Revisiting Chigozie Obioma via John Updike’s Bech

by thepingofpong

Part of the fascination of novels is how much of real life can be packed into them. Part of the magic is how they can seem to be prescient across boundaries, across time. Take Henry Bech, the writer-avatar of the late John Updike. A womanising, grumpy curmudgeon, Bech has quite the appetite for trouble.

Lessons in literary tact can be gleaned from Bech

Bech teaches literary tact

Late in his life—but not late enough as his lover has just conceived—he is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Updike uses this set-up to talk about a prize he himself never won. Bech is unbelieving. He is, however, told helpfully that no one including the voters expected him to win. As Bech sees it, ‘they were voting against themselves’ and so he won.

Cover for Obioma's The Fishermen

The Fishermen cover

The incident is close somewhat to an episode recounted in Norman Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex. Mailer is informed by a reporter over a phone call that he has just won the Nobel. He starts to go through how he is to face authors who many argue should have won, mainly Vladimir Nabokov. He later thinks he shouldn’t have bothered because it was an error.

Back to Bech. One of his laments interests me. ‘His winning the Prize had unleashed a deluge of letters that battered him like hostile winds,’ writes Updike. ‘Envy and resentment poured toward him out of the American vastness…’

For Obioma, Africa has been unkind he has said. His dispassionate letter reads in part:

“I have been appalled by interactions with Africans. I have received so many nasty mails, some so ridiculous that I had to disable the direct author contact link on my website. Various other “African writers” have engaged me in ways that approximate to hatred, some form of angst about what they believe is an unfair auspicious reception of my book. This has come from Africans—the very people I call my own. These smear campaigns, these vicious commentaries, these mean messages. I am not surprised, though. Where other people succeed in propping others up and basking in the success of the other, the African rejoices—or feels elevated—in tearing others down. It is why, from North to South, East to West, what you have is a continent failed states. Every one thinks for themselves, hence, that sense of community, of bettering yourself by raising others, is non-existent.”

What would Bech do?

When Bech gets around to Sweden for his Nobel lecture, he agonises about not having a suitable speech. He then gets his infant daughter to say hi and wave bye. This, you’d imagine, is what Obioma should have done. But in doing something fairly ridiculous like posting a rant dissing a continent on a blog he proved to be human, too real—not as tactful as a toddling, drooling fictional infant and her granddad.

At least Obioma has a usable excuse: those characters were written into being by a master.