Saturday, September 27, 2008

Book #23 - Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

When I was compiling the list of the greatest books I'd never read, I found this one on a lot of "top 100 novels ever" lists. And yet I'd never heard of it, nor the author. So right away I was looking forward to it. And it didn't disappoint. This is a great book, a disturbing book, a tragic story, and an important book for anyone wanting to understand Africa before and after its colonization by Europeans. This is a book that I'll want to read again at some point. The language of the book is deceptively simple, but the ideas it presents are complex and multifaceted, which is a tribute to Achebe's talent.

The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a member of the Igbo tribe in the village of Umuofia in pre-colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo is a bitter, angry man, full of rage. His father was a lazy man, who preferred to play his flute rather than repay his many debts. Okonkwo grew up ashamed of his father, and vows to become the opposite of his father: a strong man, a leader respected by his entire tribe. He works hard, and through his hard work and his athletic prowess he indeed becomes a respected member of the community. Of course, he also has a lot of repressed anger, which means he cannot show his feelings towards his children and he sometimes beats his three wives. This repressed anger will prove to be his downfall.

The structure of this book is interesting. The first two thirds or so of the story deal with Okonkwo and his life in the tribal village of Umuofia. The customs and religion of the Igbo tribe are described in detail. Despite no written language, they have a sophisticated culture of complex beliefs, many of which are directed towards resolving conflicts peacefully. They also have a rich folklore, through which wisdom is passed down to their children. Then, in the last third of the book, the missionaries arrive, followed soon by the white man's colonial government. And things then do fall apart. The native culture and way of life is changed and destroyed. And Okonkwo meets his downfall, although the seeds of his downfall were sown way before the white people arrived.

At first, the villagers just thought the missionaries were crazy...spouting weird ideas about their one God, who seemed much less powerful than the Igbo gods. But some of the members of the tribe were attracted to the religion the missionaries preached. Some, like one of Okonkwo's sons, found something in the religious preachings of the missionaries that filled gaps in their spiritual lives. Others were outsiders and outcasts in the village culture, and they found in the Christian church that they were all equals, and that, naturally, appealed to them. And so the church grew. Once the Igbo people were divided into those that accepted the new religion, and those that did not, the tribe was fatally weakened. After the missionaries settled in, other white people arrived, who brought schools and medicine, and the Igbo people could see the value in these. They also learned that if they resisted, they would be wiped out, which happened to one of the first villages to make contact with the white people. Thus, the tribe adjusted to the new ways, and lost their old. The new technology and knowledge brought by the Europeans was simply too powerful to resist.

Okonkwo is a man strongly rooted in his tribe's tradition. He seeks status, and manliness, in the traditional sense of his community. He is forced into several terrible circumstances by the tribe's laws and religion. Yet he obeys the tribe's rules and gods because he wants the respect of his fellow tribesmen. When the local priest tells Okonkwo that his adopted son, who was taken from a neighboring tribe as settlement for a dispute several year earlier, must be killed, Okonkwo not only agrees but ends up killing the boy himself so as not to look unmanly (This act ultimately helps push his oldest son away and into the arms of the missionary church, since he was quite attached to his adopted brother and could never forgive his father). When Okonkwo accidently kills a tribesmen, he accepts the tribe's traditional punishment of seven years exile. And after he returns from exile he urges his tribe to go to war with the white man, because to not do so would be unmanly and weak. Yet Okonkwo seems more interested in his own status and perceived manhood than he is in the welfare of his village as a whole. The white people threaten the place in tribe's society that he has worked all his life for. So he urges his fellow tribesmen to resist the white people, to fight back, even though they have learned that accommodation is the best way to survive in the changed world. I won't give a spoiler here and say what happens to Okonkwo except that, well, it's dark result.

This book was written in 1959, at a time when the stories of the colonization of Africa were told by Europeans like Joseph Conrad. This book tells the story from the opposite perspective, from the African's point of view. It's a complex perspective that Achebe presents, however. He does not take a black and white view...the white people aren't all bad and the black people all good. He pokes fun, at times, of the Igbo culture and customs, and there is one white missionary minister who is a very sympathetic character...and as I mention above, some of the tribes people found great comfort in the new religion. But overall, the devastation of the Igbo culture by the whites is made clear, and the Achebe pulls no punches in the last paragraph of the book. Okonkwo is a man with a tragic flaw, which leads him to tragedy, but his personal tragedy is only one part of a larger cultural tragedy.


Anonymous said...

Discovered your blog today. Great stuff & very inspiring to see someone tackling the classics head on.

I remember reading Achebe after a couple of other classics, too, and what stuck with me most was how refreshing it was to read such clear and simple prose while at the same time experiencing a world that seemed strikingly different from our own, at least on first glance.

Robby Virus said...

Hey Christian,

Thanks for your kind words about my blog!

I felt the same way about Achebe's's so refreshingly simple and pure. And I too loved how the world he paints is so different from our own. But despite the fact that the society he describes is so different, the characters, like Okonkwo, all have motivations and flaws that are exactly like people we know in our own world. Societies can be very different, but deep down we're all human.

Anonymous said...

In fact, Conrad and Achebe had a "literary conversation" of sorts. Certainly it would be worthwhile to compare the treatment of the Africans in their respective works. I intend to explore this sometime in the near future. I find it interesting that Achebe chose to write in English--the language of the oppressors or subjugators.

Robby Virus said...

It's been years since I read "Heart of Darkness" but in my recollection the natives were treated by Conrad as "savages". Certainly not like Achebe's natives with their sophisticated culture. I would suspect Achebe wrote this book in English to specifically address the ex-colonial readership. I also found it interesting that he includes a lot of Igbo words, with a small glossary in the back of the book, which serves to remind English-speaking readers that the natives are non-European. It also suggests that some concepts in the tribal culture are just not directly translatable.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The "conversation" between Achebe and Conrad has been a little one-sided. Conrad for some reason has not replied to Achebe's "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness", which is now the single most famous work of Conrad criticism. It's here:

Robby Virus said...

Conrad's lack of a response is indeed puzzling. I heard he was recently sighted late one night in a Burger King on the outskirts of Memphis.

Bree said...

I had to read this book for class and found it very enlightening. As a white Western woman, I couldn't help but wonder "who are we to tell African tribes (or any tribe) untouch by western ways, what is right/wrong, good/bad, etc." The points Achebe brings out about the tribes just made me look around at my own culture and realize even more so what is wrong with the Western world.

Good luck with the rest of your list! I'm not a huge fan of classics and struggle through most of them.