The Education of a British-Protected Child is Chinua Achebe’s first new book in twenty years. Random House describes it as a collection of personal essays, but the essays in this collection are only occasionally personal, and they are not of the variety of meditative writing one might shelve next to Montaigne or Sei Shonagon. The book isn’t so much a memoir as it is a revisiting of the issues and arguments that have defined Achebe’s work. The hero Achebe has become is not disassembled before us in these essays. If anything, he is, as an individual hero, remade.
Achebe begins his title essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture at Cambridge, with the sly suggestion that it is because his application to Cambridge was rejected that he is now a novelist and not a scholar. The essay then meanders through Achebe’s education, formal and informal, from the Nwafo Festival in his village to Treasure Island in boarding school, with the true subject of the essay, the place where he begins and ends, being the concept of middle ground. “The middle ground,” he writes, “is neither the origin of things nor the last things; it is aware of a future to head into and a past to fall back on.” At the end of the essay he reminds us:
I could have dwelt on the harsh humiliations of colonial rule or the more dramatic protests against it. But I am also fascinated by that middle ground I spoke about where the human spirit resists an abridgement of its humanity. And this was to be found primarily in the camp of the colonized, but now and again in the ranks of the colonizer too.
Achebe is everywhere in this collection even-handed, and provocatively so. He resists polarities wherever they present themselves, embracing both a “precolonial inheritance” and a “colonial inheritance,” appreciating both Christianity and Igbo tradition, and insisting, again, that the literature of Africa can be written in English.
Anyone who has read Achebe’s earlier collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments, will hear echoes of that work throughout The Education of a British-Protected Child. Conrad is flogged again, and repeatedly; John Buchan’s unfortunate sentence, “That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility,” is revisited several times; and the sixteenth-century letters from the king of Bukongo to the king of Portugal complaining about the barbaric behavior of Portuguese missionaries in Africa become a kind of refrain.
In this new collection Achebe returns to the vast task of recovering Africa’s history. He reminds us that in order to proceed with the colonial project, it was essential first for the colonizers to establish that Africans were a people without a history, without culture, without religion, and without education. Part of the tragedy in this, for the colonizers as much as the colonized, was that “these reporters actually came to believe their own stories—such was the complex psychology of the imperial vocation.” And that tragedy continues to play out, now, in America, as those false stories have been “bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself.”
If the author treads over some of the same territory he covered twenty years ago, perhaps that is only testimony to how slowly we recover, and how awfully resilient the colonial legacy is. Then again, there is Achebe, the implied hero of the text, traveling on fellowships, attending conferences, receiving awards—all this serves as testimony to what Africa and its writers have salvaged from the wreckage of colonialism.
But Achebe does not seem quite as willing to undo himself in The Education as he might a fictional hero, and so his achievements begin to weigh rather heavily on the text. His essay “African Literature as Restoration of Celebration” begins, “Many years ago, I was one of a dozen or so foreign guests at a symposium,” and we often find Achebe like this in The Education, at a symposium, or attending a gathering held in his honor, or delivering an address. His essays rarely depend on these moments, or make much of them, with the exception of “Africa is People,” in which Achebe attends a meeting of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. He spends most of the proceedings wondering why he, an African novelist, was invited to a meeting in which Western bankers and economists are spinning fanciful stories out of the fate of Africa’s economy, until, in a “stab of insight,” he realizes that this is no more than a fiction workshop.