Tag Archives: Chinua Achebe

The Commonwealth course

For some reason the student witch joined a Commonwealth literature course at university, back in the early 1980s. Or was it late 1970s? With no right to sit the exam (I had already passed the level at which it was set), I only joined the classroom discussions every week, presumably thinking it’d broaden my mind. Or something.

That’s where I was introduced to books by people I’d never heard of before, including Chinua Achebe. We read Things Fall Apart, which I don’t remember anything of, except that I didn’t understand it very well. I’ve always had this thing that I need to know where characters are coming from, and I didn’t know Africa at all.

Other authors included Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Canadian Mordecai Richler (whom the Resident IT Consultant found in the bookcase only the other day, and said he’d never heard of) and a couple of Australians, like David Malouf and David Ireland. Indian authors such as R K Narayan and Anita Desai. I’ve probably forgotten some, but it was only for one term, so the list won’t have been too long.

It was good, because these were the days when – even more than now – I stuck to what I knew. And these I didn’t know. Some, like Narayan, I simply could not get on with. At the time I almost wondered why I did it. I’m guessing it’s so that now I can know a little of what the world has lost with the death of Chinua Achebe.

Not being a native English speaker it was difficult to grasp how English was used back then, by people who had other first languages. And I suspect I expected anyone who wrote in English to somehow write as though they were English.

In more recent years, when seeing photos of Chinua Achebe, I’ve always been struck by how much he looked like my Uncle. Not skin colour, obviously, but apart from that. It made me feel closer, and occasionally I have wondered if I ought to re-read what I didn’t quite get in those days.

(I looked up my then tutor, Britta Olinder, to see what  she’s up to these days. I remembered that she did her PhD on Dryden, but after that it seems as if she has stuck to her Commonwealth literature. Good to know I was in good hands. I mean, I knew that even then, but I like having it confirmed. Intrigued to see I narrowly missed meeting Salman Rushdie.)

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Myth and magic with Sven Lindqvist

Forty years after I read most of my Sven Lindqvist books, he is someone I think about quite regularly. Not because he is a well known writer (at least in Sweden), but because of what he – reputedly – ate when young and poor. It’s the cheese gratins I’m thinking of, and I do so whenever I make something similar myself.

Having read his Diary of a Lover and Diary of a Married Man, I feel I know too much about certain aspects of his life as a young man. Sven’s first wife Cecilia was a dab hand at feeding the pair of them by buying cheap, half mouldy cheese which she grated on top of old vegetables, and oven cooked. For me this was a novel way of looking at the trials of everyday eating. Not that I was rich. I wasn’t. I just hadn’t looked at things that way.

Sven is still different. That much was obvious when he did his event in Charlotte Square on Tuesday afternoon. Where most authors would politely humour the audience, even when asking stupid questions, Sven was very matter of fact. As he pointed out to Steven Gale who chaired the event, and who dared ask for a shortcut on his thoughts on art and Wu Tao-tzu, if he could have said it briefly, he wouldn’t have written a book on the subject.

Sven Lindqvist

I was impressed by the number of people in the audience who came to hear Sven, rather than just attend an event at a time they happened to be there, because I had no idea how well known and liked he is. The questions – incidentally, all from men – were based on intimate knowledge of Sven’s work.

To begin with, Sven read a prepared speech, and then Steven asked questions, before opening the discussion to the floor. He spoke of the influence of Gide and Thoreau, and compared his type of writing with the art of Cezanne. Gide had spoken directly to the 15-year-old Sven, telling him to practise what he read, and to live it. Thoreau became his ‘friend.’

Sven went on to speak about his trip to Bolivia in 1967, when he was hoping to find and interview Che Guevara, arriving too late. His first-hand description of the dead Che was both graphic and touching.

The reason his work is so spare, is that he imagines himself talking to someone he knows well, like a family member. He will end up with too many words, which he then cuts; sentences, words, until he has a short chapter. Sven reckons the reason his books have different voices, is that he ‘talks’ to different family members for each book.

Questioned on whether Chinua Achebe was wrong to criticise Joseph Conrad over his comments on Africa, Sven said Conrad was not a racist, because he said what people believed in his time.

Asked if he forgets things, and ends up believing his own myths, Sven suspects he does. At least the memory of the rat on the Christmas dinner table seems myth-like to him. It could have been real. Or it could have been a dream. He’s not sure.

But he’s no magician. That was a boyhood dream.