Thursday, 19 November 2009
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Review)
A couple of weeks ago, Zadie Smith, in the series 'What Makes a Good Writer?', referred to some authors' dream of writing the Perfect Novel (my capitals). Although later on in the same article she explained why the attempt to accomplish this deed is nothing but a chimera, I was left with the impression that indeed many writers do set out to trascend the literary realm in which they inhabit. They want their novels or short stories to be the sole and ultimate authority on the politics, social thinking and economic trends of their time and in order to achieve this they apply an almost mathematical precision to their work.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have writers who effortlessly write jolly good, entertaining books without too much fanfare or razzmatazz and yet capture a country's historical moment with such accuracy that unwittingly they contribute to that nation's collective awakening.
A case in point is the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In 'Half of a Yellow Sun', Ngozi deftly weaves the convoluted stories of two couples into one of the most terrible conflicts to befall that African country: the Biafran war. The novel's name is taken after the emblem that symbolised this state in eastern Nigeria.
Odenigbo is an academic with very strong political views. As a member of the nascent intellectual middle-class of 60s Nigeria he hosts soirées in his house where current world events are discussed amongst glasses of wine and heated, nationalistic poetry. His lover and future wife Olanna, a western-educated woman, returns home from Britain to contribute to what she considers to be her duty: building a better society. She takes up a post as an instructor at the Department of Sociology. Her twin sister Kainene, in the meantime, moves to Port Harcourt to manage her father's business. Richard, Kainene's eventual lover, is a British man recently arrived in the country with the intention of writing a book about Nigeria. However, underpinning these four characters we find one of the most enigmatic and interesting members of the cast: Ugwu, Odenigbo's teenage houseboy.
And it is mainly from Ugwu's point of view that we travel through many of the cultural, linguistic and political issues that 'Half of a Yellow Sun' addresses. From Ugwu's desire to speak English like his master - until Olanna arrives in the scene with her 'luminous language' -, to his ardent sexual longing for Eberechi, the girl whose body he craves. The latter is used effectively by the author to depict how quickly human beings can fall into savagery. When Eberechi confesses to Ugwu that she is sleeping with an army officer, following the outbreak of war and the penury into which the whole country is thrown, Ugwu's reaction is one of disgust and repulsion. How hypocritical, then, that a few pages later we find the same teenager, now nicknamed 'Target Destroyer' participating in the gang-rape of a young woman.
Symbolism is abundant in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'. Odenigbo betrays Olanna with a countrygirl with whom his mother has set him up, albeit against his will. Reluctant to accept Odenigbo's defense that his mother has tricked him into sleeping with the innocent girl, Olanna takes her revenge and beds Richard, her twin sister's boyfriend, unleashing in the process a maelstrom of such magnitude that it's not until the last few pages of the book that Kainene's pardon is finally granted, and even this acquittal is not complete. Parallel to this, the whole country slowly starts to break down, this unrest highlighting sectarian divisions within Nigeria. Odenigbo and Olanna's relationship resembles the country in which they live.
Another symbol can be seen in Kainene's transformation from a sang-froid person into almost a Mother Theresa figure following her close brush with death. At the beginning of the novel Olanna comes across as the idealistic sister whilst her sibling has both her feet firmly planted on earth. But by the end of the book, Kainene, like her country, or at least the Republic of Biafra, has undergone a radical change and her critical approach is replaced by a quixotic nature.
'Half of a Yellow Sun' is a rich bilingual map on which both Igbo and English get equally starring roles, even if the novel is written in the latter. Igbo phrases are interspersed in dialogues and one is never sure whether they are translations of their English equivalents or semantic additions. Either way, it does not matter because it is all conducive to making the reader feel more at home with the book's narrative. But this linguistic duality has other functions. Whereas in the first part, early 60s, language serves to convey class and social interaction, in the second and last chapters, lexicon becomes a matter of life and death literally. Anyone caught speaking Igbo by the insurgents meets an untimely and horrible end.
Another element that stands out in this book is the sex scenes. Chimamanda deftly navigates that difficult Bermuda Triangle of intimacy, carnal desire and love. For instance, I giggled at a scene where Ugwu eavesdrops on Odenigbo and Olanna making love. The naiveté of this passage does not detract from the sensuouness of the actual act.
'Later, after dinner, he tiptoed to Master's bedroom and rested his ear on the door. She was moaning loudly, sounds that seemed so unlike her, so uncontrolled and stirring and throaty. He stood there for a long time, until the moans stopped, and then he went back to his room.'
However, to me personally, one of the most enjoyable moments of this novel is when Ngozi reveals the identity of the author of the 'other book', The World Was Silent When We Died. This work, snippets of a piece written by one of the characters of 'Half of a Yellow Sun', is Chimamanda's strongest political point about who should write the stories of Africa. And as her exquisite, literary landmark shows it should be African themselves.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 22nd November at 10am (GMT)