction asides to the reader, Achak’s imperative speeches provides context. In these addresses, Achak is talking to a you, talking to you about his life and demanding that you acknowledge it.
Eggers’ style of second person aggression is as good for Sudan as it is for Valentino Achak Deng. Though characters give sporadic insight into the country’s unfortunate geopolitics—which have surfaced most recently as the Darfur genocide—Sudan has been on fire for more than twenty years. Achak’s insistent authoring of reality reminds and links the reader to the ruined life of his nation.
Both novels are about ellipsis, omission—seen through the forgotten wars of the marginalized places of the world. Note that coverage of the Biafran conflict in Life magazine and the 1960s press birthed the image of the “starving African” for western audiences. It is no less important that ribs, distended bellies and abject suffering are now a depressing convention in western visual landscapes, and that the history of political failures that links Biafra and Darfur plays like novocaine to most American audiences.
Both of these fresh and educative fictions seem to be about repairing that ellipsis, with projects as loud as they are gripping. What is the What is about Sudan, yes, but it is about America, too, and about innocence and the psychology of loss and especially about Valentino Achak Deng, pitching through history as it unfolds still. In similar fashion, Half of a Yellow Sun sutures up the past as quickly as it can recede, installing some new idea of the past, for those who have insisted on forgetting, as well as those who never knew to begin with.
(Graphic courtesy New York Times Book Review)