23 March 2013

Chike and the River, by Chinua Achebe

On the occasion of his passing, it seemed appropriate to pay homage to Achebe by reading something he wrote. Of his works, I've actually only ever read Things Fall Apart and his deservedly famous take-down of Conrad (I don't entirely agree with it, but I do think it's a must-read), but I've heard his other books are really great. So I read Chike and the River, which is quite short - I got through it in half an hour. It's meant to be a children's story (and was recently re-released by Anchor Books with beautiful illustrations), but it's quite pleasurable for adults as well.

Chike is an eleven year old boy who moves away from his small village to his uncle's house in a bugger city by the Niger river. He is told that it's possible to cross the river by ferry boat, and he dreams of doing so. The book is basically the story of his attempts to make it happen, and all the adventures he has along the way. The seeming simplicity of the work conceals some of its underlying elegance - it's chock-full of subtle touches that warm my analytic cockles. I particularly appreciated, for instance, a moment when Chike relates a saying he's heard, but adds his own spin on it - a lovely example of oral tradition getting modernized, and also a nice way of sort of integrating local story telling traditions into this bigger form. And of course, Chike's wanderings give you a bit of a glimpse into the society he comes from, without coming across as blatant touristic-type writing. The book isn't obviously addressed to a Western audience or made to seem like a display of local culture (some of the words get footnotes with explanations, but they most seem to be the Britishisms, rather than, for instance, the pidgin, or even the word pidgin, which is interesting). It's a sweet story about a little boy who wants to ride a ferry boat. If you have kids, get them a copy. If you don't, maybe get yourself one =-)

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