"The Education of a British-Protected Child" (Knopf, 208 pages, $24.95), by Chinua Achebe: Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's new book, his first in 20 years, is not especially new. And maybe that's part of the point.
"The Education of a British-Protected Child" is a collection of essays that all share as their backdrop the tangled, tortured history of colonial Africa. Most are also 10 or more years old, culled from Achebe's writings and speeches over the years.
This could have the effect of making the collection feel dated. Sadly, in this case, it does not. Instead, it seems to highlight a persistency to Africa's troubles, a complicated bundle that Achebe both dissects and laments.
Few writers have more authority on this topic. The Nigerian-born writer's 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" is perhaps the most famous work of African fiction ever written. And, though his publishing has slowed, Achebe has stayed an engaged and provocative voice.
There's plenty of pluck and fight in this collection. In one essay, "Africa's Tarnished Name," Achebe renews a fight with no less than writer Joseph Conrad. Achebe was once spellbound by Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness," he writes, before discovering it for what he says it was: "poisonous writing, in full consonance with the tenets of the slave trade-inspired tradition of European portrayal of Africa."
Writers like Conrad, Achebe asserts, have stripped Africa of its humanity and critics should not gloss over the obvious faults of his writing simply because of when he wrote.
Achebe's ire is not always aimed outward. There are sharp critiques of Africans' mismanagement of Africa. Achebe is likewise just as comfortable starting a literary row with a fellow African as he is with the Polish-born Briton, Conrad.
All of these arguments are well reasoned, interesting and often engrossing. They're not, though, especially congruent.
Beyond the general link of Africa, the only thing tying these pieces together seems to be Achebe's whims. It feels as if he has many, many thoughts on Africa, and here are a few of the most salient.
This is a small complaint, though, about what is ultimately a sturdy collection of set pieces about a perennially undercovered continent. Few voices know it better than Achebe and few are willing to tackle its intricacies so totally. The pieces may not all fit together perfectly, but given Achebe's heft, they are timeless.