Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

‘‘Civil Peace’’ was first published in the Nigerian journal Okike in 1971, and it was collected in the volume Girls at War and Other Stories, published the following year. Girls at War brought together all of the short stories Achebe had written over the past twenty years. As such, the twelve pieces dealt with a wide range of the Nigerian experience, most notably, custom and religious beliefs, the contrast between traditional and contemporary society, as well as the Nigerian civil war. ‘‘Civil Peace’’ is one of the latter, and takes place after the war has ended.

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At the time that the collection was published, most contemporary critics responded favorably. The New Yorker extolled Achebe's short pieces as ‘‘worldly, intelligent, absorbing.’’ I. A. Menkiti wrote in Library Journal that ‘‘the stories are a delight... Achebe deals deftly and with unforgettable wit.’’ The Saturday Review complimented Achebe's prose as ‘‘masterfully simple and concise without ever being mannered.’’ The reviewer for Choice prophesied two audiences for Girls at War: ‘‘people who already admire Achebe's work [who] will want to discover a new dimension of his talent; [and] others [who] will find a series of engaging African tales.’’ The war stories, ‘‘impressive and moving for dealing so obliquely with the actual carnage,’’ according to Choice, demonstrated Achebe's ongoing involvement with the political situation. The Saturday Review lauded them as 'the most effective in the book.''

Because Achebe even then was known primarily for his novels (by 1972, four novels had already been published), many contemporary critics compared Girls at War to his longer works. Choice noted that the individual stories were ‘‘somewhat slender'' and bemoaned the

brevity of the short story form [which] does not allow Achebe to demonstrate his major skill—the contrivance of an inexorably intensifying series of circumstances that produce human disaster for the characters and a rich catharsis for the reader.

The Saturday Review noted a similarity in the ‘‘underlying theme’’ of Achebe's stories and his longer pieces while Menkiti found that the ''collection yields valuable insight into the development of the author's narrative style as well as the thematic concerns which were later to shape his major works.''

In the decades following initial publication of ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ literary scholars also analyzed the relationship of the stories to the novels. Whereas G. D. Killam concluded in The Writings ofChinua Achebe that the short stories in Girls at War ''reveal the same interests as the longer fiction'' thematically, C. L. Innes carried this comparison further in Chinua Achebe. Wrote Innes,

Whereas the novels have told the stories of those who aspired to be central to their communities or the nation, these stories dwell on the perspectives and situations of those who have never seen themselves as holders of power—for the most part they are concerned with physical and psychological survival.

Like Jonathan Iwegbu in ‘‘Civil Peace,’’ Innes writes, ''they generally see themselves as more or less lucky rather than good or clever.’’

Readers have also responded to and questioned other aspects of ‘‘Civil Peace.’’ In his essay ‘‘Politics and the African Writer,’’ Kolawole Ogungbesan stated his belief that while Achebe's war stories ‘‘minutely recapitulated the ugly facts of life in Biafra'' during the war period, they were not' 'good work[s] of art.’’ Ogungbesan compared Achebe's efforts to those of a journalist: ‘‘A work of art should create, not just copy,’’ he declared. Innes, however, found that the story surpassed even the boundaries of short fiction, suggesting that the second half of the story showed that Achebe ''might well, if he wished prove a dramatist. The episode mingles fear, suspense and hilariously grim comedy.’’ Innes did raise one possible point of disputation: the reader's response. Wrote Innes, the

reader might well view the wit, energy, compassion and muted optimism of this story in the aftermath of the civil war with something of the admiring incredulity with which he or she responds to Jonathan Iwegbu's unfailing optimism as he counts his blessings after the devastation of the war.

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