Thursday, July 28, 2011

Things Fall Apart

Not too long ago, I was working for a textbook company and flipping through one of their enormous World Humanities books for review.  I happened to wander onto a page about African literature and read some information about Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  I think I reread the paragraph about him ten times because I couldn't believe I had never heard of him before!  Achebe is generally considered to be the founding father of African novels, and he published Things Fall Apart, his first novel, in 1958.  I was simultaneously impressed and saddened when I discovered this.  Of course, I was eager to read the book that swept the world and garnered much-needed attention for African literature.  However, 1958 seems extremely late for the first African novel, which makes me believe that we have either lost some African literature in history or the people have been extraordinarily stunted by various obstacles for a very long time.  The African-American authors had achieved considerable success by then, including the highly popular Harlem Renaissance, and yet Africans were not being noticed.  Thus, when Achebe finished his novel and sought publication, a lot of publishers did not take him seriously, either ridiculing the concept of an African novelist or dismissing it as lacking market value.  Eight million copies later, I think we finally know better. 

I have not read a lot of African literature yet, but Things Fall Apart felt as though it thoroughly portrayed a genuine African culture throughout the entire story.  There is no separation between the characters and the community, as they blend together in their traditions, superstitions, and relationships.  To the Westerner, some of these things may seem a little crazy, but from the insider's perspective of the story, it becomes quite fascinating.  When the white people come into the village and begin imposing on the cultural traits, I had somewhat mixed feelings.  To be honest, I think there were some ways the white missionaries were making beneficial adjustments for the people.  Some of the superstitions of the culture involved pain, murder, and unnecessary fear, which the missionaries were able to alleviate.  However, there was also a strong sense of loss that came with some of these changes, as one culture imposed on the other. 

Although there is undeniably a struggle between the Western and African cultures, this does not take up the majority of the story.  The missionaries come into the village quite late in the novel, which I think is important to note.  I don't think Achebe wrote the novel to illustrate injustices of the white people or tensions that existed.  Instead, I think he wanted us to get a taste of the quintessential identity of Africans.  Yes, the white people played a role in it, but I want to be careful not to concentrate too much on that aspect of the story.  Instead, it is the various African characters who are most important.

The protagonist, Okonkwo, is an intriguing "hero."  He has a number of faults, such as his pride in particular, and I cannot say that I admired him.  However, I don't think that Achebe was trying to make us admire him but instead understand him.  It is this distinction that made me love the book at the end.  I spent most of the novel feeling unsure about it, but the ending was so perfectly done with such a powerful impact that I instantly embraced the whole book.  I can think of a few other endings in literature that have likewise been so perfect that I instantly loved the whole novel, and it emphasizes to me just how important those last few paragraphs can be.

One of my favorite characters is Okonkwo's uncle, Uchendu.  He embodies all of the respected characteristics of the culture but without the pride and temper of Okonkwo.  He is an old man who has experienced a lot of pain and trials, but he lives with considerable wisdom and compassion.  Okonkwo is forced to live with him during his exile from his homeland, and I think he was a key figure in the text, particularly during this time in Okonkwo's life.

There are many other characters who left an impression on me, including Okonkow's best friend Obierika, his dynamic daughter Ezinma, and the young tragic boy Ikemefuna.  All of the various people in the story bring such wonderful color to the novel and fill the readers with a rich sense of African characterization.  They are so different and individualized, it's fantastic. 

Before I finish, I want to recommend that you read a post about African Literature by a guest on the Blue Bookcase.  I read this while I had a draft of this post in my box, and I thought it was so interesting.  She gives a wonderful overview of African literature to sample, with far more insight than I can offer.  So check it out if any of this has intrigued you!


Christina said...

Great review! I've had this on my tbr for a while and I really need to pick it up soon.
And thanks for the Blue Bookcase shout-out! :)

Neha Shayar said...

It is one of those books which you don't leave a grip.The story of tribes and their living is narrated beautifully and invasion of Christianity on tribal beliefs is written in a heart rendering manner.If you want to read a book that is not regular,you should definitely pick this up.