But over the years, Mr. Achebe’s stature grew until he was considered a literary and political beacon.
“In all Achebe’s writing there is an intense moral energy,” observed Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy at Princeton, in a commentary published in 2000. “He speaks about the task of the writer in language that captures the sense of threat and loss that must have faced many Africans as empire invaded and disrupted their lives.”
In a 1998 book review in The New York Times, the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe as “a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”
Mr. Achebe’s political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence.
As a child and adolescent, he immersed himself in Western literature. At the University College of Ibadan, whose professors were Europeans, Mr. Achebe avidly read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Tennyson. But it was the required reading of a novel set in Nigeria and written by an Anglo-Irishman, Joyce Cary, that proved to be the turning point in his education.
Titled”Mister Johnson,”the 1952 book, which culminates when its docile Nigerian protagonist is shot to death by his British master, was hailed by the white faculty and in the Western press as one of the best novels ever written about Africa. But as Mr. Achebe wrote, he and his classmates responded with “exasperation at this bumbling idiot of a character whom Joyce Cary and our teacher were so assiduously passing off as a poet when he was nothing but an embarrassing nitwit!”
For Mr. Achebe, the novel aroused his first deep stirrings of anti-colonialism and a desire to use literature as a weapon against Western biases. “In the end, I began to understand,” he wrote. “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.”
A whole generation of West African writers was coming to the same realization in the 1950s. A Nigerian, Amos Tutuola, opened the floodgates of literature in the region with his 1952 novel, “The Palm-Wine Drunkard.” Soon afterward came another Nigerian, Cyprian Ekwensi, with “People of the City”; the Guinean writer Camara Laye, with “L’Enfant Noir”; Mongo Beti of Cameroon, with “Poor Christ of Bomba”; and the Senegalese writer, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, with “Ambiguous Adventure.”
Rest in peace, Elder Achebe. And thank you.