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.

Achebe’s many personal anecdotes in The Education amount, in the end, to something like liner notes to the great songs of his novels. In this way, The Education invites a rather perverse comparison with Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. Perverse because where Hemingway is cruel, Achebe is humane; where Hemingway’s Africa is an empty setting, Achebe’s Africa is people; where Hemingway is prone to ugly displays of chauvinism, Achebe is empathic; and where Hemingway liked to fancy himself a great man, Achebe seems truly to be a great man. Nonetheless, fame and nostalgia trouble both The Education and Feast. Achebe’s laurels clutter his text like the empty oyster shells littering Hemingway’s bistro tables.

We are, as Americans, both African and European, and so we find ourselves, like Achebe, with a dual legacy. As Achebe puts it:

If the philosophical dictum of Descartes “I think, therefore I am” represents a European individualistic ideal, the Bantu declaration “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” represents an African communal aspiration: “A human is human because of other humans.”

An artful autobiography can bridge these concepts, opening a mind to us while offering up a self who serves as a map to our collective humanity. In resisting the autobiographical mode, Achebe forfeits his opportunity to inhabit that particular middle ground.

 

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Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays. Her work has appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as numerous magazines.