07 September 2012

Things Fall Apart

Published in 1958, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart tells of the tragic undoing of Okonkwo, a proud man living in a village in the Niger River valley in the era of Europe's African colonization. 
Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things.  He was still young but had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages.  He was a wealthy farmer and had barns full of yams,and had just married his third wife.  To crown it all... he had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars.  And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. (p. 8)
Pride goeth before a fall (Proverbs 16:18), but it is far more than Okonkwo's pride that unravels this world.

Things Fall Apart is on the list of the 100 Best Books of All Time.  So last fall it made it to my Book Shelf Project.

To me, Things Fall Apart is like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

The first layer is the intricacy of everyday life - the culture of the (fictional) village Umuofia of the Igbo (real) people.  Achebe tells what people eat and wear, their rituals for marriage, birth, punishments for transgressions, disease, and death.  What gives them strength and joy, and what gives them fear.  It is a patriarchal society, ruled by a council of elders and honored men, but Achebe also shows intimate details of the lives of women as well.  Achebe creates a fabric of life - in all its richness and dignity, as well as its shortcomings.  It is how they make sense of the world, and their place in the world.
The second layer is the rise and fall of Okonkwo.  He is a tragic hero: Okonkwo sometimes makes bad choices, or he can be hard-hearted, but much of the tragedy is just unfortunate circumstances, an accident, or bad timing.  Okonkwo is as compelling as Oedipus, King Lear, Captain Ahab, or Willy Loman.

The outermost layer tells of how this ancient Igbo culture was completely undone, destroyed from both the inside out, and the outside in, by Europeans.  First it is Anglican missionaries who attempt to undo nearly all the cultural practices of the Igbo.  Uplifting seasonal rituals are labeled as "false," but the missionaries really rail against "barbarism" (infants who are left to die of exposure in the forest; sickly, contagious adults who are ostracized from the rest of the community). This is the "inside out."  These are practices that, sad or not, "work" for the Igbo, and have done so for countless generations.  Christianity disrupts their tribal custom and creates instability in this society, undoing the cohesive mythology and politics of the tribe.

Igbo society cannot withstand the onslaught of colonization and Western legalism.  This is the "outside in." They are no match for countless troops, modern weapons, or the British colonial courts and prisons.  It is a clash of two cultures, one so much stronger than the other, and the foreign one unwilling to recognize the value or dignity of the local one.

This is a "limited-omniscient" 3rd-person narrative.  For all but the final page, it is told from the perspective and sensibility of the villagers.  The final, jarring page allows us to glimpse the thoughts of the British District Commissioner.  There has been increasing conflict between the villagers and the colonists. In a rage, Okonkwo kills a colonial messenger, and then hangs himself.  The Igbo have a taboo against touching the body of a suicide, and entreat the colonists to do it:
In the many years in which [the District Commissioner] had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things.  One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from a tree.  Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him.  In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point.  As he walked back to the court he thought about that book.  Every day brought him some new material.  The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading.  One could almost write a whole chapter on him.  Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.  There was so much to include, and one much be firm in cutting out details.  He had already chose the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (p. 209)
And so the truth is revealed. 

Through the book we have grown to understand Okonkwo, a complex man like any other, with strengths and his flaws, his family and friends. But to the District Commissioner, and by extension, the "civilized world," Okonkwo is merely another nameless anecdote in a how-to manual on subjugating a people.

Have you read this book?  For school or otherwise?  What did you think?  And how do you feel at the end?

1 comment:

  1. RIP Chinua Achebe. I learned about his passing on Friday. If you have found my post because you wanted to learn more about Achebe, thank you for visiting.