Sunday, May 23, 2010

Memories of a War

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a novel to honor her grandfathers and her uncles who fought in the Nigeria-Biafran War. She listened to the memories and the stories they told and she did expansive research. The war which took place from 1967 to 1970 between the Muslims and the Christian Igbo is largely forgotten. What we remember are the photographs of Biafran children, with spindly arms and legs and swollen stomachs. These photos became a symbol to the world of starvation.

Adicie’s second novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” begins with a narrative by Ugwu, a thirteen year old village boy who is beginning his life as a houseboy for “Master”. Master is Odenigbo, a professor at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. There are laugh out loud parts of this chapter…… “(Ugwu) wanted to do more, wanted to give Master every reason to keep him so one morning he ironed Master’s socks.” The author has chosen to begin on a light note, but as endearing as Ugwu is throughout the novel even he succumbs to the horrors that war brings.

Master’s mistress is the beautiful, privileged, educated Olanna, daughter of a nouveau riche Igbo businessman. Her twin sister Kainene is sarcastic, sharp, impenetrable-----the opposite of Olanna. Kainene’s lover is Richard, a white, British writer who is obsessed with Nigeria and Kainene.

Adichie tells the story of this war through the eyes of these four characters. Olanna goes to visit her relatives in the village and witnesses unspeakable horror. Ugwu, Odenigbo, and Olanna must evacuate Nsukka. They eventually find themselves in a refugee camp lining up to receive, or not receive, meager amounts of food. Kainene and Richard run from planes dropping bombs and watch as a piece of shrapnel takes off the head of Kainene’s houseboy, as he ran for cover.

Adichie does not spare the reader. As we read Adichie’s clear, straight forward prose we understand exactly what happened to these people as this war raged for three years. Her story stresses the meaning of country, family, and love. Her themes of loyalty and betrayal are entwined with the actions and reactions of each character as she emphasizes the power of love to overcome pain.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a story that will help the world remember what happened in that war, over forty years ago, and it is an amazing tribute to her family members who died and those who survived the Biafran War.

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