Chinua Achebe is the winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so, beating an impressive gallery of competitors. This prize is awarded every two years for a lifetime of achievement in literature. South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, herself a Nobel laureate, and one of the judges, said that Chinua Achebe’s early work made him the father of modern African literature and introduced African writing to a world audience. And Elaine Showalter, another judge, said that he illuminated the path for writers around the world, seeking new words and forms for new realities and societies. Achebe was indeed venturing into new territory, portraying life in Africa in terms and language comprehensible to the cultured world reader.

Achebe, now 76, and since 1990 a paraplegic after a car accident, grew up in a world of words. His first encounter with the English language was at the age of eight. His first literary models were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the Bible, hymns and the Book of Common Prayer. At home he was nurtured by traditional Ibo tales and family histories. In school and at University College, Ibadan, he read 20th century works such as Joyce Carey’s Mr Johnson and Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, both of which deal with Africa, and neither of which he found appropriate as models. He also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which at first "worried" him, but which later he described as "racist", surprisingly since further studies have shown that this was far from the author’s intention. He merges elements of the tradition of the novel with narrative ideas from Ibo oral culture, and creations of his own, to form a new kind of writing: not the pidgin that other writers were choosing, but the standard English he had been taught.

From 1961 to 1966 he was the director of external broadcasting with the Nigerian Broadcasting Company. In 1967 he launched a publishing company with the poet Christopher Okigbo, who died shortly afterwards in the civil war caused by Biafra's secession from the Nigerian federation. And in 1969 he and fellow writers Gabriel Okara and Cyprian Ekwensi made a lecture tour of the United States, where he promoted the Biafran cause. His two books of poetry, Beware Soul-Brother and Christmas in Biafra, were inspired by the war. From 1970 he was the director of two Nigerian publishing houses and in 1973 he became professor of English in the University of Nigeria. He is also a professor in several US universities.

Achebe, however, was not writing only for the leisured reader. His writings have a moral purpose, a "social vision"  — to use the words of Wole Soyinka — as do those of all African writers, whose responsibility is towards their community. Achebe’s aims were that his writing should serve the purpose of helping his fellow Ibos, fellow Nigerians and his fellow Africans to come to terms with their history, recognize what was strong and weak in the African past, and create a national consciousness.

His first and most famous work, Things Fall Apart, was written in 1958, when he was 28 years old. It has been translated into 50 languages and has sold 10 million copies. In it he manages to achieve the virtually impossible: to write unsentimentally about something he feels passionate about, the social and psychological disorientation of the introduction of Western customs and values into traditional society. The title is taken from Yeats’ poem "The Second Coming", where the poet speaks of the ending of the Christian cycle. Achebe gives it an ironic twist. For him the cycle that is ending is that of the traditional life of the Ibo, and the cycle that will follow is a Christian cycle, which for Yeats is coming to an end. Many critics have compared the story of the hero, Okwonko, a champion wrestler, aggressive and impatient, and the village leader, with Greek tragedy. Okonkwo cannot accept the new order, although the old is dying out, and he comes to a grievous end.

Two years later his second novel, No Longer at Ease, appeared. Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi, who has been educated in Britain, returns to Nigeria to take up a senior position in the Civil Service in the closing years of colonial rule. In the end he is dismissed in disgrace as the demands made on him by the people in his native town lead him to corruption.

Arrow of God was published in 1964. Set in the 1920s in a village under British administration, the chief priest of the village, whose son becomes a fervent Christian, turns against his own people because of the position he is placed in by the white man. Two years later, in A Man of the People, he attacks injustice in a satirical exposure of corrupt practices and politicians in independent Africa. His last novel, written over twenty years later, Anthills of the Savannah, is set in a military dictatorship in an African state.

In Achebe’s novels the narrative flows, the characters come to life, and the non-African reader begins to glimpse the dilemma of the contemporary African, immersed in centuries of tradition, customs and beliefs, suddenly faced with the whole sweep of Western education, beliefs, values and lifestyle. Achebe’s dispassionate approach endears him to a wider range of readers than the more ideological and confrontational style of talented writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo, or Francophone authors like Mongo Beti and the late Sembene Ousmane, and even more than his fellow Nigerian and contemporary, Wole Soyinka, the first African author to win the Nobel Prize. 

Achebe, Soyinka and others of the first generation of African writers have set the stage. They write at a critical time in the history of Africa: the transition from the past to modernity. The challenge is for their successors to maintain their standards at a time when Africa is settling down and having to confront the problems of taking its place in the globalized world but without forgetting its rich past.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.