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Originally published Friday, March 22, 2013 at 9:04 PM

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African literary great Chinua Achebe, 82

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe first made his mark with the publication in 1958 of his first novel, “Things Fall Apart,” which has sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 45 languages.

The New York Times

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Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who was one of Africa’s most widely read novelists and one of the continent’s towering men of letters, has died, his publisher and agent said in London on Friday. He was 82.

He died Thursday in Boston, but few details were available.

Besides novels, Mr. Achebe’s works included powerful essays and poignant short stories and poems rooted in the countryside and cities of his native Nigeria, before and after independence from British colonial rule. His most memorable fictional characters were buffeted and bewildered by the conflicting pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values.

For inspiration, he drew on his own family history as part of the Ibo nation of southeastern Nigeria, a people victimized by the racism of British colonial administrators and then by the brutality of military dictators from other Nigerian ethnic groups.

Mr. Achebe burst onto the world literary scene with the publication in 1958 of his first novel, “Things Fall Apart,” which has sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Set in the Ibo countryside in the late 19th century, the novel tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become an affluent farmer and village leader. But with the advent of British colonial rule and cultural values, Okonkwo’s life is thrown into turmoil. In the end, unable to adapt to the new status quo, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.

The novel, which is also compelling for its descriptions of traditional Ibo society and rituals, went on to become a classic of world literature and was often listed as required reading in university courses in Europe and the United States.

In a 1998 book review in The New York Times, South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe as “a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”

His political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence.

Forced abroad by Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s and then by military dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Achebe had lived for many years in the United States, where he was a professor, most recently at Brown University, where he joined the faculty in 2009 as a professor of African studies after teaching for 19 years at Bard College in Red Hook, N.Y.

He continued to believe that writers and storytellers held more power than army strongmen.

“Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior,” an old soothsayer observes in Mr. Achebe’s novel “Anthills of the Savannah.”

“It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”

Albert Chinualumogu Achebe was born on Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, an Ibo village, during the heyday of British colonial rule. His father became a Christian and worked for a missionary teacher in various parts of Nigeria before returning to Ogidi. Mr. Achebe, then 5, later recalled the homecoming as a passage backward through time.

“Sitting in the back of the truck and facing what seemed the wrong way, I could not see where we were going, only where we were coming from,” he wrote in “Home and Exile,” a collection of autobiographical essays published in 2000.

As a child and adolescent, he immersed himself in Western literature. At the University College of Ibadan, whose professors were Europeans, Mr. Achebe avidly read Shakespeare, Milton, Defoe, Swift, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Tennyson. But it was the required reading of a novel set in Nigeria and written by an Anglo-Irishman, Joyce Cary, that proved to be the turning point in his education.

Titled “Mister Johnson,” the 1952 book, which culminates when its docile Nigerian protagonist is shot to death by his British master, was hailed by the white faculty and in the Western press as one of the best novels written about Africa. But as Mr. Achebe wrote, he and his classmates responded with “exasperation at this bumbling idiot of a character whom Joyce Cary and our teacher were so assiduously passing off as a poet when he was nothing but an embarrassing nitwit!”

For Mr. Achebe, the novel aroused his first deep stirrings of anti-colonialism and a desire to use literature as a weapon against Western biases. “In the end, I began to understand,” he wrote. “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.”

His first novel was intended as a trilogy, and the author continued its story in “A Man of the People” and “Arrow of God.” He also wrote short stories, poems, children’s stories and his political satire “Anthills of the Savannah,” a 1987 release that was the last full-length fiction to come out in his lifetime. Mr. Achebe, who used a wheelchair in his later years, would cite his physical problems and displacement from home as stifling to his imaginative powers.

He never won the Nobel Prize, which many believed he deserved, but in 2007 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, a $120,000 honor for lifetime achievement. Mr. Achebe, paralyzed from the waist down since a 1990 auto accident, lived for years in a cottage built for him on the campus of Bard College during his years on the faculty of the liberal-arts school north of New York City. He joined Brown University several years ago as a professor of languages and literature.

Mr. Achebe’s long exile did not diminish his view of himself as a writer inexorably tied to his homeland. “People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America, since I have now been living here some years,” he wrote in “Home and Exile.” “My answer has always been that America has enough novelists writing about here, and Nigeria too few.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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