“I only read books that are at least a hundred years old.” I was told recently(ish) in a conversation. If a book is this old and is still read, discussed, and referred to, it must be good. Decades of vetting and peer-review, my interlocutor seemed to think, stamped a seal of approval on it canonized its wisdom. All those decades passed, all these people read that book and agreed, for your exclusive benefit and edification: this book is fit for you to read.
My first reflex was to try to find arguments as to why only reading old books is a terrible idea. And that in itself was a bad idea, because it would be utterly futile. Only someone who doesn’t really like reading could have come up with such nonsense. Someone for whom reading is not a way to engage with the world and other people but who sees it as a badge, a mark of status that is paraded in front of an imaginary audience that will be duly impressed with the reader’s sophistication. I don’t actually think that guy read books at all (yes, of course it was a guy).
I had a similar conviction at the age of ten. It was partly adolescent self-importance and partly the limited catalogue of my local public library in rural Poland: the older books were usually classics and the newer ones were genre literature, romance and action novels, which I despised with the arrogance of a fourth-grader. If Korzeńsko Public Library had remained the only institution of that kind I ever visited, perhaps my taste would have remained where it was then. Thankfully, I have been more fortunate.
Half a Yellow Sunby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would probably pass the muster of my smug ten-year-old self: it is an instant classic in the form of a sweeping historical novel. Calling it a historical novel might seem to flatten and diminish its range and impact with a label of a genre, but I think it does something else: it elevates the genre. It is an intimate history of the Republic of Biafra as told through the eyes of three very different characters: an intellectual and a mother, a young servant boy, and an Englishman in love with an Igbo woman.
The intricacies of the ethnic and political conflict of the 1960s Nigeria rarely made it to the headlines in the global North. It was the images of skeletal children with hunger-swollen bellies that often did. The Biafran hunger crisis, caused by the Nigerian blockade, elicited compassion and a flood of aid from the ‘civilized’ world in ways that defined and shaped modern concepts of humanitarian intervention and humanitarian aid. And so, the image of the white savior took on its modern guise.
Richard, the Englishman whose voice the author uses, has too much self-awareness to be a white savior. He remains in Biafra after the war breaks out and offers his services to the government of the republic, painfully aware of his position as a white man in decolonized West Africa. Travelling through the war-torn country, he meets another European, a Swedish aristocrat, a noble, selfless figure. The elderly Swede flies his shabby plane behind the enemy lines to provide relief to starving Biafrans. Richard is very impressed and full of admiration. He finds out that the count did the same thing in Warsaw during the Second World War, to relieve the Jews trapped in the ghetto.
Reader, I groaned. There was no Swedish aristocrat dropping food packages on the Warsaw ghetto. There was not even a sliver of a possibility that such a thing ever happened. In 1943, when the last of Warsaw’s Jews were sent to their deaths and the ghetto was razed to the ground, Warsaw was deep within the German zone of occupation: the Allied planes did not have aircrafts with the range necessary to reach Warsaw, and in any case, the accuracy needed to drop anything on the tiny area of the ghetto would be superhuman. In 1944, the second front was opened in Normandy and the Allies were pressing towards Berlin; the Soviets reached the Vistula and could have aided Warsaw if they wanted to. They didn’t and certainly had no interest in tolerating an eccentric foreign count flying aid missions from their territory.
What happened here was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie conflating the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 with the uprising of the Polish resistance 1944 uprising. The ghetto uprising of 1943 was a desperate effort of Warsaw’s Jews to preserve their dignity in the face of the inevitable annihilation. The 1944 uprising was an attempt by the Polish resistance to grasp control over the city from German hands before the Soviets could march in and impose their order (the Soviets watched the Nazis drown the city in blood from across the river until resistance fizzled). It was in 1944 that the Allies dropped aid for the insurgents, flying what amounted to suicide missions from Sicily. That these two very different instances of armed resistance against Nazi Germany are frequently conflated is a source of perpetual chagrin in Poland. Exasperation caused by ignorance is often understandable, as in the case of “Polish concentration camps” used persistently by Anglophone press (it is a different issue whether Poland is right to criminalize any doubts on the subject of the entire Polish nation’s heroic conduct during German occupation).
There is one more possible source for that character in Half a Yellow Sun: there definitely was at least one European flying an aircraft for the Republic of Biafra. Jan Zumbach, a former Polish RAF pilot, bombed Nigerian positions. He had left Poland when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, found his way into France and then the United Kingdom and joined a Polish fighter squadron under British command. He became a mercenary after the war ended, a man of unclear allegiances that probably led to his death in murky circumstances in 1986 in France. He was certainly not an unblemished humanitarian, and all the more interesting for that.
But Half a Yellow Sunis not a novel about Zumbach or Warsaw’s wartime history (I allowed myself to get distracted by a tiny inconsequential detail with no influence on the plot of the novel because there is a distinct, indisputable pleasure in being right about things people get wrong; perhaps that smug ten-year-old is not gone after all). It’s not a novel about Richard the Englishman either. The way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reveals whose voice truly delivers the story of the doomed republic and its people is one of the marks of this book’s brilliance.