With singular mastery and poetry, Mr. Achebe attempted to describe what he knew: the struggle of his fellow Igbo people in southeastern Nigeria to adjust to the British colonialism eroding their way of life. The theme of conflict between traditional values and modern culture would define his work.
After many African countries such as Nigeria gained independence in the post-World War II years, Mr. Achebe used books such as “A Man of the People” (1966) to satirize the despots and corrupt bureaucrats who filled the gap and failed their own people. His 1983 polemic “The Trouble With Nigeria” (1983) judged that “Nigerians are what they are only because their leaders are not what they should be.”
In a literary and academic career spanning six decades and three continents, Mr. Achebe’s seminal book was his first, “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which has sold millions of copies in 45 languages and has become a staple of college reading lists.
Taking its title from a line in William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” “Things Fall Apart” was a monumental rebuke to the Western tradition of portraying Africans as savages and whites as noble. Its hero, Okonkwo, is a champion wrestler and brave leader in a fictional Nigerian village who is unable to bend to the culture introduced by British colonizers and missionaries.
His inability to assimilate ultimately leads to his suicide, a fate that results from Okonkwo’s own failings as well as the insidiousness of colonialism. Mr. Achebe considered the tragic ending “almost inevitable,” and also the beginning of the story of post-colonial Nigeria (which began in 1960).
The novel won moderate praise from Western literary critics but was eventually considered among the most important works of 20th-century fiction, lauded by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz. Morrison said she found the work liberating, once telling the Guardian newspaper: “He inhabited his world in a way that I didn’t inhabit mine — the things he could take for granted — insisting on writing outside the white gaze, not against it.”
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, long jailed during apartheid, once said he drew strength from Mr. Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.” He added, “Both of us, in our differing circumstances within the context of white domination of our continent, became freedom fighters.”
Mr. Achebe won literary awards throughout his career, including the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2007. The Nobel Prize — awarded in 1986 to a friend, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka — eluded him.