I seem really into African novels this summer and I loved this one. I was really impressed with Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
when I read it but somehow thought this one had been less well received and I expected less. I got more. I heard the author read from the book a couple of months ago and was struck by how the houseboy coming to take up his job with a university professor was impressed with the city. “He had never seen anything like the streets…so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them”. It’s that kind of detail that draws one into an unfamiliar milieu.
The story is that of twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who don’t look alike at all, Olanna, the beautiful one, and Kainene, very tall, very black, elegant and sophisticated but not beautiful. They grow up in relative luxury, with upper middle class parents in Lagos living more or less like Europeans. Each in her own way is committed, though, to being African. Olanna goes to live with “the revolutionary” Odengibo, a professor of mathematics. Kainene goes to Port Harcourt (center of the oil industry) to run her father’s business. She becomes involved with, Richard, an Englishman at first interested in Igbo art, who loves her completely and identifies with the Igbo. The houseboy, Ugwu, also a main character, very young when he comes to work for Odengibo (who calls him “my good man”) goes to school and grows up to write about the war.
The structure of the novel is interesting. There are four parts: two labeled “early Sixties” and two labeled “late Sixties”—i.e., the time of the Biafran War, but they are not chronological. The first section is the first “early” section and it’s followed by the first “late” section. That second section deals with a rift between the two sisters and their men which the reader does not read about until the third section which goes back to the early Sixties. Somewhat of a risk on the author’s part, but one that’s quite successful.
The novel is about betrayal, the sexual betrayal that rents families and the cultural betrayal that pits one ethnic group against another, which are brought together near the end of the novel when Kainene says, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” The novel is extraordinarily successful at bringing together personal and national betrayal and tragedy. The daughters of “an important man” (who leaves Nigeria for London at the first whiff of war) experience progressive hardship and loss: friends and relatives die, a wedding reception is bombed, housing is reduced to one room in what used to be a primary school, kwashiorkor—the malnutrition that turns children’s skin yellow and bellies huge—affects all the children, everyone is starving. Ugwu, grown into an indispensible family member who helps Olanna teach in an informal school held outside, is hijacked into the army and severely wounded.
It isn’t hard to identify with the Igbo who, after jealousy unleases deadly attacks on all Igbo outside of “Igboland”, fight back by declaring the independence of the Republic of Biafra. The rhetoric—and a remarkable amount of behavior—is humane, democratic, idealistic. The tragedy is that the West sides with Nigeria (the artificial boundaries of which they are responsible for). Hindsight—and Real Politik—suggest that Biafra would have had to be strong indeed to have got away with the entire oil-producing area of Nigeria. Only a few third world countries recognize the new republic; the West sides with Nigeria and allows their attempt to starve Biafra into submission. Richard writes the Biafran point of view for the Western press and it’s his job to host the Western reporters; he finds their bias disgusting: “One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person”.
I liked the characters and the human drama of this novel. As an historical novel, it resurrects a forgotten conflict that presages many others to follow in Africa—Rwanda and certainly Darfur. I think it’s an important book. The title, by the way, refers to the symbol of the rising sun on the Biafran flag.