Well, at a very young age (born 1977), Chimamanda has written an astonishing book called Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel is set in one of the most difficult periods of recent Nigerian history - the Biafran War (1967-70). It is a story of human fallibility and misery in a stark landscape of poverty, rampant corruption and post-colonial battle of identity-politics. There is a conscious effort to stay clear of big picture history, even though in its moving portrayal of the time and characters it does manage to capture the true horror of the period. Like her ideal Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda writes in a completely unsentimental tone; never, not even for once, taking sides. A long time after reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, what remains in our mind is a deeply moving story of how colonial invasion ravaged a traditional society. Almost in a similar way a long time after you finish Half of a Yellow Sun, what would remain in your mind is how all the post-colonial societies in Africa (to a large extent in Asia and Latin America as well) struggled with myriad fractured legacies of their colonial experience. There were only definite losers in that struggle and they were the millions of ordinary people across the continent.
Like many other present day African states, British Colonial administration fashioned a huge state of Nigeria out of many ethnic-linguistic-culturally diverse areas. After Nigeria became independent in 1960, like other newly independent countries, it struggled to strike a proper balance among the various institutions of Parliamentary democracy as well as among the major ethnic and regional groups. This resulted in two coups in 1966, first allegedly by Igbo officers, and then they were toppled by Hausa officers. This ultimately resulted in formation of a breakaway state in the Southeast called the Republic of Biafra in May 1967. For Igbos, Biafra represented realization of a cherished dream of equality and development. But they were ill-prepared to counter the onslaught of Nigerian Police action; soon Biafra was cut off from the rest of the world. After initial blitzkrieg, war degenerated into a stalemate plunging millions in the encircled territory in a humanitarian catastrophe. There were haunting images of dying children and unattended wounded soldiers in the Western media - but as the title of Ugwu’s book (in the novel) rightly notes - World Was Silent when We Were Dying. Finally the stalemate ended with the crushing of the rebels in 1970 – Nigeria was united again and there was not a single Igbo family, who did not lose their near and dear ones as well as their material possessions. Chinua Achebe worked as an ambassador for the Republic of Biafra and Chimamanda lost both her grandfathers in the War.
Against this backdrop, Chimamanda tells an essentially domestic story of love, infidelity and human compassion. The world is seen through the eyes of two completely dissimilar twin sisters of a rich Igbo businessman – beautiful Olanna and sharp-tongued plain Jane, Kainene. Just before their world of opulence and privilege falls apart, they choose completely different paths for themselves – Olanna settles for her “revolutionary” lover, mathematics professor Odenigbo and academics while pragmatic Kainene decides to join dad’s business and starts indulging an Englishman genuinely interested in Nigerian heritage, Richard Churchill (“no relation of Sir Winston”). Of course there is also the most delightful character of the book, teenager Ugwu – Odenigbo’s intelligent “houseboy”. The events of early and late sixties (ending with the fall of Biafra) are seen mainly through the eyes of Olanna, Richard and Ugwu with Kainene and Odenigbo reduced to supporting roles. After Olanna decides to leave the life of privilege in the capital for essentially middle-class life with Odenigbo, fate conspires with politics to take her down in rapid successions to the level of a helpless mother fighting with others just for a pouch of dry milk powder. Idealism comes completely undone in the face of terrible reality of war – Odenigbo takes refuge in alcohol and tries to avoid his infidelities from Olanna. At the end of the war, Olanna survives with both her husband and baby on her side but loses perhaps everything she stood for. Kainene goes missing even as the war was drawing to a close – but before that she comes across as a better survivor of the two sisters. Ugwu - the intelligent boy from a poor family and lucky to find shelter with Odenigbo and Olanna - comes of age against this backdrop. We see a lot through his eyes – most importantly perhaps, we get to see the lost opportunities for millions of such young stars in Africa and how the dreams of a young nation were lost.
Chimamanda underlines the horrors of war and all associated human tragedies in a masterly restrained style. But this is also perhaps the biggest drawback of the book – her persistent silence about big picture history. She does not even once directly criticize the abysmal failure of the Biafran government or mention the fact that their revered head of state finally fled to safety in Ivory Coast leaving his hungry millions to die unprotected. Shying away from history perhaps fails to lift this novel to a true classic. On the other hand, her narrative skills are her greatest strength along with her power for intimate portraiture –most evident in the case of Olanna, Kainene and Ugwu. Even minor characters like Colonel Madu or Hausa Prince and Olanna’s former lover Mohammad or cooks or gardeners even Odenigbo’s mother are drawn with a few but beautiful strokes of her brush. But neither Richard Churchill as a sixties radical nor Odenigbo as a revolutionary mathematics professor appear very credible. One gets the feeling that insertion of Richard was somewhat artificial, allowing for a Western eye in the narrative. But the overall treatment of the story would have made it universal in any case so from that point of view it is difficult to justify such a Western eye.
I read her first book Purple Hibiscus, after I finished Half of a Yellow Sun. Her debut novel looks ordinary, but the other way of looking at it how much she has improved in such a short time span. Her great ability in portraying characters are visible in Purple Hibiscus also, but what was lacking was perhaps the experience of living life without which no one can write a great novel. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she also had a long cherished story to tell. Every great author announces his/her arrival on world stage with one extraordinary novel – for Chimamanda Half of a Yellow Sun is that book. We will definitely look forward to more outstanding works from such a talented young writer.