Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe


THINGS FALL APART tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society. 

The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. THINGS FALL APART is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.


First things first, I absolutely love the title of this book. I just got the feeling as I read the book that the title just encapsulates the whole sense of inevitability that unfolds over the course of the narrative. Basically, no matter what Okonkwo wants or tries to do to hold onto his world, he can’t hold back the tide, and things fall apart.

Being perfectly honest, I read this book because I saw the Crash Course Literature video a couple of months back and I decided I had better read it because it sounded like nothing I had ever read before. And I was right. So much to say about this book, so much. (Btw don't watch the Crash Course video if you don't like spoilers !!!)

This book is super famous and celebrated because it was the first of it’s kind ( I think ?). Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo ( yay for difficult names !!), who is a super manly, angry, violent and scared man who lives in a sort of clan/ village in Igboland, now called Nigeria. The book is in three parts, the first sets the scene, something big happens in the second, something bigger happens in the third. The narrative follows the colonisation of Okonkwo’s homeland by the British. I know a lot about British imperialism because of all the costume dramas/ historical fiction/classics I have consumed over the years, but I have never seen colonisation from the other perspective of the colonised. The inflexibility and lack of empathetic thinking on the part of the British is astounding, but I don’t doubt it is accurate. As horrendous as the white people in this novel are, the natives aren’t great either. They have some pretty nasty practices, and Achebe doesn’t pull any punches. Achebe’s mission in this novel is to give a more accurate representation of the colonisation of Africa, and because of this both sides come out of it looking quite nasty. But people were nasty to each other at the start of the twentieth century, so It’s pretty real.

Circling back to Okonkwo, our protagonist. Okonkwo broke me heart, I think he’s a pretty tragic character. He is a horrendous person. He is unnecessarily violent, undisputed patriarch. Growing up, everyone in the village thought Okonkwo’s father was a massive loser, just because he was pretty chill about everything. Because of this, Okonkwo is terrified of being perceived as weak and scared stiff by the idea he might lose the power, status and wealth he has built for himself. Achebe presents Okonkwo in a way that you can’t help but hate him and feel sorry for him simultaneously. He’s very polarising, I’m not really sure how to feel …..

The Umoufia tribe is horrendously patriarchal, like society was nearly everywhere back then. There is a huge contrast between the masculine and feminine. The tribe is completely run by the men, and Okonkwo identifies with and clings to the idea of everything masculine, strong and powerful, while shunning everything feminine and, in his opinion, weak. Okonkwo’s behaviour based on these ideas becomes ridiculously ironic as the narrative progresses as Achebe contradicts his beliefs. Achebe, thankfully, is not a massive sexist, some of the strongest, smartest characters, eg. Okonkwo’s wife, Ekweifi, and her daughter, Ezinma. ( Okonkwo spends an awful lot of the book wishing that Ezinma was a boy, because he thinks his sons are too girly to carrying on the line and Ezinma, in his opinion, would be a way better heir.)

Religion plays a huge role in this book. So much tragedy, violence and disrespect stems from both Christianity and the native Igboland religion. Achebe does not paint either religion as ‘the one true faith’, and both communities have good and bad characters associated with them. The British used the idea of Christianity to drive a wedge into the community and manages to cause an awful lot of trouble between the two sides. Basically, religion causes more problems in this novel than Okonkwo could even manage.

There’s a lot more going on in this book than I put in the review, sort of because I don’t think I can do it justice, but mostly because I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t know if I would read it again but I am so glad I did. I would thoroughly recommend this book, it will challenge your perceptions of different cultures and traditions, because it kind of blew my mind. I really understand now why this is a must read literary novel, it’s pretty revolutionary. It’s also pretty short, only 183 pages in my copy, so it won’t take up to much of your time. Recommended for anyone who likes serious adult fiction.
Stars: ****

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