Nigeria civil war seen from sharpened angles

Special to The Times

[This book review ran in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 12, 2006]

The West African nation of Nigeria has suffered more than its share of violence and corruption, starting with its blatantly misrepresentative first election in 1960 and on through its genocidal attacks on its Igbo population before and during the civil war with secessionist Biafra in 1967 through 1970. As if this were not bad enough, even as late as 1995 worldwide protest could not stop the government's judicial murder of Nigerian environmental and minority rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Yet no other nation on the continent, including South Africa, has had as many gifted and eloquent Anglophone writers dedicated to telling their country's sad story while at the same time producing work of lasting merit, including Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and Wole Soyinka's recent memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, born in Nigeria in 1977 into a cultivated academic Igbo family, made her debut in 2003 with "Purple Hibiscus," a forceful yet sensitive novel about a young woman's quest to escape from the domineering influence of her narrow-minded father. In her second novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun," this superbly talented writer has tackled a broader, more ambitious subject: the civil war that took place in the decade before her birth. Between her extensive readings and her family's memories of these events, Adichie clearly has the background and understanding to write such a novel. What's more, she has also found a way of engaging this large subject on the personal level by portraying it vividly and poignantly through the eyes of well-crafted characters.

Although written in the third person, this novel is told from the perspectives of three very different individuals: teenaged Ugwu, a naive but quick-witted Igbo houseboy from a backward rural village; Olanna, the thoughtful, compassionate, well-educated daughter of a wealthy Igbo family; and Richard, an idealistic and sympathetic young Englishman intrigued by these people and their heritage. Ugwu has come to work for Olanna's lover, a forward-looking, perhaps overly optimistic Igbo academic with big ideas about politics, society and the future of Africa. When the lad addresses him as "Sah," the man he thinks of as "Master" invites him to call him by his first name, leading to this exchange:

" 'My name is not Sah. Call me Odenigbo.'

" 'Yes, sah.'

" 'Odenigbo will always be my name. Sir is arbitrary. You could be the sir tomorrow.'

" 'Yes, sah -- Odenigbo.' "

"Ugwu really preferred sah, the crisp power behind the word.... "

Ugwu is amazed by the splendors of Odenigbo's kitchen: "When he saw the white thing, almost as tall as he was, he knew it was the fridge. His aunty had told him about it. A cold barn, she had said, that kept food from going bad. He opened it and gasped as the cool air rushed into his face." But though he has a lot to learn, Ugwu is much better at coping with change than Odenigbo's own mother, a spiteful, narrow-minded village woman who takes a vicious dislike to her son's well-educated, hence alien, girlfriend, no matter how respectfully Olanna tries to treat her.

Gentle, forbearing and sensitive, Olanna serves as a kind of touchstone throughout the novel. Whether she's defending herself against her putative mother-in-law, falling ill from witnessing the slaughtered bodies of her poorer Igbo relatives or suffering the terror of an aerial bombing, readers will acutely feel her pain -- along with her enduring capacity for compassion, indignation and love.

In an ingenious stroke, Adichie has given her a twin sister, Kainene, in many ways her direct opposite, from her physique, bony and slim (rather than curvaceous like Olanna's), to her tough-minded attitude, which makes her more interested in the fate of her father's business than in the political and social problems of her country. In a nice touch of irony, Kainene's boyfriend, Richard Churchill, the Englishman who provides the novel's third perspective, is the character most inclined to view the country's troubles through glasses tinted by sympathy for the Africans. As he struggles to explain the reasons for the tribal rivalries and civil strife, Richard, like many a conscience-stricken Westerner, is inclined to blame his own country for the whole mess. And indeed, he has a point. The history he sketches out for us, similar to Soyinka's, makes the degree of Britain's responsibility abundantly clear.

Yet, along with making a powerful case against Britain's bad stewardship, Adichie's novel also explores the depth and stubbornness of ethnic prejudices among Africans: not only Muslims versus Christians, or light-skinned Hausa versus dark-skinned Yoruba and Igbo, but even among members of the same group who come from different classes, different villages or even different families. Although Adichie sharply depicts the dreadful pettiness that's all too often part of human nature, she never loses sight of our capacity to rise above such limitations.

She deftly chronicles the wrenching experiences of her characters, including Olanna's friend and former swain Mohammed, a Muslim prince whose polo-playing lifestyle belies his brave and humane heart. In her eagerness to focus on the most dramatic -- and traumatic -- aspects of her story, Adichie occasionally passes up some potentially rich opportunities to delve into other aspects of her characters' minds -- what, for instance, can Ugwu be thinking as he's reading "The Pickwick Papers" while the world around him is falling apart? Still, with searching insight, compassion and an unexpected yet utterly appropriate touch of wit, Adichie has created an extraordinary book, a worthy addition to the world's great tradition of large-visioned, powerfully realistic novels.

Merle Rubin is a critic whose work has appeared in several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.

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