Monday, 14 September 2015

Book Review - Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe

Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe (illustrated by Uche Okeke)

London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1967 (many editions extant)

ISBN 0435900013

This is a book that I probably should have read a long time ago - in fact I'm surprised I didn't read it at school, as it has all the attributes for a good senior school novel (I probably read To kill a Mockingbird instead). Chinua Achebe became a lion of African literature, and in great part it was this book that forged his reputation.

A tragedy, this novel tells the story of Okonkwo, a fierce warrior and big man in his village. A man with an improvident father, Okonkwo made himself into a respected man through the force of his own will, and his willingness to work. Like many self-made men across the World, regardless of culture, Okonkwo was a hard man to others, especially his wives and children.

Okonkwo's temper gets him into trouble, as does his desire to be seen to be doing what a successful man should do. These traits estrange him from his eldest son, in what will become a crucial part of the story. Through a terrible accident, he is also estranged from his village, being exiled for seven years for accidentally killing a young man.

The first part of the novel sets up Okonkwo's personality, and the life and times of his village. The deliberately simple language that Achebe uses helps bring the reader into the daily life of an Ibo village, and the description of the important and subtle rituals, and the food gathering activities, are described in a way that soon makes the reader comfortable with what is happening.

The second part of the novel brings the wider world to the villages of Umofia, when white missionaries penetrate the Ibo lands as Okonkwo is serving the final part of his exile. By the time Achebe gets to this section, the reader has some sort of understanding of the local gods and spiritual life, and he shows well how Christianity intruded into the Ibo world and turned it upside down, helped by the rule of force from Lagos.  Okonkwo's son, Nwoye, joins the new religion, to Okonkwo's shame.

When Okonkwo gets back to his home village, it is to find that much has changed. Not only is there a church, but also a courthouse, and Okonkwo finds that the things that were once important are so no longer. The clash between British law and the culture of the Ibo lands Okonkwo in prison, and his rage and shame at being on the wrong side of the "law" leads almost immediately to murder and suicide.

It is the final paragraph that really sends a chill down the spine, and seals the tragedy of Okonkwo's life - the District Commissioner is thinking on Okonkwo's story and the book he is considering writing - "One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. ....[O]ne must be firm in cutting out the details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."

Achebe's writing, which includes many traditional activities and tales, almost becomes a fable in itself; as someone who had lived through the white invasion, he no doubt wished to record as much as he could, while at the same time showing how the change to traditional practices have led to the extinction of the old ways.

There is some subtle writing here: Okonkwo is both a victim and perpetrator - Achebe shows him as a very flawed man - and his reaction to the changes in his society are exacerbated by his pride and quick temper. The back-and-forth between one of the early Missionary fathers and a big man in one of the villages about God and religion is humorous and instructive, showing how it could be seen that Christianity and the local religions were different in degree more than anything else.

The skill of Achebe the novelist is in writing what is no doubt an anti-colonial novel, that works so well as a story. I can see why it's a stalwart on school curricula.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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