"A Man of the People" is a 1966 novel by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, generally considered to be one of the greatest African novelists of the 20th century. Although Achebe was Nigerian, the book does not explicitly take place in Nigeria, but simply in a anonymous African country. It is relatively short, around 140 pages in my edition, and has a similarly limited scope in terms of action and characters.
I knew about Achebe mostly through the reputation of Things Fall Apart, which seems to be the one book by a modern African writer that people are familiar with. I have not actually read "Things Fall Apart", but I was somewhat intimidated just by the reputation of its importance. Most of the commentary I've read on Achebe stressed his importance as a political and social figure. From this book's title, I knew it was political, so I was expecting a perhaps-turgid work on African politics. I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case.
The book follows the protagonist, one Odili, and his mentor-turned-rival, Chief Nanga. Odili got his early education from Chief Nanga, a resistance fighter turned politician that is living off of the graft that he receives as Minister of Culture. Chief Nanga, who is personably affable, briefly brings Odili back into his orbit, only to alienate Odili permanently after seducing his girlfriend. Odili then organizes an opposition party with other young, college educated people, only to be suppressed by the corrupt government. At the end of the book, however, a coup overthrows the government, although this is not portrayed as an optimistic future.
The plot does sound like it has the possibility to be turgid, and a less skilled writer could have turned this book into a tract. However, the book's interest comes from the texture it presents Odili and Nanga with. Odili is not a saint, martyr or ideologue. He is a young man with a conscience, but he is still dealing with real situations and relationships. He is getting close to reconciling himself to Nanga's corrupt view of the world, and his impetuous for refusing it is not ethical as much as personal anger at Nanga's seduction of his girlfriend. Nanga is not a brutal or thuggish warlord, but simply a man who thinks that a little bit of power and money is his due. These two men inhabit the same world, although they make different things out of it. By chance, I read this book shortly after reading The Bend of the World, a book that on the surface has a very different setting, but shares many of the same themes. Both of them are about educated young people who have to decide how to reconcile themselves to a corrupt world that they are already part of. As such, it seems very relevant to many people today who most decide how to deal with a world that is foolish and corrupt, but also unavoidable. This isn't to say that the post-colonial message of this book isn't important, but even outside of the specific political and social circumstances it still has a universal theme.