Thursday, 5 September 2013

THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe

I have to confess that I didn't know much about this book or the author, although he has been described as a father of modern African literature. And it was a real shame because this is a really engrossing book to read - a mixture of an ethnographic documentary and a narrative working to an inevitable climax and ending.

The title, "borrowed" from Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,' effectively summarizes the tragic saga of both the main character and the African tribal villages (and their traditions) in the 1890s upon the arrival of white (British) missionaries and soldiers.

The story begins with Okonkwo, the main character, as a wealthy and respected warrior of the Umuofia clan in one of the nine neighboring villages in Nigeria, Wets Africa, and provides flashbacks of his youth with a drunk and indebted father and his wrestling skills and hard labor that got him into fame and fortune.

It then follows the main character and many other people he interacts with in a in the third person, by an omniscient figure who focuses on Okonkwo but switches from character to character to detail the thoughts and motives of various individuals. Okonkwo's life begins to unravel when he accidentally kills a clansman and has to go to exile for seven years according to clan rules. It is during his exile, when missionaries and colonial governors arrive and impose their laws and religion onto the tribes. When he returns to his tribe, Okonkwo - always the fierce warrior haunted by the memories of his father - is dismayed to find that many tribesman do not put forth much resistance to these changes. In the end, his world is thrown so much off-course that he kills in a fit of rage during a tribal meeting one of the colonial court messengers, who attempt to break up this meeting. Seeing that no one else is willing to fight for their traditions, he resorts to committing suicide.

This book, by and large, recounts two levels of conflict and change. On a larger level, it is the conflict  between the traditional society of Umuofia and the new customs brought by the white colonists. On a more personal level, it tells the inner struggle within the main character to be as different from his deceased father as possible and, with it, the varying interpretations of masculinity.

As other commentaries have noted,  Things Fall Apart is a story about a culture on the verge of change that focuses on how the prospect and reality of change affect various characters. The tension about whether change should be privileged over tradition often involves questions of personal status in this book. I find it particularly significant that when Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, he chose to write it in English, clearly intending it to be read by the West (he also sent it out to a British publisher). His goal was to critique and emend the portrait of Africa as the silent and  incomprehensible continent that was provided by many writers of the colonial period, e.g., Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness.

This is a manageable book with 150 pages but I actually finished it in just 2 days as it is somewhat hard to put down despite its lack of major suspense or action plots. It is simply a beautifully written account of traditional collapse in the face of change - and also introduces us to the richness and diversity of the culture of one tribe in Nigeria. Thinking about it in hindsight, I can't help myself but think that the larger story of the African clan was probably not too different from every culture, Western society altered dramatically in the name of progress and righteousness.

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