Change is hard: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart cover

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

Fawcett Premier (paperback) 1959 192 pgs, including Ibo glossary

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  State of the Nation Titles

This slim paperback has been on my bookshelf forever; whenever I glanced at it I heard a nagging whisper:  “This is a book you should read.”  I finally did so the other weekend and am so glad!  But before I get to my review, time for a bit of an announcement.  I’ve decided to challenge myself:  I’m going to attempt to tackle the Guardian newspaper’s 1,000 best novels.  This 2009 list of best novels was controversial at the time it was published in the U.K.; I remember lots of angst over what was on it and what was not.  Why am I taking it on at this time?  A couple of reasons:  it’s big and bad (1,000 books to read!!!).  It’s chock-full of titles I want to read anyway, and I see a lot of familiar friends I have read already (yay!).  Last, I want some structure in my reading.  Of course, I’m going to continue to read, and blog about, random books I feel drawn to that are not on the list.  However, I’m pleased to report that  I can get started on the challenge because Things Fall Apart heads the Guardian 1,000 list’s “State of the Nation” category.

Things Fall Apart, is the “seminal African novel in English.”(1)  It ranks as the first novel written by an African that depicts native life and culture in a serious, positive manner.  Achebe received criticism for writing this ground-breaking work in English instead of his native Nigerian Ibo, but he explained that standard Ibo, which was written down and transliterated by European missionaries is a heavy and wooden thing that  “…can not sing.” (2).

The story is set at the beginning of the 1900’s and depicts traditional village life experiencing its first encounters with British colonials and Christian missionaries.  The main character, Okonkwo, is a strong, successful village leader.  He is deeply ashamed of his father:  a gentle, musical near-do-well.  In response to these feelings, Okonkwo takes a ruthless, brutal, and manly approach to life.  He completely dominates his family group, administering harsh beatings to his three wives and especially his eldest son, Nwoye, at the slightest mistake or sign of weakness.  Okonkwo is a strict adherent and enforcer of all traditional cultural practices, for good or for bad.  For example, he participates in the judicial killing of a child hostage, despite the boy’s friendship with his own son.  He ruthlessly insults weaker men, earning an admonishment and a warning from the village priest.  His joy is to take his place as a man of influence and importance in the village; he serves as an egwugwu — a masquerader who impersonates one of the village gods, and also as an elder consulted during bride price negotiations.  In Okonkwo’s defense, he is brave, incredibly hard-working and paradoxically, a protective, though abusive, father and husband.  For example, he seeks priestly help for a wife who suffers from frequent still-births, and shows indulgence for a favorite daughter, albeit frequently wishing that she had been born a boy.

After the killing of the child hostage, Okonkwo’s fortunes begin a steady decline.  A series of disasters, several involving the arrival of British missionaries and colonial authorities, completes the fateful cycle — which many critics of the novel have likened to a Greek tragedy.  Ironically, Okonkwo’s life ends in a shameful manner, hearkening back to his father’s memory that Okonkwo had worked so hard to obliterate.

This is a beautiful, and a horrific read.  Achebe infuses his work with wonderful language including many Igbo parables and fables.  His characters speak with a lyric, elegant phrasing.  For example:  “I do not have the mouth to tell it, ” states one of Okonkwo’s wives, describing a recent beating received at his hands.  There are laugh-aloud moments, such as when the cunning villagers eagerly give away part of their “Evil Forest” (where the bodies of suicides or sufferers of shameful diseases are dumped) to Christian missionaries for the purpose of building a church, and then wait hopefully to see how long it will take for the usurpers to be killed by the gods.  It is horrific in that it describes what it must feel like to have every aspect of your culture sabotaged by an implacable and inexplicable force.

As usual, I want to try to apply some lesson of this book to my own life.  I was struck by the theme of change, and how Okonkwo denigrates women’s stories.  In traditional culture, small male children could stay in the women’s huts to listen to the wonderful stories and parables that mother would tell.  But they would reach a point where they should begin staying in their father’s hut to learn about battles, killings, and the politics of village life.  Okonkwo shames and punishes his son, Nwoye, for wanting to listen to his mother’s stories a bit too much.  I was thinking how in the face of change, we need all our stories to stay flexible and resilient.

(1).  Washington State University Study Guide:  Accessed 4/1/12.

(2)  Wikepedia article:  Things Fall Apart,  Accessed 4/1/12.