Things Fall Apart. By Chinua Achebe.
For the first few pages I was slightly mystified by Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. Was this a Utopian view of Africa before it was corrupted by colonialism written in a simplistic yet affective style in the mode of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise – a narrative describing how tribal life was subverted by Imperialism – or a love letter to a lost bucolic paradise populated by the children of Eden as in Camara Laye’s 1953 autobiography, The Dark Child?
Achebe’s story of protagonist Ibo strong man Okonkwo is a classic tragedy of the rise and fall of a powerful but flawed character in the tradition of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar or even Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. The economically written story is not an African novel – it’s written in English by an English educated African writer who uses the cadences of West African Ibo speech and traditions of Nigerian storytelling to convey the story of a last days of a an archaic tribal society. Indeed according to Achebe the natural language of the tribes in question does not translate easily and so much of the tone of their language would be lost. It’s a neatly plotted novel with an upside and a downside – the pivotal point being Okonkwo’s banishment for accidently killing a young boy at a tribal celebration. It is a partly a morality story and partly a story of Africa’s recent past.
Told in a simplistic but lyrical third person narrative the story follows the warrior Okonkwo who personifies many of the good and much of the negative side of this culture. He is positive, hardworking and loyal to the tribal traditions of his clan. And yet he is intolerant, misogynistic and blind to society’s changes. Wives are seen as status symbols, twins to be killed, hostages to be murdered, children as economic resources and the tribe’s traditions and religious as to be upheld at all costs. In that he is at one with all tribal societies (including our own) in history. With a chip on his shoulder caused by his lazy and disappointing father Unoka, Okonkwo is determined to become top man in his West African village of Umuofia. He has “a brusqueness in dealing with less successful men” and is burdened with a son Nwoye who he sees as a personification of his father and who later betrays him in his eyes by becoming a Christian convert.
Achebe keeps the story of the rise and fall of a tribal leader set against the rise and rise of colonialism in African in proportion. Traditional tribal life is a male dominated demi democracy based on a consensus of tribal elders who dispense justice, uphold the laws of the land and maintain the status quo. This last aspect is inevitably the tribe’s downfall as the arrival of the white man, his religion and laws heralds a dramatic change in their world.
Failure to communicate and to understand differing points of view and ideas is at the core of the story. Okonkwo can’t understand his son who he sees as soft and feminine. He rejects the arrival of the white man and his religion of Christianity and he cannot come to terms with anything he considers to be unmanly. He is signed up to his tribe’s values however wrong they seem to us. He is complicit in the murder of the captured slave Ikemefuna because “he was afraid of being thought weak,” even though the boy sees him as a father.
The white intruders fail to understand the democratic nature of the tribes they encounter and reject all their religious traditions rendering the ruling structure of the tribes redundant.
It’s a brutal yet refreshingly honest portrayal of how aboriginal tribes are overcome by new superior civilisations – from the American Indians to the Ancient Britons the story is much the same. And one of seeds of an older and archaic society’s demise is the willingness of some of its rejected members to see the advantages of siding with the new force. His son Nwoye and the efulefu (or rejected men) sign up to Mr Brown’s Christianised and Europeanised vision of their future. They see it as the future – just as Protestants rejected Roman Catholism in the 17th century in some European nations – the new religion was seen as a loosening of social ties and an opening up of the economy by overthrowing the old order.
In a series of mesmerising and vidid stories we also learn about the extraordinary world of the people of Umofia in south eastern Nigeria in the 1890s. There’s the masked Gods in village ceremonies, the feasts, the marriage ceremonies, the yam harvest, the death cult, the sacred python and stories which constantly link the natural world with the living world and with the world of the living with the world of the dead.
Published in 1958 the novel is considered to be one of the best narratives of modern Africa due to its honest portrayal of the dramatic change from the high status of independent tribal society to colonial subservient. It portrays the struggle of change and of those who wish to keep things as they are, of the strength of communities, of the overbearing status of masculine dominated society, of the importance of tradition and of the need to understand those with differing views and cultures. But it also falls into the style of the Western novel. In terms of the construction there’s an inevitability in the eventual demise of the central character akin to the priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory or Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. But first the protagonist must be set a sequence of events to test his metal and to open a window into his world
Thus each step of Okonkwo’s story is sketched with great skill to reveal more about his personality and to balance the narrative with aspects of life and culture in West Africa. We learn about the importance of growing yams and how Okonkwo values the crop and of growing them successfully in the difficult climate when the rains may be delayed. And we also discover more about Okonkwo’s personality – his deplorable attitude to his wives – he beats regularly and even takes a gun to his wife Ojiugo for a misdemeanour during the so-called week of peace.
Men and youths fight
There is the wrestling match in chapter six on the ilo – a sort of arena cleared for sporting occasions in the village – where we discover the warrior core at the heart of village life. Men and youths fight to reveal their masculinity and dominance within the clan “their muscles on their arms and thighs and on their backs stood out and twitched” which also provided mass entertainment as it does in all cultures: “…the really exciting moments were when a man was thrown. The huge voice of the crowd then rose to the sky…
If his acts of violence towards his children and his wives is bad we see the extremes of his violence in his role as executioner of the hostage Ikemefuna. Despite a guarded warning from Ogbuefi Ezeudu – a village elder he should not be involved in the crime – he still persists in the murder – despite his affection for the boy. He dislikes his oldest son Nwoye who he feels is womanly and even worse lazy like his grandfather Unoka – and of course his son is one of the first to transfer his loyalties to the missionaries.
His softer side is revealed through his affection for the hostage Ikemefuna who (symbolically) is more like his idea of a man – and for his daughter Ezinma – who understands him and supports him after his return from exile despite his inability to see how his clan has changed. She is in some ways the son he wished he had had – and admits he wishes Ezinma was a man. Ezinma is the only person who brings out Okonkwo’s more personal side due to her understanding of his persona.
Encroaching white colonials
We see two sides of the encroaching missionaries and white colonists through the characters of Mr Brown and the Reverend James Smith and later The District Commissioner. Mr Brown reasons with the tribes and opens a dialogue with the natives – but is seen as a fool and as weak by most of them. He successfully recruits converts through this more enlightened policy but when he dies it is the uncompromising side of white rule which takes hold.
Again Achebe gives a balanced feel to the story of colonialism – demonstrating the mutual incompatibility of two contrasting cultures. This failure of dialogue and of understanding is at the heart of the story when by the end things really do fall apart.
Things Fall Apart is an English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) published in 1958. Wikipedia says “It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world.”
It is published in paperback by Penguin. BBC Sounds features the book here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00bw51n
There is an obituary at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebe