“Chinua Achebe has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Published in 1958, the year after Ghana became the first African country to gain independence from colonial rule, Things Fall Apart is Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s debut novel.
The book charts the collision of the Igbo people living on the lower Niger River with the British and their triumvirate of Christianity, Commerce, and Civilisation. The narrative begins before colonisation with the daily rituals of tribal life, exploring the values and culture of the Umuofia clan. Their agrarian society is strongly patriarchal, but has elements of democratic meritocracy; they have no king, but hold competitions and award titles to select for the most able men.
Achebe doesn’t paint pre-colonial village life as a prelapsarian utopia; instead, he explores a dark heart of violence, machismo, and misogyny. But he also portrays a culture with rich storytelling, artistic, and religious traditions, buttressed by a strong sense justice and morality.
The protagonist of the story, Okonkwo the yam man, doesn’t cut a very sympathetic figure. He’s belligerent and suppresses his warmer, gentler emotions. Aggressive masculinity is his most prized personality trait. He ‘never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness – the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.’ Okonkwo is a rigidly one-dimensional character, unable to adapt to change and unyielding in his harsh expectations of others. His personality is a reaction to the shame he feels on behalf of his father, an indolent, yet charming, failure who couldn’t provide for his family. Okonkwo overcompensates with hard work from ‘cock-crow until the chickens went to roost’, and so he grows rich and respected, with a large barn full of yams and three wives. He also cultivates martial virtue and achieves fame as a great wrestler and warrior – at important ceremonies he drinks from the skull of the first man he killed in war. But Okonkwo is ultimately dominated by fear. His hamartia becomes starkly apparent when he has a hand in the murder of a young boy from a rival clan whom he loves and had looked after for three years. ‘Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.’ This fear also leads him to occasionally beat his wives (he attempts shoot one) and drives his sensitive eldest son away from him. Even though Okonkwo deeply loves and admires his daughter Ezinma, he can’t accept her at face value and his constant refrain is, “She should have been a boy”. Okonkwo is not a free thinker; he stands steadfastly for traditional tribal and martial values, yet his dedication and courage are almost admirable. But after he causes the accidental death of a boy during a festival, he is exiled from his clan for seven years.
Later, when the English arrive and build churches and court houses, the ties that bind come undone and the traditional Igbo society begins to fracture. The sense that something is lost in this encounter is reinforced by the title of the book, which is appropriated from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
Achebe is Homer meets Hemingway. Like Hemingway, Achebe writes about masculine pursuits in simple, direct and dignified prose. Although, for those of us who don’t read Igbo, the sprinkling of native words is mostly fatuous. The power of Things Fall Apart is its boundlessness; the apparent lack of a message is a more powerful way of implying one. Achebe’s style is analogous to Homer, not because his story is a narrative epic – indeed there is no plot to speak of – but because of a focus on ritualistic customs like the breaking of kola nut and sharing of palm wine and a preoccupation with propitiating the gods. Achebe achieves this, like Homer, through the use of stock phrases and repetitive actions that evoke a mythic and timeless quality. Achebe’s hero, like Odysseus, is long suffering and is dedicated to his family. Like Odysseus, Okonkwo comes home after a long period of exile and finds it occupied by pernicious usurpers. Unlike Odysseus, who defeats his wife’s suitors, shows himself to be the hero, and takes back his household, Okonkwo cannot rid his tribe of the new order with its ‘abominable religion’, so he hangs himself. His death symbolises the death of the traditional community.
Fundamentally Things Fall Apart is, is a commentary on the strength that people find in community. The arrival of the Christians tolls the death knell of tribal society and close community bonds. One village elder prognosticates: ‘I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice.’ The arrival of the English, however, is not wholly malignant. They accept outcasts, they rescue twins who would otherwise arbitrarily be left for dead, they reinforce the essential equality of individuals, and they offer trade and education. It is ignorance of the other more than malevolence that causes friction between the two cultures. The ignorant and incurious district commissioner exemplifies this with his comments on Okonkwo’s death, remarking that it will make for an interesting paragraph or two in his upcoming book, which he shall dismissively title ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’.
My initial reaction on completion of the book was a hesitant ‘is that it?’ Pitting European missionaries against a tribal culture and watching traditional norms erode and community bonds sever seems like the most obvious African narrative to write. Yet Things Fall Apart has become the archetypal exploration of this clash of cultures. Achebe writes not for beauty’s sake, but to make a point, to reclaim lost dignity. The book served as the wellspring of subsequent African fiction by Africans written in English. When the book is removed from context, Things Fall Apart perhaps doesn’t achieve the ranks of a truly great work of literature, which should open a new window into the universal human condition, but his book is an honest and open-ended exploration of colonialism against tribalism, ignorance against understanding, and kindness against cruelty. He achieves this with a cool hand and discerning eye.
Added 17th September 2018